The first time I was introduced to backward design, I was confused. The second time, it was a slick concept that I could almost, but not quite, grasp. The third time, I set aside my lingering discomfort and simply tried it in a real class setting. It clicked - backward design was so much better than what I had been doing! My execution was imperfect, but it had helped me focus my lesson, lessened the pain of discarding content, and provided me with more insights into how I might adapt my approach to better support student learning in the next class. I find the framework of backward design [Wiggins and McTighe, 2005] so helpful, I now use it in other aspects of my life as well: for planning tomorrow’s schedule, designing research presentations, and at a meta-level, articulating my teaching philosophy.
Reflecting early and often on desired results for students in the classroom helps both myself and the students keep in mind our purpose in the classroom as we engage in day-to-day activities. I have both cognitive (intellectual) and affective (emotional) goals for the students walking out of my classroom. My detailed objectives vary based on incoming class background (general vs. major, intro vs. advanced) and size (large lecture vs. small seminar), but there are four “keystone objectives” that I want students to make progress on in all classes. I believe success with these objectives indicates students have developed knowledge and skills that will aid them beyond the classroom as they engage in lifelong learning.
To evaluate how well students meet class learning goals, I use a combination of surveys and assessments designed based on my stated class objectives.
I finalize classroom activities only after I identify class learning goals and mechanisms for getting feedback on student progress. These activities I design become the central method by which I guide students toward class learning goals. Active learning, or learning-by-doing, is a highly effective way to enhance retention and understanding of class concepts and skills [Handelsman et al., 2004]. When teaching coding, for example, I have students live-code along with me. Another effective teaching practice is structuring courses so that there are multiple opportunities for material recall and self-testing. Interleaving previously introduced skills with new material and problem sets is one way to do this [Carvalho and Goldstone, 2014], as are low-stakes quizzes scheduled frequently throughout the semester [Davis, 2013]. During classes, activities that prompt students to ask “why?” questions about what they are learning or encourage them to articulate course concepts in writing or discussions are especially beneficial. Finally and importantly, I make a conscious effort to demonstrate a growth mindset myself by admitting as I teach what I don’t know or what mistakes I make and by showing - in real time - how I recover from that positively.
I know I have many more experiences like the one I had with backward design in my future. Learning any new skill requires trying, failing, and maintaining optimism that the next time, you will be able to do it even better. I hope my quest to grow in my teaching skills mirrors my students’ journeys in my class and the rest of their academic and professional careers.
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