Backward Design: An Introduction

This is the first in a collection of posts about topics covered in “A Learner-Centered Approach to Effective Teaching,” a workshop series offered by the UC Davis Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL). By writing these posts, I hope to solidify my grasp of the topics covered and provide useful information for those unable to attend the workshop.

We began the first workshop in the series, “Where to start: Backward design and student learning outcomes,” by thinking about how courses are typically planned in the instructor-centered model of learning. In this model, the instructor uses their expertise to assemble lectures that transmit knowledge to students about a particular topic. One difficulty with this approach is that, for any given topic, there is far more information available than can possibly be covered in single lecture (or even an entire semester in many cases). How, then, do instructors typically decide what to include?

Our discussions in the workshop quickly arrived at a consensus – instructors will usually base content decisions on materials left by previous instructors or on the textbook. This makes sense – particularly given the amount of work it takes to build a curriculum from scratch. However, the danger with this approach is that it can lead to courses where the attempt to “cover everything” leads to a barrage of facts that overwhelms students and encourages a bulimic approach to learning. This is a disservice to our students, whose job prospects, in an age where facts can be rapidly accessed on smartphone, will be determined not by what they know, but by how well they can find, evaluate, and use information.

Improving the capabilities of students is at the core of an alternative approach to course planning, called backward design. It is “backward,” relative to traditional approaches, because the instructor thinks about the content last, rather than first. The basic steps are as follows:

  1. Identify learning outcomes for your teachable unit. This involves asking yourself what you want students to be able to do intellectually, emotionally, or physically after completing the unit. These outcomes should be specific – for example, instead of saying “students should have a good understanding of how plant life cycles evolved,” you say “students should be able to identify key innovations in the life cycles of each major phylum of plants and describe how those innovations led to improved fitness.”
  2. Decide on an assessment strategy. How will you test to see if students are achieving the desired outcomes? This can include graded assessments like papers and exams, as well as ungraded assessments like short presentations and using clicker questions that get at common misconceptions.
  3. Choose learning activities that will help students achieve the learning outcome and do well on the assessment. 

How does all of this apply to the real world, where you probably don’t have hundreds of hours to devote to designing a course from scratch following backward design principles? The benefit of this approach is that it forces you to consider whether including specific content actually contributes to the desired student learning outcomes. So, when you’re putting together a lesson, you might consider leaving out that third new research study, and instead do an activity that reinforces the target outcomes.

Stop by the blog next week for a piece about the next workshop in the series, “More than grades: Designing assessments for learning, evaluation, and feedback.”


2 thoughts on “Backward Design: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: 9 Major Takeways From “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching” | The Prospective Prof

  2. Pingback: My experience with the Los Rios Faculty Diversity Internship Program: Part 1 | The Prospective Prof

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