Effective Lesson Plans: The Backwards Design Way

Lesson Planning With Your Objective in Mind

As an educator, your lesson plans are the very foundation upon which your students' education is built, but how effective are your lesson plans? To answer this question, one must first identify the objective(s) to be achieved and evaluate the success of reaching said objective(s). This type of lesson planning is called Backwards Design, a method of lesson planning that is derived from student-centric learning objectives rather than solely focusing on state and national standards.

Traditional Lesson Plans vs. Backwards Design

You may be wondering what the difference is between traditional lesson plans and lesson plans that were created using Backwards Design. Using traditional methods, teachers tend to begin the planning process by reviewing state and national standards and learning objectives, planning instructional activities around them, and implementing assessments that aren't always tied directly to the activities students engaged in or the standards that have been set. Oftentimes, assessments using this method are more of an afterthought and may not be implemented at all. Lesson plans created using Backwards Design, however, begin with the end in mind. Lesson plans using this method require the teacher to create content objectives and plan the corresponding assessment(s) first, creating lesson plans that are more effective in obtaining favorable results.

Backwards Design: A Step-by-Step Process

Student-Centric Learning Objectives, Intentional Assessment Methods, Targeted Activities

Step One: Creating Student-Centric Learning Objectives

To create student-centric learning objectives, one must first ensure that they are clear, specific, and easily measurable. As such, each objective consists of three parts: the desired behavior you would like the student to do, the method by which they will perform this behavior (a formula, a learning tool, etc.), and the specific level of performance to demonstrate content mastery (percentage of correct responses, amount of action taken during a time limit, etc.). Once determined, you can take a look at your standards and begin to formulate the building blocks of your student-centric objectives. Want to put this into practice? Here's an example of a third-grade state reading, writing, and communicating standard:

“Apply knowledge of spelling patterns (orthography), word meanings (morphology), and word relationships to decode words and increase vocabulary.”

This standard isn't necessarily specific or measurable in its current state, so the goal is to break it down to the three elements of a student-centric learning objective to make it easier to apply in the classroom and evaluate success. First, let's take a look at the desired behavior, which is to apply knowledge of spelling patterns, word meanings, and word relationships. To make this a little more specific, perhaps a teacher could identify a real-world application such as writing a letter to a pen pal. Taking such action requires the student to apply what they have learned about spelling, demonstrate their knowledge of the word meanings, and form relationships among words based on their level of understanding.

Next, we have to determine the method by which students are to complete the desired action. Using the above example, the teacher knows that their students will need to be provided vocabulary pertinent to the subject matter of the letter to equip students with what they need to properly execute the task. As such, providing a list of vocabulary words and their meanings would be the method students will use to arrive at the correct answer.

Last but not least, teachers will need to determine how they will evaluate mastery of this concept. Perhaps the teacher decides that their students will need to write a letter to a pen pal in a different country. As such, the teacher's student-centric objective will be:

"When given the proper vocabulary list, students will write a letter to a pen pal that uses correct spelling, word meanings, and connections among words."

This objective is clearly linked to state standards but takes it a step further in providing specificity in how it is to be demonstrated, the means by which to take action, and the metrics to evaluate mastery.

Step Two: Determine Assessment Methods

Now that you have decided on an appropriate student-centric objective, it is time to determine what type of assessment will provide an accurate depiction of student mastery. It is important to note that this does not refer to a single evaluation or test, but rather refers to assessments on an ongoing basis prior to introduction to new content. There are three types of assessments to consider when completing this step:

  • Pre-assessment: This type of assessment focuses on measuring prior knowledge students have of a particular subject to determine if they are prepared to be exposed to the content in question. Using the example above, a teacher may ask their students to write a journal prompt about the desired subject matter. Once received, these responses will allow the teacher to cater their lesson to fill the gaps in understanding.
  • Check for understanding: As previously stated, assessments of mastery should be ongoing, even while the information is still being taught. A check for understanding focuses on the progression of student understanding, identifying misconceptions your students may have, and allowing an opportunity to provide immediate feedback to combat them. This allows you to guide the learning process even while it is still underway as another means of keeping things on track. In alignment with our example above, the teacher may check in weekly on student progress using a multiple-choice activity at the end of class regarding the vocabulary their students are currently learning and use what they learn to cater to the gaps in understanding they find.
  • Final assessment: This assessment focuses on depicting the level of student mastery of the concept. This is where a teacher may pull in the mastery measurement they deemed sufficient such as successfully using the vocabulary words properly in their letter to a pen pal.

Step Three: Targeted Activities

Once you determine what your student-centric objectives are and how you plan to evaluate student mastery of these objectives, you are ready to create your lesson plans. With objectives in mind, teachers are able to determine the proper instructional methods. These instructional methods could include a variety of tactics such as direct instruction, watching informational videos, or interactive games to continue to build their skills.

No matter what the goal is, using Backwards Design lesson plans truly helps teachers focus on the goals they hope to achieve, making their time in the classroom more intentional and their lesson plans more effective in the production of the desired result.

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  1. Model Teaching. “Backwards Design in Lesson Planning - Model Teaching.” Model Teaching, Model Teaching, 19 Aug. 2019, https://www.modelteaching.com/education-articles/lesson-curriculum-planning/backwards-design-in-lesson-planning.
  2. “2020 Colorado Academic Standards Online.” Colorado Academic Standards Online, Colorado Department Of Education, 2020, https://www.cde.state.co.us/apps/standards/4,8,11/6,5,0/6,2,0.
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