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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.

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