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What Dragons Know… {New Feature!}

What Dragons Know Feature

Backward Design 101

And by dragons, I of course mean grad students (don’t get between a grad student and caffeine if you don’t believe me!), and by grad students, I mean me ;-). 

Wait wait wait, before you skip over this: If you aren’t interested in features like this, I would love for you to comment and tell me, I can take it, promise! I don’t want you to be bored once a week because no one felt they could say this was a boring feature ;-).

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming….

Grad school is obviously a very large part of my life at the moment, and while I get sick of classes and work just like everyone else, I’m often struck by how cool some of the stuff I’m learning is. So I kind of want to share all that cool stuff with you! It’s also a good chance for me to solidify some of my studying since explaining it helps that :D. Let me know if this sounds like a fun feature to you, since I might keep it going then :).

This semester I’m taking an Engineering Education class, which in theory is supposed to teach us about education theory and how to be really helpful professors. While I’m getting a bit annoyed at some of the discussion we’ve been having, I have gotten really excited about this idea of Backward Design. Backward design is a fancy-schmany way of planning a lesson/class/workshop etc. The “backward” part refers to the idea that normally we think we should start with what activities we should have the students do, then try to figure out how to test them and just kind of hope that they learned something. Traditional methods (what you have probably encountered plenty of times in school!) focus more on what the teacher is teaching than what the students are learning. 

Backward design flips that traditional model on it’s head. First, you decide what are the “big ideas” you want your students to learn. This whole process can be for just a small module of a class, or a full semester’s plan. In my class, I only have to make a lesson plan for a module, whew! Once you’ve figured out what you really want your students to walk away remembering, you figure out how to actually test for that understanding. And when I say understanding, I mean that really deep “aha” kind of understanding. You can probably guess that this generally doesn’t mean multiple choice tests. It could, but generally it’s better to have students do essays or projects that really get at the important skills and concepts. “Assessment” as it’s called is really freaking hard. That’s what I’m learning about right now ;-). Since we can’t just take a scan of every students’ brain, figuring out if they have the concepts in there correctly is tough and requires careful assessment planning. Once you’ve figured that out though, then you decide how you are going to teach them what they need to know for the assessment. Since you’re assessment gets at the big ideas you care about, this means that teaching for the test will actually teach them something :D. I haven’t gotten to the third step yet, so I’m not sure what exactly that involves, but it seems like that step tends to emerge naturally from well thought out “big ideas” and “assessment.” 

So that’s what I know! Or kinda know… am in the process of knowing? Something like that ;-). Have I completely bored you? Want to read more random snippets from my classwork (and maybe even research :D)? Please let me know! Either way is fine ;-).

Anya from On Starships and Dragonwings -Anya

© 2013, Anya. All rights reserved.


  1. It’s interesting to read about this from the other point of view! I’m usually on the receiving end of these new “assessments”, my state is trying all these new sorts of things and it isn’t fun. New things include being tested in the beginning of the year on material you don’t even know and at the end of the year to see if you learned anything. Another annoying measure is taking written tests in Gym! I’m curious to see more of these posts!
    Scott Pilgrim recently posted…Blackout by Robinson WellsMy Profile

    • Hehe, generally backward design focuses on the assessment that the teacher can choose though, since the statewide assessments have to be written to apply to a way too large range of students. Assessment can be projects and presentations too, which are generally thought to be better since they are closer to how you will actually use the knowledge ya know?

  2. I ADORE this idea – I love learning new things.

    Funnily enough, I actually started grad school yesterday (although we call it something else). I’m doing a Masters in Biotechnology Law and I’m super excited :)

    I understand the theory of backward design, so you must have explained it well. It’s a good idea and the benefits to the students are clear.

    • Yey! :D

      Ooo, that’s awesome, do you already have an industry job in mind?

      Thanks! It’s fun to get practice writing about these too since I’m going to have to write final papers, haha

  3. Adelynne Chang says:

    Haha, backward design… I guess it isn’t that effective if you can only hope the kids learned something… ._.’
    Ugh, grad school sounds so boring, I’m too lazy for learning. :D
    Good luck!

    • Hehe, grad school has it’s ups and downs, I’m pretty interested in most of my classes, just wish the work load wasn’t so high

  4. LeKeisha Thomas says:

    LOL! I don’t find this boring at all. It’s like reading a new book, you learn something new with each one. I’ve had a sh***y day at work, so I’m trying to put my thoughts elsewhere, until I have to go back in the a.m.

    Now if you were discussing car parts and quality issues, I’d have a meltdown!! Gah, I’m so tired. But anyway, I don’t mind your ramblings :-)

    • That’s the goal :D I’m a fan of pop science books that don’t butcher science, so I figure I can have little mini-lectures hehe.

      The only way I could discuss car parts is if my boyfriend did a guest post *knows nothing about cars* ;-) But it sounds like you need to curl up with a good book :D

  5. Argh, I’m actually not a huge fan of backward design for myself. My brain just can’t process planning in that way. I don’t feel like I use any formal kind of planning model, though. I use standards to help guide what I’m planning, along with having an idea of what texts I want to focus on and then teasing out what aspects of them I might want to focus on. I never plan the assessment first; I feel like I have to know what I’m going to teach before I can figure out how to plan for how I’ll assess them. That’s just me, though. :) And maybe it’s a bit different if one’s teaching English/language arts/reading as I am, though I did learn backward design in one of my methods courses.
    Randi M recently posted…Super Six Sunday: Books Set in SchoolsMy Profile

    • Someone who knows about this stuff for real?? *hides* But seriously, that’s actually really interesting to hear, since my professor has made it seem like “THIS IS WHAT EVERYONE DOES SO YOU MUST DO IT,” he also talks too much >.> Teaching Lit definitely has a different approach if there are certain books you must use, since most of the time the textbook isn’t mandated for the sciences. It sounds like you do kind of do backward design though, since you figure out what you want to teach students first, so you are thinking about what concepts are important for them to get out of the class?

  6. Anya, I am so glad you shared this — thank you! Not only is this topic fascinating, but it is also especially relevant to my day job, since I work in education (so to speak). Please keep sharing as you keep learning about this! And if you have any recommended reading on the subject, please send it my way. :)
    Kelley (Another Novel Read) recently posted…Book Covers Through the Eyes of a SynestheteMy Profile

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