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

Research Instruction and Resilience

Law students can quickly become frustrated when they struggle with legal research--perhaps due to the fact that one of the narratives they tell about research is that it's easy. This may be especially true for students suffering from a fixed mindset

Students need help building resilience to overcome this frustration and to be able to accept critical feedback.  Legal research instructors can help students overcome these struggles and stay engaged in their intellectual growth by taking concrete steps to build their resilience.  In fact, most research courses are well-positioned to help students grapple with failure because most already include multiple assessments that will give students room to practice and develop their skills throughout the semester. These multiple opportunities for performance allow us to observe and point out our students' growth.

In her recent article, Framing Failure in the Legal Classroom: Techniques for Encouraging Growth and Resilience, Professor Kac…

Changing the Narrative About Legal Research

I attended an interesting talk by a colleague and friend recently that has me thinking about re-writing narratives. Specifically, I've been considering how to re-write the narrative about the importance of legal research in legal education.

Legal research instruction has long taken a back seat in the legal academy.  It's even been described as the "stepchild in legal education."[1] As a skills course, it's traditionally been considered of less import than doctrinal courses, though thankfully this seems to be improving. Even within the first years skill course, the dedicated time for students to learn legal research, research often takes a backseat in time and emphasis to legal writing and oral arguments, despite being the foundation needed to be successful at both. This happens despite those hiring new attorneys commenting regularly about their discontent with students' research skills.

It's unlikely in most cases that more time is going to be formally al…

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…

Reflection in the Legal Research Classroom

Reflection is a critical component of experiential learning.  We see in ABA Standard 303 that experiential courses must include multiple opportunities for self-evaluation.  Self-evaluation is critically important to legal research.  Students must reflect on and assess their research methodology each time they research to continue becoming more efficient legal researchers and to determine what research strategies work best in which situations. [1]

Reflection relates to several ideas found in cognitive theory that have been shown to result in stronger learning and retention:

Retrieval: recalling recently-learned information; Elaboration: finding a nexis between what you know and what you are learning; and Generation: putting concepts into your own words and/or contemplating what you might do differently next time. I've been contemplating how to better incorporate reflection into legal research classes. At the beginning of this semester, at the recommendation of a workshop I attended …

Desirable Difficulties in Legal Research Instruction

Challenges that result in stronger long-term learning are known as "desirable difficulties." Studies in how the brain works provide solid evidence that struggles in learning can actually be beneficial to the learner.

So how does the brain work? Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown et al., gives a concise version, explaining that first the brain undergoes encoding to create memory traces, "converting sensory perceptions into meaningful representations in the brain."[1] Next comes consolidation, during which the brain has to solidify these not fully-formed memory traces; this involves "deep processing of the new materials, during which scientists believe the brain replays or rehearses the learning, giving it meaning, filling in blank spots, and making connections to past experiences," which helps learners to organize and strengthen their learning.[2] 

When you allow space out your learning, as opposed to practicing something y…