Tips on Teaching

How Thinking in the Backward Design Framework Saved Me from an Instructional Design Meltdown

by Kristin Broussard, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

As many of us have just recently experienced, things change – sometimes very rapidly. The recent pandemic forced many university instructors to move their planned in-person instruction to online formats in a very short span of time. This is obviously quite stressful, even for those familiar with online instructional delivery, especially because we had already planned everything to work in-person, not online!

My experience of this was turning an in-person workshop to online delivery, but by thinking in the backward design framework, this became less stressful because I knew where to start: What are the most important learning experiences/objectives that I have for my workshop (regardless of the instructional format)? Staring from there, it was easier to identify what I needed to implement in the online instruction in order to still meet those learning objectives, which, in turn, helped me to choose an appropriate platform and design for the online workshop.

What is Backward Design?

I often use Fink’s model of backward design to visualize what it is:

Source: Fink, D. L. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Let’s break this down a little more:

Step 1: We want to think about the desired results of our course/topic/activity/etc. Specifically, we want to create specific, measurable learning outcomes (i.e., “The student will [be able to]…)

Step 2: How will we (and our students) know that they have achieved the desired learning outcomes? This step is where we think about appropriate “assessment,” which we will discuss in more detail later.

Step 3: Now we can design our course/unit/activity! What type(s) of instruction (e.g., lecture, discussion, active learning) will best fit with the assessments we have chosen and will ensure students achieve the learning outcomes?

Diving Deeper: Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes articulate the specific, measurable things students will know and be able to do upon completing the course/unit/activity. Sometimes called learning objectives, learning goals, and/or competencies, learning outcomes are at the heart of effective course design.

Sometimes it can be helpful to start thinking in a learner-centered way by starting your thought with the phrase, “The student will [be able to]…”  This can help you to frame your thinking towards what the student will learn and be able to do after engaging with your instruction.

Diving Deeper: Assessment

“Assessment” refers to the wide variety of methods or tools that educators use to evaluate, measure, and document the academic readiness, learning progress, skill acquisition, or educational needs of students (Glossary of Education Reform, 2014).

For the purposes of backward design, the questions we should ask ourselves when thinking about assessments of student learning outcomes are:

  • What will students have to do to show you – and themselves – that they achieved the learning outcomes?
  • What will students need to learn during the course/class/activity to be able to do well on the assessment activities?

Putting it All Together: Designing Instruction

In backward design, choosing effective methods of instruction are based on your chosen assessments for measuring student learning outcomes.

These are some questions you can ask yourself as you consider appropriate instruction:

  • What is the best teaching method for meeting your learning outcomes? (e.g., lecture, interactive lecture, discussion, activity, inquiry-based, project-based, experiential/service learning)
  • What is the best teaching method for your assessment of student learning? It could be that the activity/method IS the assessment!

In a nutshell, that’s backward design!