Backwards Design in Lesson Planning
In the well-known book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Dr. Stephen Covey describes seven habits that successful people tend to live by. The second habit is “Begin with the end in mind.” Dr. Covey was suggesting that the most successful people are those who create a vision of the future in their mind. They determine what they want to be and do, and then take actions to reach that result. This general life lesson can be applied in a classroom setting as teachers plan their lessons based on what they need their students to know.
Traditional lesson planning begins with teachers looking at standards and learning objectives, and then planning their instructional activities based on those standards. Assessment is often an afterthought, and if implemented at all, it is not always tied directly to the standards or the activities that the students went through. Research strongly suggests, however, that as teachers, we need to begin by looking at the standards and develop content objectives and plan our assessments first. These planned assessments must evaluate whether or not our students mastered the content. Only once the assessments have been planned, can we truly plan the most effective instructional activities. This type of planning is referred to as backwards design. Backwards design consists of three critical steps.
The Backwards Design Process
Backwards Design Step One: Effective Learning Objectives
Whether you use Common Core standards, or your own state standards, you undoubtedly have very specific content standards for which you are responsible for teaching. The first step in backwards design is to take a look at those standards and create a more student-centered learning objective. This is one of the critical differences between traditional planning and backwards planning. Traditional planning is focused on the teaching aspect of standards….in other words, what do I need to teach? In contrast, backwards planning is focused on student learning…in other words, what do my students need to learn or be able to do?
This student-centered learning objective must be specific, measurable, and clearly stated. A well-written objective consists of 3 parts:
Behavior – WHAT the learner will be able to do. This part of the objective will always include a verb.
Condition – HOW the learner will perform the behavior. This condition might be a tool, reference, aid, or context that students will or will not be able to use.
Criterion – How WELL the learner must perform to demonstrate content mastery. This refers to a degree of accuracy, the number of correct responses, or perhaps a teacher-imposed time limit.
Step One: A Classroom Snapshot
What might this look like as a teacher plans an authentic lesson? Consider this fifth-grade math standard:
“Determine the volume of a rectangular prism with whole number side lengths in problems related to the number of layers times the number of unit cubes in the area of the base.”
As it is worded, it is not very student friendly, but a teacher could develop a student-centered objective that includes a behavior, condition and criterion. To begin, the teacher asks herself, what does the learner need to be able to do? In this case, it is to calculate the volume of a prism. Then she must consider how they will perform the actual behavior. This teacher knows that students needs to be familiar with the formula V = Bh or volume equals base times height. So the designated condition is the use of a formula. Finally, the teacher has to determine a criterion. How will students demonstrate their mastery of the content? In this case, the teacher decides that students should be able to accurately use the formula to determine volume of a prism in at least 4 out of 5 times. These three pieces can then be written as a learning objective that can be shared with the students so they can be accountable for their own learning.
The teacher writes: When given the correct formula, students will accurately calculate the volume of a rectangular prism at least 4 out of 5 times. You can clearly see all three pieces of the objective, and it is specific and measurable.
Backwards Design Step Two: Assessments
The second step in backwards design is to plan your assessment. Once you have set a learning objective, how will you determine if students have met the standard? It is important to note here that assessment should not be limited to one test at the end of a unit. Effective assessment is ongoing, and begins before new content is even introduced. There are three types of assessments to consider and plan for.
- Diagnostic or pre-assessments should be administered to check your students’ prior knowledge to determine if they are prepared to be exposed to the new content.
- Then, throughout the lesson, it is imperative that you conduct several formative assessments, also referred to as checks for understanding. These checks serve several purposes including checking on the progress of your students, identifying any misconceptions, and giving them immediate feedback.
- The final, or summative, assessment can then confirm the level of content mastery each student has obtained.
Step Two: A Classroom Snapshot
Continuing with the 5th grade math lesson on volume of a prism, what types of assessment might be appropriate? This teacher wants to assess her students’ general knowledge about volume, so she plans for them to begin with a warm-up journal prompt: Write what you know about volume of a 3-D shape. She will use these journal writings to springboard a quick classroom discussion about volume where she believes she will be able to ascertain if her students understand the concept of volume of a three-dimensional shape. Additionally, she plans to check in on her students’ progress throughout the lesson at least twice through individual white board work, and an exit ticket at the end of class. The summative assessment has already been created for her through a district mandated unit assessment. As she reviews the assessment, she sees there are five problems involving determining the volume of a prism, so she carefully examines the format of these questions to ensure that her instructional activities will be aligned with this assessment.
Backwards Design Step Three: Learning Strategies / Activities
Once you have written a student-centered learning objective, and determined how you will assess your students, you are ready to plan the instructional strategies and activities you will implement. Instructional strategies are the methods by which you present new content to your students. This could be through direct instruction, demonstration, or cooperative learning, to name just a few. Instructional activities are the ways in which students will actually interact with the content. Activities can be passive such as listening to a lecture or watching a video, or active such as using manipulatives in math or holding small group discussions.
Step Three: A Classroom Snapshot
This 5th grade math teacher plans the following succession of activities that are directly aligned with her learning objective and the district assessment:
- She will begin with a hands-on inquiry activity. Students will use base 10 blocks to find the area of a 2X4 rectangle (8 units). They will then explore what happens when they stack more 2X4 rectangles on top of the original. (Two levels – volume is 16 units, 3 levels – volume is 24 units, etc.). Students will be encouraged to try other examples until the concept of volume is solidified in their mind.
- Next, she will reinforce that working concept of volume with a more passive activity, having students watch a Khan academy video introducing volume. This will then lead to a class discussion about the formula for volume and how it is related to the hands-on work they just did. (https://www.khanacademy.org/math/basic-geo/basic-geo-volume-sa/volume-rect-prism/v/how-we-measure-volume) – if we want to include the link for the video!)
- She will have an independent practice worksheet for each student with volume calculation problems. But before having them work on their own, she will have students solve the first three problems on their individual whiteboards so she can do a quick class wide check of each one before they move on.
- Finally, students will complete an exit ticket as they leave class. The 3 questions on the exit ticket will be formatted similarly to the questions on the district unit assessment.
These planned activities are all directly aligned with the objective: When given the correct formula, students will accurately calculate the volume of a rectangular prism at least 4 out of 5 times, as well as the final assessment. With her regular checks for understanding throughout the lesson cycle, it is likely that her students will exhibit successful mastery of the content. From this classroom snapshot, you can clearly see the benefits to the backwards planning process.
Related Professional Development Courses
Backwards Design Course Bundle Pack
Writing Effective Learning Objectives