One of the greatest challenges of planning a course for the first time, or making substantial revisions, is what content to cover. Before my introduction to the principles of backward design, I would make my plans based on the number of weeks in the semester and how much content I could fit into that finite amount of time. Lectures were prepared in terms of organizing this body of information, and planning for assessments came dead last. Not surprisingly, this approach created an enormous amount of work, as I would over-prepare lectures and then cut out material to fit within the limitations of class time. I sometimes felt frustrated in my attempts to help students retain key concepts and apply the information they had learned—in other words, demonstrate true understanding.
I learned about Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, while taking courses in instructional technology. This book, now in its second edition, is a valuable tool in planning and organizing a course at any level: K-12, undergraduate, or graduate. In UbD, Wiggins and McTighe present a system that begins with specifying exactly what essential questions will be addressed in a given curricular unit, and what the instructor wants the students to understand. In the next planning stage, the instructor decides how to assess understanding. Assessment may involve quizzes, exams, reports, presentations, self-reflection, or various other tasks. Only in the final stage are specific teaching and learning experiences planned. These may include lectures, lab exercises, videos, class discussions, or interviews, just to name a few.
The key difference between the UbD system and my previous, inefficient approach is that backward design is driven by understanding rather than content. This does not mean sacrificing important content, although it may require letting go of content that is more likely to result in information overload than understanding. As a biologist, the courses I teach are content-heavy by necessity. However, backward design enables me to be selective in the content I emphasize.
For example, in my microbiology for allied health course, one of the most difficult units has been one on antimicrobial drugs. My previous scheme for the unit had been to outline basic mechanisms of action, and then plunge into a long, detailed examination of numerous individual drugs. My students could memorize and regurgitate lists of drugs for their exams, but as I explored the ideas presented in UbD, I began to question how useful such memorization might actually be. There are far more such drugs than we could cover in this unit, and new ones will certainly become available once the course is over. With my last major course revision, I emphasized more in-depth understandings of mechanisms of drug action, achieving selective toxicity, and the growing problem of drug resistance. Now my students only have to memorize a small number of specific antimicrobial drugs, but in general they come to understand why certain undesirable side effects arise, why it is best to prescribe narrow-spectrum drugs whenever possible, and why an antibiotic is not appropriate treatment for colds and flu. Unlike memorized drug lists, this understanding is more likely to be retained after the course is over.
Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design, 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.
McTighe, Jay and Grant Wiggins. Understanding by Design Professional Design Workbook. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2004.
Understanding by Design Framework – a collection of summaries, templates, articles, and other resources.