Backward design, so you can move forward

Right now most of us in higher ed are stuck between a rock and a hard place instructionally. Or between x weeks of productive learning and an endpoint that we can’t reach on the planned path.

At this time, backward design is a great approach to take. It’s a pretty good instructional design approach in general, but right now it’s particularly useful.

The first step is to just let go of whatever you had planned for the rest of the term. Really. Let go of it. Don’t worry about how to convert it to online or some other remote form of delivery. Once you’re able to leave your plans in the past, you’re free to focus on the end point. What do your students need to know or be able to do by the end of your class? What is the next instructor counting on the students to know? What do they have to be able to do, professionally? Let this be your guide.

Ideally, you can look toward your learning objectives and your assessments for guidance at this time. It’s possible, however, that they don’t really reflect what is truly important. Objective drift happens all the time. Sometimes we have interesting ideas, and they lead us astray. The wandering path may be a fruitful one, and we may have some truly inspiring assessments planned. Any assessment, even when aligned with the objectives, is just one of many possible ways to determine if the desired learning has occurred. With that in mind, this might be a good time to come up with alternate assessments — and even to give multiple options.

By staring with the end point, it’s possible to move backward and determine what really needs to happen in a class for the remainder of the term. Let yourself scale back as needed.

Start with assessments.

Let’s say you have a 10 page paper with at least 15 unique references planned. Is the ability to write a 10 page paper an objective? Is synthesizing an argument across multiple references an objective? If not, maybe you can let go of some of these details this term, and reduce the paper length or number of references, or even offer students the opportunity to be assessed in a different form. Similarly, if you had planned in class presentations but now wonder if recording a presentation might be beyond the skill set of some students, maybe you can just have students turn in detailed powerpoints, or allow a brief paper instead.

Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that you take a look at your planned assessments and determine if they are still feasible in their current form. Will you struggle to grade them remotely? Will your students struggle to complete them under current circumstances? If so, then they’re not the right assessments for this term. Find an alternate.

If you’re not sure what your students will be able to do, here’s a great way to figure that out. Ask them. Maybe provide a few options, and conduct a poll. Or just plan to give them multiple choices, noting that all roads lead to Rome.

Right now I’m helping folks in one course shift from a group project (a challenge to coordinate in the best of times, with class time allotted to group work) to a scaled back version of the same project to be completed individually. In another class, I’m helping an instructor alter a test that was supposed to be proctored, changing it to an open book version. And in a third class, I worked with someone to get rid of some small quizzes and instead make them online self-check quizzes.

Then consider content.

Once you know what is absolutely essential to assess, take a look at content. Is there anything that isn’t critical right now? If so, perhaps you can let it go. Alternately, you might keep it, but mark it optional. I know, I know … that means that a lot of students won’t even open a single document related to that content. They won’t read a word of it, or watch a frame of it. Under current circumstances, that needs to be okay. There will probably also be some students who will enjoy the optional work, and complete it because they are interested and have the time to do it.

Once you know which content is critical, you can streamline for your students. Maybe you can remove a reading or two. Or post a transcript of a video, so bandwidth-challenged folks can read instead of watch. Or turn a complex reading into a brief summary for the students, through which they can quickly glean the key points.

In sum: Start at the end. Figure out what is necessary. Trim and reshape as needed.

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