Thoughts on Backward Design

 This post will be less organized than most posts; some of these thoughts and ideas are still a little raw.

Backward design – the method by which one begins with the desired end result(s) of an educational program, determines acceptable evidence showing that the result(s) has been achieved, and then creates a plan to teach the skills and content that will lead students to provide that evidence – has been on my mind lately.  It’s one of the core concepts of a college teaching and learning course I co-teach but that’s not why I’ve been thinking about it.

For me, backward design is a “threshold concept;” it’s an idea that changed how I think about teaching and I can’t go back to how I thought prior to this change.  So although I learned and most often use and teach backward design in the context of designing or redesigning a single college course, I’ve been thinking about the role of backward design in different contexts.  For example:

  • I know that backward design has been and is used to develop curricula and not just individual courses.  Today was the first time I got to see firsthand how that plays out with a group of faculty to develop a full 4-year curriculum for this discipline.  I was most struck by how difficult it was to keep true to the backward design philosophy and not get mired down in content coverage and the limitations imposed by the current curriculum.  It was difficult even for me to remain on course as I tried to help facilitate one of the groups of faculty engaged in this process.  I underestimated the increased complexities involved in scaling up the process from a single course to an entire curriculum; it’s not a linear function.
  • There has been quite a bit of discussion lately among student affairs professionals regarding their conference presentations (e.g. this Inside Higher Ed blog post with 30 comments).  Put bluntly, many people are unsatisfied with the current state of these presentations.  Just as backward design can scale up from a class to a curriculum, it can also scale down to a single class session.  And shouldn’t a good 50 minute conference presentation resemble a good 50 minute class session?  So why not systematically apply backward design to conference presentations?  Many conferences seem to try to push presenters in that direction by requiring them to have learning outcomes for their sessions but that isn’t enough.
  • Unfortunately, pedagogy and good teaching practices are not formally taught and emphasized in most student affairs programs so I expect that most student affairs professionals have not been exposed to backward design as a formal process.  That’s a shame because it seems like such a good fit for what student affairs professionals do!  And it fits in so well with the ongoing assessment movement because it so firmly anchors design in measurable outcomes and evidence-based teaching!

Would any student affairs professionals out there want to learn more about backward design and try to apply it to some of your programs?  Please let me know because I’d love to help!  I’m positive this would work out well and I’d love to test these ideas!

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