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Using Backward Design with Labster: Starting with the end in mind

April Ondis
December 12, 2022

Using Backward Design with Labster

Starting with the End in Mind 

If you’re an educator who “marches through textbooks” to give students as much exposure to content as possible, you will discover a very different paradigm in Backward Design, the teaching framework pioneered in Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe

"If you had to write a one-sentence mission statement for your course, what would it be?" - Grant Wiggins, co-founder of the Understanding by Design® program and framework. 

The answer to this question is your goal for the course. Having a clear goal is critical because it allows you to work backward from it to make choices about how to instruct students and assess their learning. Every decision should support reaching that goal. 

This logic is the essence of the Backward Design framework, a strategy for improving student achievement that helps teachers clarify learning goals, create assessments that reveal student understanding, and select effective learning activities. 

In describing the framework he co-developed with Jay McTighe, Grant Wiggins recalled the famous saying “chance favors the prepared mind” by Louis Pasteur, who discovered the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurization. Wiggins’ point is that an educator who establishes long-term goals and embeds them in short-term plans is more likely to facilitate effective learning than one who does not. 

For example, you can use a student comment to open up discussion, but you do not want the student to drive the end conversation. You want to know where you’re going to end up. 

“You can’t design backward from content, you have to design backward from the outcomes you want with the use of that content” - Grant Wiggins

The Backward Design framework relies on working backward from a specific, desired outcome: the student’s ability to use the knowledge that the course is trying to convey. Simply covering a topic of content (such as “The Periodic Table of the Elements”) is not a good example of an outcome, in Wiggins’ view - instead, the understanding or performance a student will be able to achieve is the outcome we need to work backward from. 

Labster simulations help students make meaning by introducing new concepts in a relatable way, and prompt knowledge transfer by immediately challenging learners to apply them to achieve mastery. For example, instead of memorizing the Periodic Table, Labster prompts learners to “understand the Periodic Table well enough to explain it to a visitor or identify a missing element”). 

Wiggins encouraged educators to think of textbooks and all other teaching materials as resources to be evaluated against a teaching goal. Instead of attempting to teach first-year university students the entire body of chemistry knowledge, an instructor who uses the Backward Design framework would teach only the material that helps students to achieve the performance outcome goals for their course. 

For example, a chemistry instructor who is selecting Labster simulations for their students might ask themselves, “which of these simulations should I require for my course? Which should I assign as optional or for extra credit? Which should I omit or reserve for the next course in the sequence?” 

"By using pedagogical sequences in relation to Backward Design, I help teachers decide in what way Labster can best be used in their sequence. I encourage teachers to use pedagogical sequences in order to integrate Labster effectively, so that it's not just like an add-on and it's not an afterthought." - Monique Mainella, Pedagogical Consultant, St Anne's 

What kind of assessment is used in the Backward Design framework?

“Can you use what you’ve learned in a new situation? Can you explain it in your own words? Can you teach it to someone else?” - Jay McTighe, co-founder of the Understanding by Design® program and framework.

Assessments that ask students to prove factual knowledge are inadequate to demonstrate mastery, in McTighe’s view. The Backward Design framework holds that mastery requires evidence that a learner can transfer their knowledge or skills from one context to another. He emphasized that assessments must ask students to apply their learning in a different context.

For example, learners may not reap the most benefits from attempting to memorize the entire periodic table. Rather, they’d most benefit from knowing that the periodic table is organized according to trends in element properties. They can then pull from their knowledge to balance equations, which is applying their learning to a greater context. 

"I would say probably about 80% of the time, 80 to 85 percent, my Backward Design strategy works really well. And then sometimes it's just a total failure. And it's like, 'well, heck, let me see what I clear to fix that, I’ll tweak this a little bit.' And I try to get feedback from students. I ask them for their feedback at mid-term and then I also ask again at the end of the term, 'Hey, what would you do differently in this course? What worked for you? What didn't work? What helped you learn? What did you just feel was a waste of your time?' And that helps me to kind of tweak things as I go." - Dr. Tina Barbour-Taylor, professor at the University of West Florida

Final Thoughts

As you develop your course, following the Backward Design model is a best practice that allows you to continuously improve student learning outcomes by working with the end in mind.

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