Backward Design: Preparation for the Big Day (Part 3 of 3)

In my previous two posts, I referenced a very helpful concept of course design found in Creating Significant Learning Experiences, by L. Dee Fink. Three questions must be answered within any course: “why,” “how,” and “what.” The question of “why” is answered through the creation of learning goals for the semester. The question of “how” is answered through the feedback and learning activities that are set up strategically throughout a semester. In this final post, I will look at those components that answer the “what” question.

Basketball (Photo credit: mvongrue)

The game of basketball is a definitely a love of mine. Let’s say that I am coaching and working with a player who is a poor free-throw shooter. Together we set a goal for him to hit 70% of his free throws. He will be evaluated in three weeks. What would best prepare this young player for his assessment in basketball? Of course…making certain that he is working on his free throws everyday in practice. Having an assistant coach work with him each day on his shooting form and how to stay focused mentally. Perhaps having this player watch some video of great free throw shooters of the past.

To not build these activities into every practice would and should cause concern. How can you assess or provide feedback when there is little to no preparation toward the activity being assessed? We would all agree these are poor coaching tactics that provide sure discouragement for the player.

In a like manner, if we as teachers build markers and milestones into our semester to see to what extent our goals are mastered, would it not make sense that every day is strategically planned to allow students some time to practice or discuss that which is going to be assessed?

And so the final question asks the following: “what would the students need to do during the course to be able to do well on these assessment activities?” If one of my markers that answers the “how” question for a semester involves a collaborative project, then I should have a frequent number of days before the due date that incorporate discussion, practice, as well as opportunities to work together in groups or teams.

The answer that you conclude for this question designates the teaching and learning activities that must occur each day to support the feedback and assessment activities. In other words, daily teaching and learning activities naturally lead and prepare students for assessment activities which move students to the overarching goals and objectives that you desire for the classroom.

Using these three questions together in a teaching situation provides a minimalist view of what makes authentic learning occur in the classroom. To take any one component away creates either teaching that is disjointed or frustrated students. A simple cycle, but a beautiful picture of learning at its core: learning goals are created, feedback and assessment activities are designed that tell teachers the level to which students “get it” regarding the goals, and teaching and learning activities that ready the student for “the big day.” These make for true learning.

Reflection: As an activity to create relevance in your own mind, go through all of the questions one at a time. What happens specifically in the learning process when any one of the questions is not answered?


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