Thursday, 21 June 2012

Backward Design: Rethinking and Planning Library Instruction

Sarah Graham wrote a fantastic post on June 7th (“Why brainstorming doesn't work”) about introducing debate instead of typical free-association exercises to engage students and encourage creativity. In her discussion, she briefly mentions the obstacles of deeper instruction given limited time and only “one shot” in which to teach. But what if you had the opportunity for more frequent contact? In this regard, my colleagues and I have been somewhat fortunate.
My big project this past year has been leading the redesign of two online credit-bearing information literacy courses. While they have been very popular, they’ve undergone only minor changes since they were developed at The Ohio State University over a decade ago. However, technology and research into student information behavior has made large strides, and it was time for a major revision. In this post, I’d like to the share a little about the backward design process we used to revise the course.
Curriculum developers and instructional designers may be familiar with this three-stage approach to course planning that runs counter to longstanding methods. Instead of starting with content and figuring out how to assess students on the content, it starts with assessment goals and then determining if the content meets those goals. Or as Wiggins and McTighe (2005) depict the general process:
1.       Identify desired results
2.       Determine acceptable evidence
3.       Plan learning experiences and instruction
The first step of identifying desired results is more than just coming up with a student-centered outcome to be accomplished in the fourth week of the course; it’s trying to figure out what your “big rocks” are, or what your students will say or remember about your course long after it has concluded.
Eventually, you develop granular objectives based on those broader goals. Once you do that, then you can figure what constitutes evidence (tasks or activities) that your students produce to meet those objectives. Finally, you decide what content is necessary in light of your goals and tasks as well as how to organize everything.
These ideas (along with cognitive research about learning and retention) have challenged our thinking and resulted in drastic changes to the existing courses. For instance, evaluating sources is part of library instruction, but how do we do we do it? Within the course, we administer a 10-question reading comprehension quiz on an online reading and a couple questions on the final test. What happens when we take the backward design approach instead?
Identify desired results
Our team believes that one of the broader goals of the course is something like the following: Students will bring a critical eye to information sources they encounter.  We want students to not only recognize bias or analyze for authority, but instill a habit of mind so they are constantly thinking about whether sources meets their need (or are trustworthy enough to be repeated at a party). We still have the practical sub-goal of teaching an evaluative framework, but we don’t want to forget our larger goal in the design of the rest of the course.
Determine acceptable evidence
So what tells us that they understand and are able to use this framework for evaluating information sources? If we’re being honest, a quiz is probably not the most effective means—at least not as the sole assessment. For many, learning artifacts commonly come in the form of term papers or presentations.  For one of our two courses, a major component of the new final project is the annotation of cited sources in a Wikipedia. It provides an authentic (real life) experience while providing formal evidence for student understanding.
Plan learning experiences and instruction
This is where everything comes together and we’re able to ask (among many questions): What do students need to know to complete the Wikipedia annotations and what’s the most effective way for them to learn it? Now that you’ve established goals and evidence, you can figure out what activities will be appropriate and how everything is organized. Maybe it is an interactive tutorial, or to steal from the aforementioned blogger, a debate-type activity could contribute to active learning and long-term understanding of the content.
While I’ve largely spoken about the role of backward design in course development, it’s certainly transferable to one-shot instruction, online tutorials, and other such tasks. What’s important to remember is that it isn’t a prescriptive process—it’s just a way of thinking that I believe opens up a largely unexplored avenue of creativity in all parts of the library. Those of you familiar with other ISD process models may find this useful as it speaks a little more directly to educational contexts. However, I’ve also grossly oversimplified what turns out to be something very messy, and I encourage you to read “Understanding by Design” by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe if you’re interested in learning more.
Brian D. Leaf (, Instructional Design Librarian Resident, The Ohio State University


  1. Fantastic blog post! This approach is new to me, but based on your post I'm going to investigate it further. I really love your desired goal: "To instill a habit of mind so they are constantly thinking about whether sources meets their need (or are trustworthy enough to be repeated at a party)"!

    Sarah Graham

  2. Interesting and makes sense