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

Spaced Repetition & Interleaved Practice in Legal Research Instruction

Researchers refer to single-minded practice as "massed practice." This concentrated practice is thought to embed skills into memory. Unfortunately, while many students and teachers believe this to be the best way to learn, research doesn't support that idea. The problem with massed practice is that it is often accompanied by quick forgetting. Practice is important, but it is considerably more effective when it's spaced out--there's better retention and mastery.

It can be tough to convince our students of the benefits of spaced repetition. As Brown et al. point out in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning:

 "[T]hese benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don't get the rapid improvements and affirmations you're accustomed to seeing from massed practi…

Rethinking Learning Outcomes in Legal Research Courses

Learning outcomes have obvious value to our institutions.  ABA Standard 301 requires that law schools "establish and publish learning outcomes" that are designed to prepare students for "effective, ethical, and responsible participation" in the legal profession.  Usually, individual course outcomes should then align with these school-wide learning outcomes.  We include these learning outcomes in our syllabi to show our compliance with the ABA standards in our accreditation visits.  But learning objectives can, or at least should, also have a pedagogical benefit.  After all, we are including them in our syllabi for a reason--to give our students an idea of the learning experience they are about to have in the course. They should also give students a clear picture of what they should be taking with them from the course into the actual practice of law.

As Edmund J. Hansen writes in Idea-Based Learning: A Course Design Process to Promote Conceptual Understanding, the w…

Battling Law Students' Fixed Mindset

Many students show up to law school with fixed mindsets--the belief that each person is born with a particular intellectual ability and that they there is little to nothing one can do to surpass that innate intellectual level.  A large proportion of law students were classified as smart early on in their learning experiences and have been academically successful their entire educational careers.  Many faculty members had a similar experience as they advanced from primary school to secondary school to undergrad and finally to law school--where most continued to succeed academically.

For some law students, however, law school is the first time in their lives that they have struggled to succeed immediately.  This can have a disastrous result, because those with fixed mindsets have a tendency to equate mistakes with failure.  These students then have a tendency to avoid challenging themselves, to ignore constructive criticism, and to give up or not try.[1]  In their minds, they are just n…

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,