Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the authors of Understanding by Design describe their instructional design technique as backwards, and it has come to be one of the most important frameworks in our toolbox. Why backwards? Because unlike the traditional model, in which teachers first think about what they want students to do, Backward Design asks teachers to think about what they want students to learn.
There are three steps to the process.
Step 1: Identify the Desired Results
What do you want students to know, understand, or do by the end of the lesson? These results should point back to the course objectives, but you should also consider the big ideas and theories of the course. What do you want students to remember in five years? What knowledge do they need to carry over to other courses? Think long term impact here, perhaps even the reason you wanted to teach this subject to begin with. Wiggins and McTighe call these results the essential questions of the course, and maintain that their transferability and durability beyond the boundaries of the course are what make them essential.
Step 2: Determine the Acceptable Evidence
How will students demonstrate that they have achieved these desired results? What evidence do you need to see that student understanding has occurred? This is where assessments come in, and feel free to be creative, but remember to match the level of evidence with the level of results. If your results call for students to be able to memorize the formula to determine the elasticity of demand, then the assessment probably shouldn’t be a research paper.
Step 3: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction
The final step is determining what information and experiences the students need to prepare them to demonstrate achievement of the desired results. In other words, what do you need to teach them? What learning experiences do they need to have? What coaching or mentoring do they need to reach that goal?
Once these steps have been planned out, it’s important to resist the urge to cram more information in around the edges. If something in the course doesn’t help the student meet the results identified in step 1, then it doesn’t belong in the course.
- ASCD’s Understanding by Design module
- Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching: Understanding by Design
- Diversifying the Role Course Content Plays
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