Skip to main content

Using Backward Design in Course Development

There are different methods instructors use to design their courses. In his book Creating Significant Learning Experiences, L. Dee Fink identifies three major approaches:
  1. In the first approach, the instructor picks out some number of major topics within their course subject matter, then preps lectures for each topic. Then he or she adds in a final exam and sometimes a midterm, and the course is ready to go.  Fink notes that this approach is less time-consuming, but "pays little or no attention to the quality and quantity of student learning." [1] He explains that this type of learning "has a relatively short half-life and, more significantly, does not meet the educational needs of students and society today." [2]
  2. In the second approach, instructors still designs their course around major topics, but rather than focusing solely on lectures, he or she incorporates a variety of active learning opportunities. This approach is more engaging for students, but it still doesn't place enough emphasis on the quality of student learning.
  3. Finally, Fink introduces the third approach, what he calls integrated course design. In it, "[t]he teacher takes responsibility for deciding what would constitute high-quality learning in a given situation and then for designing that quality into the course and into the learning experience." [3] 
As part of integrated course design, Fink recommends using backward design. Rather than on focusing on the immediate--what will students be able to do during the timeline of the course?--the instructor's first step should be to think to sometime in the future when the course is over and ask "What is it I hope that students will have learned, that will still be there and have value, several years after the course is over?" [4]  Instructors should use that question as the primary basis in forming their learning goals or learning objectives for the course.  Fink explains that "[b]y framing the question in terms of what you want to be true about students a year or so after the course is over, you focus on the lasting impact of the course. Asking the question this way keeps you from describing what are in fact learning activities to be used during the course rather than the desired outcomes of these activities." [5]

In most legal research classes, we seem to fall into the second approach--focusing on topics, but throwing in a lot of experiential components to engage students and help them practice skills. Because there is so much foundational knowledge that must be taught--students must know how to find cases, statutes, secondary sources, etc.--we tend to structure our courses around the types of sources students need to learn. As such, we can lose sight of the greater picture. We know that students forget most of what we teach them, so what are we hoping they take away from our classes in the long run?  Two takeaways I wish for my students is to learn to treat research as an analytical exercise and to use a a process-oriented approach to research problems using the four-step method we teach, but I'm sure there are many more that would have a significant impact on how I choose to design my courses.

As I begin working on revamping first year legal research workshops and an upper-level foreign and comparative legal research course for next academic year, this will be the foremost question in my mind as I get started. In his book, Fink provides a list of questions for instructors to ask themselves as they consider the long-term impact they hope their courses have on students for each of his six significant types of learning: foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, caring, and learning how to learn. [6]  Helpfully, this list of questions is also available online in Fink's "A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning (pages 8-12).  I highly recommend checking it out.

[1] L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, Revised and Updated: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses 68 (2013).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 71.

[5] Id. at 84.

[6] Id. at 83-84.

Popular posts from this blog

Letter to A First-Time (Legal Research) Instructor

Dear Friend, Seven years ago this week, I was prepping madly to teach my first legal research class.  Three months earlier, I'd been a law student myself.  To say that I was nervous is an understatement; mildly terrified was probably a more apt description.  The truth is I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I wanted to teach legal research differently than I had been taught legal research, where at best it was viewed as a skill less important than everything else being taught at law school and at worst an afterthought, a skill that students should be able to do with very little training.  There are many points I wish I knew then that I know now and that's what I want to share with you toda y.  First and foremost, students will forgive many imperfections in the classroom if they know you care about their learning.  At the start of every semester, I re-read Kent Syverud's " Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers

Why Experts Can Struggle to Teach Novices

This week in our Slack group on teaching , there was an interesting discussion about expertise and the amount of time needed to prep for instruction. I mentioned something that I recalled reading: that experts can be less effective in teaching novices because often the expert skips cognitive steps that the novice learner needs to understand.  I thought I'd dig into this a little more today on the blog. The fact is novices and experts learn very differently.  The major reason for this is that experts not only know a lot about their chosen discipline, but they understand how that discipline is organized. As such, what has a clear structure to the expert is a jumbled set of unorganized information to the novice.  The information presented to novices "are more or less random data points."[1]  In contrast, when the expert learns something new in her area of expertise, she just plugs it into the knowledge structure that already exists in her long-term memory. Because the new

Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 4: Building An Online Teaching Presence

I've written before about how important it is to show students you care about their learning and about them as humans , in part summarizing Kent Syverud's excellent piece , "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers. It is harder to show students that you care about them in a remote environment than when you see them in a physical classroom every day, where you can smile at them, easily ask them how they're doing as they enter the room or when you run into them in the classroom, or notice through their body language if they are having a hard time and reach out. But we know that showing we care matters; our students try harder and engage more when they feel like their learning matters to their instructor.  It takes more intention to show you care about students in the online classroom, but it's imperative that we find ways to show we do. So what are some ways that we can show students we care in the remote learning environment? The first is to

Research as Analysis in the Modern Legal Academy

For decades, those discussing best practices in legal education have highlighted the importance of skills education (see the Crampton Report, the MacCrate Report, the Carnegie Report, and Best Practices for Legal Education, for just a few examples). But, as legal writing, advocacy, and clinical courses have all emerged to take their rightful place as key components in law students' education, legal research has remained a shadow skill. Despite numerous reports from those hiring our students being dissatisfied with their research skills, legal research education remains relegated to the background even in first year skills classes with "legal research" in their very title. At least in part, this is due to legal research having been divorced from the analysis that is central to the Langdellian model of legal education. In reality, analysis is central to successful research, and it is only by reclaiming research as an analytical skill in the modern legal academy that resea

Four Aspects of Effectual Teaching (& Why Instructional Design Is the One Missing In Many Law Courses)

There are four general components of teaching, which all must come together for a teacher to be successful: Knowledge of the Subject Matter : Most instructors in higher education have this covered. The largest potential hurdle of this aspect of teaching is perhaps remembering to view the material from the perspective of the beginner learner, as opposed to from the teacher's own advanced learner status. In my first year of teaching, I found this to be an issue, as I jumped over steps that were so obvious to me that I didn't even notice them anymore. It was only by students asking questions that illustrated I was missing an important step in their comprehension and by watching the legal writing professor I co-taught with that I began to break down my material into pieces that were more digestible for my students. Interaction with Students : Instructor-student interaction can take a myriad of forms. As L. Dee Fink writes in Creating Significant Learning Experiences , "Teac