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Backwards Design in the Classroom: Planning with the End in Mind

by Model Teaching | December 17, 2018.

Are you letting your favorite lessons design your unit instead of designing it around student goals?  Are you thinking more about what you want students to do rather than what you want them to learn?  In this article, we will take a look at what it means to plan with the end in mind and the steps needed to make your instruction more meaningful and focused for your students.

Backwards Design

Using backwards design when planning allows you to be intentional with your activities and assessments. Backwards design ensures that you establish a purpose for doing something before implementing it into your unit.  Planning with the end in mind can be used when planning an entire course, unit, or even a lesson. Let’s take a moment and look at the Backwards Design process and how you can effectively start planning with the end in mind in your own classroom.

STEP 1: Identify the desired results

The first step in designing with the end in mind is identifying the desired results, or learning goals, you would like for your students to acquire by the end. Setting your objectives first allows you to keep your focus on student learning rather than student activities throughout the planning process. You need to be asking yourself, “What do my students need to be able to know, understand, and do by the end of this lesson, unit, course, etc.”
A good place to start is looking at the established content standards set by your state and district. These standards are often broad and need to be “unpacked” into smaller, more manageable, chunks. You will want to start “unpacking” first. Once you have done this, start thinking about possible misconceptions your students may have while learning these standards. You may find that adding a learning objective or two is necessary in order to avoid these misconceptions. Finally, are there any pre-requisite or foundational skills your students need in order to meet the standards? These may need to be incorporated into your student goals as well.

STEP 2: Identify evidence of student learning

You have your list of learning objectives, now what? The second step in planning using backwards design is looking at student assessment. How are you going to know if your students have reached all of the learning goals you have set for them? Often time teachers think about one assessment, and that’s the one at the end. However, this step focuses on both the formative assessments given throughout the unit, as well as the summative assessment at the end. It is imperative to student success that you identify the misconceptions and misunderstandings before it is too late. The only way this can be done is through ongoing assessments.
When we think about collecting evidence of student learning, it is important to consider a wide range of assessment methods.

These include:

  • Informal checks for understanding – These may include oral responses, observations, quick-writes, exit slips, and open dialog.
  • Traditional quizzes and tests – These may include multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, and short essay.
  • Performance task and projects – These allow students the opportunity to go deeper with their learning; using their newfound knowledge in an authentic situation.

Each of these assessment methods provides a different type of evidence to look at when determining student understanding. How do you know which one to use? First you decide what a student needs to show to prove he understands the goal, and then you choose the method that is going to provide that evidence. Some learning goals cannot be assessed with a traditional quiz or multiple-choice test. We need to be matching our assessments to the goals, not the other way around.

STEP 3: Plan effective instruction

The final step in backwards design planning is the how we are going to teach? What activities and resources are best suited to accomplish the learning goals set in step one? Having a clear goal helps to focus your planning and guide purposeful action toward the intended results. Every task we ask students to complete needs to have a purpose tied to it. Too often we have students completing activities because “they look fun and engaging”, or “they were on Pinterest and are super cute”, or “I did it last year”. These are not how we should be choosing our instructional activities. Instead we should be looking at what knowledge and skills our students need in order to perform effectively on the assessments we created in step 2, and meet the learning objectives we wrote in step 1. As long as we keep that end result in mind, we can make a solid plan on how to get our students there.

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Backwards Design Planning Tool

This planning tool allows teachers to build a plan using backwards design. The sheet is split into the three steps and underneath has the questions they need to be asking themselves when filling out the sheet.

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