Tip: Planning by Design
Stage 1: Planning learning outcomes, assessment, learning activities & course materials.
Note: If you want to skip ahead, here are links to the follow-up pieces on writing learning outcomes, connecting assessments to outcomes, planning learning activities & course materials) building structure (organization, expectations & syllabus) and teaching (instructor presence and facilitation).
I have been doing a lot of thinking about the basics of how we design our courses lately. Part of it is the work I’ve been doing contributing to the development of some new courses, and part of it is thinking about re-designing existing courses with OER materials (which for me means really getting into the meat of what the course is all about rather than just finding freely available materials to replace the textbook that we already were using). Earlier this spring I shared my thoughts on planning for flexibility by designing for online delivery of content and activities that can adapt to changing students and instructor needs, creating more low-stakes assignments to provide opportunities to practice (and fail) in a safe environment, and providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate mastery. These strategies are for a course you’ve created and want to revise to make more student-centered. But what if you’re starting over, or creating a new course? Before you can get to student-centered design of course activities, you need to have a course. One philosophy on course design that I think is really powerful in shaping the way I think about designing learning is backward design.
The idea of backward design has been around for several decades, starting with Understanding by Design, published in 1998 by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue. The basic idea of backward design gets at a fundamental problem for many new teachers. I remember doing this myself in my first year of teaching, and I’ve seen it happen with almost all of the future or early career instructors with whom I’ve worked. The fundamental problem is this: we approach teaching from a “cool activity” perspective.
To give an example, in my first year teaching high school English in France I had what I thought was a really great activity: Alpine Village Ski Lift Debate. I assigned each student different roles in a town that was debating building a new ski lift. One student was the mayor, one was a schoolteacher, one was a ski lift operator, and so on. Each student had to do a little research into what their character might think about the potential new ski lift and write a short argument either in favor or against. The students held a town hall debate to decide whether or not to build a new ski lift. For someone teaching English as a foreign language, this was actually a pretty good activity (better, perhaps, than other examples). The problem was it had no deliberate connection with anything else that they were doing. So rather than this activity supporting students in making connections to other course activities, it was just something fun to do. Yes, it gave them practice in speaking, in preparing a persuasive piece of writing, in asking and answering questions. But it could have been so much better if I viewed this activity as one piece in an arc of an entire semester of work.
Wiggins and McTigue call this activity-oriented design:
The error of activity-oriented design might be called “hands-on without being minds-on” - engaging experiences that lead only accidentally, if at all, to insight or achievement.
The other most common issue, even for very experienced and knowledgeable instructors, is designing the course week-by-week based on the chapters of a textbook. It’s the simplest way to approach a new course: pick a textbook, divide the textbook into sections that correspond with weeks of the semester, plan 2 weeks off for a midterm and final exam, and assign readings and prepare lectures each week corresponding to the textbook chapters. This is a very instructor-focused course design strategy, focusing on what the instructor needs to cover each week to get students to the end of the semester.
Students march through a textbook, page by page (or teachers through lecture notes) in a valiant attempt to traverse all the factual material within a prescribed time. Coverage is thus like a whirlwind tour of Europe, perfectly summarized by the old movie title If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, which properly suggests that no overarching goals inform the tour.
To avoid either of these common approaches, the backward design framework provides a practical way to think about an arc of learning that is fundamentally learner-focused, beginning as it does with questions about what the learner should be able to do and what enduring understandings we want learners to come away with. As I think about course design, my planning process incorporates the three stages of backward design, and adds on a fourth step.
Wiggins and McTigue identified these three stages: identify desired results, then determine acceptable evidence, and finally plan learning experiences and instruction. From a higher ed perspective on course design, I start with learning outcomes, develop an assessment plan, and then plan the learning activities.
Learning Outcomes. The work of planning a course starts with the end in mind. Upon completing your course, what do you want students to have learned? What do students need to know and be able to do at the end of the course?
Assessment. The next stage asks us to think about evidence. Students should be able to demonstrate whether, and to what extent, they have mastered the skills and content you decided was important when determining the learning outcomes. How can you assess whether students know/can do these things?
Learning Activities. Once you’ve decided what mastery looks like for the course outcomes, students need opportunities to be exposed to the skills and content, to practice the skills, to connect content knowledge to what they have learned in prior courses, and prepare to transfer skills and knowledge to new contexts. How will students practice doing these things?
Course Materials. To the three stages outlined by Wiggins and McTigue, I add a final planning stage of thinking about the actual materials students will engage in. This stage is particularly important for thinking about the learning of college students, who complete many course activities independently, engaging in course materials outside of the classroom. What information do students need to be able to do these things?
Over the next few weeks, I plan to write in more detail about the work of each of the four planning stages before building structure and teaching. I invite you to think about a course you’ll be teaching this fall and spend time with me considering how you might (re)design the course outcomes, assessments, activities, and materials.
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