Using Backward Design for Online Instruction

Kelly Brouse
Kelly Brouse
Elementary school principal; M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction

When you sit down to plan out your instructional unit, pulling texts, making resources, and envisioning student discourse opportunities are often what come to mind as the steps in the process. However, when you think about our goal as educators, which is to ensure students have learned specific skills, content, and outcomes, we need to know what those desired outcomes are before we can create the learning sequences, despite that perhaps being the fun part as educators. So what is the most efficient way to ensure the bridge between an instructional learning sequence and student assessment tool are aligned to reach a common student outcome? Backward design.

What is Backward Design?

Backward design was coined in 1998 by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book, Understanding by Design. The premise is simple: start with the end in mind. Instead of creating activities and materials first, dedicate the first part of your instructional planning to reviewing what skills, concepts, and understandings you want to ensure students have at the end of the unit, and then design the assessment that you will use to measure that they have it. The basic thinking behind this approach is that you have to ensure the assessment is a fair measure, and that your learning sequence leading to the assessment provides a clear pathway to understanding that will be measured on that assessment tool.

Backward Design: In-Person vs Online Instruction

Whether in person or online, backward design should always start with a very clear analysis of your learning targets. Ron Berger’s Leaders of Their Own Learning delves into the importance of setting clear objectives, or learning targets, in student-friendly language that are skill/concept-based, not task-based. For example, “I can identify the key details in a nonfiction text” rather than “I can read about tornadoes and make a poster that shows the main idea and key details.”

Once learning targets are clear, the next step in backward design planning is your assessment. This is where it may look different in person versus online. It’s important to think about what targets you are measuring, your students as learners, and what platforms or modalities are available to you to assess. Dedicating time to selecting the right questions and tasks for the assessment will ensure you are actually measuring what you intend to see students master.

For example, if your math assessment ends up being too literacy-heavy, are you really measuring your students’ ability to multiply fractions, or are they unable to show you that on your assessment because they are held up by the weight of the reading comprehension required?

Another important question to ask yourself in this step of backward design is related to how you will assess. Will written or oral components be a part of your assessment, or collaborative presentation? This is where in-person versus online design truly starts to diverge. Based on your learning model, you will have access to certain styles of assessment, and either way you need to know how you will assess your students before you plan the instruction to ensure students are equipped to show what they know at the end.

For example, if you expect students to use a video program to record their oral presentation and share it with you online, do students need instruction and practice in that program along the way during the unit? If students are expected to write essay-style responses, have you embedded checkpoints in the unit to ensure they are clear on your expectations for students to be successful with this venue for demonstrating their learning?

The next step is critical and can often be overlooked. Take time to identify criteria for success on the assessment. What should student work look like if they are demonstrating mastery on the assessment? What types of written components or visual modeling are you looking for, or is there key language that students should be including in their assessment responses that will result in success? Identifying these for yourself will in turn help you identify them with students over the course of the unit so they are clear on the expectations for mastery.

Once you have decided what your assessment will look like, it’s time to design a learning sequence. Both in-person and online learning sequences need to ensure multiple modalities are accessed over the course of the unit, providing learning experiences to reach auditory learners, visual learners, kinesthetic learners, and so on. Checkpoints that link directly to the assessment tool, like sample questions similar to what they will see on the final assessment, or assured learning experiences that build the background needed to be successful on the assessment, should also be infused into your learning sequence, illustrating the need to know where you are going before you plan your lessons!

Whether you are online or in-person, a key element to backward design is working collaboratively with your colleagues. With instructional planning, more brains are always better than one, because various perspectives will help reach the various learners in the class. Being able to both share ideas in the planning phase and reflect on student outcomes with the same assessment tools after the unit will provide you the richest opportunities to inform your instruction to best meet the needs of your learners.

Using Backward Design for Online Instruction

Consider these key strategies to “keep the end in mind” with backward design while you are teaching online:

  • Use a common space in your online platform, like a banner in Google Classroom or an image within your bitmoji classroom, to keep learning targets posted for students to see, engage with, and reflect on any time they are online.
  • Plan not only the assessment, but how you will ensure its validity. Do you need to keep a synchronous connection (like a Google Meet) open for you to proctor students while they take the assessment at the computer? Consider what you will need to ensure the assessment is a reflection of each student’s individual understanding.
  • Establish checkpoints in your virtual platform over the course of the unit that stand out from other assignments so students can reference them in preparation for an assessment. They may be housed in a different folder or identified with a keyword/color so students recognize their significance.
  • Utilize rubrics as much as possible over the course of the unit to help students understand what the expectations are for their final product of learning. Designing a “vision board” for mastery in the virtual setting is a creative way to help students see early what success will look like, and can be accessed or referenced over the course of the unit so they can be clear on what mastery of skills and concepts should look like.
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