[Note 1: Today is the 8th anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve written about her before, but it seems fitting that I should write about her again as I start my promised series of blog posts musing about pedagogy.
Note 2: This post is called “Musing” for a reason: it’s really just somewhat random thoughts about pedagogy. It’s not meant to be even remotely authoritative; I’d settle for mostly coherent.]
I first heard the term “backward design” maybe a year ago. Backward design is a system whereby you design courses by starting with the learning outcomes or course objectives, rather than the topical coverage. When I heard the term, it confused me: why is it “backwards” to start with the learning outcomes? Doesn’t everyone do that?
It turns out that my pedagogical education has had a different trajectory from many college professors. I started learning about pedagogy by working with my mom, who had a degree in elementary education and wrote elementary-school science textbooks for a living. My first professional job (starting at fourteen years old) included proofreading pre-college textbooks and eventually working with my mom to write materials for her elementary science curriculum.
As a high schooler and then a college student, I saw firsthand the process of designing a curriculum starting with the very big picture (the scope and sequence of the whole curriculum, over the course of several years), then moving to individual grade-level objectives, then objectives and content for units of study within the grade, and then finally learning outcomes for individual lessons within the units. Then, and only then, was it time to write the content, including the activities designed to achieve those learning outcomes.
So I was surprised to find out that college courses are often designed around topical coverage, not around learning. It turns out that the way I’ve been taught to think about curricula and course materials is not particularly intuitive, especially when the courses are being designed by people who have little to no training in pedagogy. Despite all that I’ve absorbed over my lifetime of living in the household of educators (my father, about whom I’ll write soon, I have no doubt, has an EdD and wrote his dissertation about Bloom’s Taxonomy), college course design still proved a challenge for me.
How the learning outcomes matter for me
This semester, I’m teaching two classes—one undergrad and one grad—that both focus on digital methodology for historians. When I was planning these courses, I started with a pencil, paper, and a lot of ideas. I wrote them all down, and then I organized them into categories. I then tried to think about all the things I’d written down, and what I was actually aiming for when I wrote them. I used those filtered ideas as the basis for my learning objectives.
Because digital history can be so many different things, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing fun digital stuff that has little pedagogical value. The tools with the most bells and whistles may not have the most value for understanding why that tool or method works for historical analysis. So checking all my activities against the learning outcomes is one way I keep myself from going down (too many) rabbit holes.
I’m also not the best at planning out a whole semester’s worth of materials and activities in advance. I like to change things on the fly, as I see how the course is progressing. So the learning outcomes are my only guide as I adapt to changing circumstances within my courses. Sometimes I have to cut or transform a whole class plan; as long as I’m still achieving my learning outcomes for the class, I don’t feel so bad about losing that “coverage.” I also don’t feel bad about dumping assignments; the students never mind, and if something went badly for them, they probably didn’t meet the learning outcomes anyway. So I have no problem either preemptively or retroactively canceling assignments that didn’t work out as planned.
For my undergraduate course, these are the objectives:
In this course you will:
Learn the varied history of war in the antebellum United States, from the French and Indian War to the Civil War;
Create historical scholarship using varied tools and sources;
Publish historical scholarship on the web.
For the graduate class, they’re similar, but with a focus more on the field of digital history as a subfield:
Our core objectives are these:
Survey the many facets of digital history (through readings)
Create web-based digital history analysis
Practice the nuts and bolts of digital history projects from start to finish
Flexibility within parameters
I recently saw someone on Twitter arguing that learning outcomes were too restrictive and they inhibited student learning by pushing them into paths pre-defined by the teacher instead of allowing the student to guide their own learning. (If I’m mischaracterizing this thread, I apologize—it was just a quick read on Twitter and I couldn’t find it again!)
I disagree with this assessment. When students come into my classes, many of them are there because the course is required in some form or another. They don’t know enough about the course to know what they might want to know. So assuming that they can create their own objectives for whether they’ve succeeded in class feels like it’s setting them up for failure—it’s like asking them to build a house while giving them only the materials they can think of without any knowledge of how a house actually gets built.
So I think learning outcomes serve an important purpose in course design. Students who come into my courses are often skeptical, terrified, or both. Throughout the course of the semester, we work together to build confidence in both history and technology until at the end, the students can look at the learning outcomes and say “Oh yeah, I did learn something in this class!” We judge whether or not they succeed in the class based on whether the learning outcomes are met.
This system gives me a lot of flexibility. The student didn’t get the technology right the first time? That’s ok—we’re still learning, and you’ll have another chance to get it. I did a bad job of explaining something in class? No problem—we can take another run at it next week. If we don’t get to something, we don’t get to it. I worry a lot less about “coverage” when I remind myself of what the learning outcomes are.
But I’m still able to check both my students and myself to make sure we’re all working together toward the same goals. I think that’s the value of learning outcomes; they give the students parameters by which to judge their learning while giving them a chance to do more.
Challenges of teaching with learning outcomes
I believe firmly in the value of having learning outcomes. However, I still find them hard to write and sometimes hard to live by. I struggle to strike a balance between too restrictive and not restrictive enough. I try to write them so that any student who comes into my class can succeed under them, but I also want the objectives to have enough meat to be meaningful.
I also struggle with making sure I adhere to the outcomes. I do think an occasional divergence is fine, even healthy. But it’s really easy to slip back into the “I have to get through this” mindset, even in setting up course assignments and assessments. But I think that’s the key: slipping back into that mindset is the real backward design. I always want to be moving myself and my students forward. But I don’t think I’m quite there yet.
For me, the real challenge is in working within the learning outcomes I didn’t set myself. My undergraduate course fulfills the requirement for the Mason Core IT requirement. A Mason Core course comes with its own set of learning outcomes, created by the Mason Core committee. Courses that fulfill the IT requirement span the entire university, from IT 101 in the information technology program, to my course in the history department, to a music technology course in the college of visual and performing arts.
The learning outcomes set by the Mason Core committee were written with little attention to the humanities applications of technology. (This isn’t a knock on the outcomes; it’s just a fact.) As a result, where the outcomes I’ve crafted myself feel like they fit the course, there are occasions when I feel like I’m shoehorning sessions and activities into my class merely to meet the core requirements. But the benefits of having my course in the Mason Core outweigh the frustrations of trying to adhere to the IT outcomes.
So, how do you use learning outcomes in your classes? How do you keep yourself on track? How do you work with outcomes that aren’t yours by design?
Next time: Analog tools for digital methodology?