Backward Design, Forward Progress

Readers of Faculty Focus are probably already familiar with backward design. Most readily connected with such researchers as Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and Dee Fink, this approach to course construction asks faculty to initially ignore the specific content of a class. Rather, the designer begins the process by identifying desired learning goals, and then devising optimal instruments to measure and assess them. Only thereafter does course-specific content come into play—and even then, it is brought in not for the sake of “covering” it, but as a means to achieve the previously identified learning objectives. Courses designed this way put learning first, often transcend the traditional skillset boundaries of their discipline, and usually aim to achieve more ambitious cognitive development than do classes that begin—and often end—with content mastery as the primary focus. Although the advantages of backward design are manifest, it’s probably still the exception to, rather than the rule of, course planning.
Yet, backward design has benefits beyond those outlined above. Just as the technique is advantageous to the students we teach, it is valuable to our own growth trajectory as educators, and serves as a useful bridge to interactions with faculty outside of our disciplines.
Making tough decisions
First, (re)designing a course via backward design forces us to step back from our fields of expertise, which we know so well and hold so dear, and approach the learning process as novices. That is to say, we are …