photograph by Ed Zeiler

Backward Design is Forward Thinking

A fresh approach to teaching inspired by the Summer Institute.

Her first four years of teaching freshman biology left Michelle Withers frustrated and her students uninspired. Then, in 2004, she attended the Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology, sponsored by the National Academies and HHMI. Energized, she reshaped her approach to teaching and became a science education researcher. In 2008, she started the first Regional Summer Institute at West Virginia University.

What was teaching like before you attended the Summer Institute?

I was the stereotypical talking head. I made the rookie mistake of trying to summarize the textbook on PowerPoint slides. It was a massive amount of information, and it was boring. I eventually took out a lot of text and put in more illustrations and diagrams, trying to get at the main concepts. But I still wasn’t getting the reaction I wanted from the students. Their brains weren’t turned on. They were taking notes but weren’t really thinking. I’d hit a wall and didn’t know where to go from there.

How did the Summer Institute change things for you??

I felt like I had been teaching in the dark. They flipped the light switch on and I went, “Oh my God, this is so much better!” The institute teaches scientists to bring the spirit of science to their teaching and to construct classes using something called backward design. With this approach, you start by identifying what you want students to know and be able to do by the end of the course. Then, break that down into specific objectives and structure classes around them, using active learning and problem-solving techniques.

For example, if I want students to understand gene expression, I ask myself: What does that really look like? If I give students a piece of double-stranded DNA and a segment of the amino acid sequence that came from it, they should know how to get from one to the other. Then, if I mutate the DNA sequence, they should be able to figure out how the amino acid sequence would change.

With that paradigm in mind, I create learning activities so students come up with their own answers. I need to figure out what questions will get them there. How can I guide them to figure it out?

Was it easy to bring backward design into your classroom?

I was so on fire that I tried to change everything at once. It didn’t matter that the semester was unbelievably painful—I don’t think I had a single day or evening off. Much of the time I was lurching around, trying to figure out what questions I would ask to teach, for example, cellular respiration. It was like being a choreographer with the dancers about to go on stage and no plans for the first movement.

Now, when I present at Summer Institute meetings, I use my experience to say, “Here’s what not to do. Don’t go back and kill yourself. Pick an active-learning method you like, such as brainstorming or case studies, and do that on a regular basis for the first semester.” Now that I’ve done this a while, I have a repertoire of techniques I can call on.

How do the students like your new teaching style?

Well, the average exam grade has gone up, even though my tests are harder. That’s not a controlled study, I realize. Some students say in their end-of-semester evaluations, “You didn’t teach me anything. I had to learn it all on my own.” That was the point. Many say, “I was worried at first, but this is great. I never learned so much before.” Now, they’re starting to see themselves as learners.

In your research, what questions are you asking?

In general, my lab studies the best methods for teaching college science. One of my graduate students is investigating how to best approach inquiry-based labs. Recipe-based labs are good at teaching techniques, but the literature shows that inquiry labs are better at teaching students how to be scientists. We want to know if it’s better for freshmen to start with guided inquiry experiences where the results actually contribute to scientific knowledge, such as a program developed by HHMI’s SEA [Science Education Alliance] initiative, in which students isolate bacterial viruses from local soil and analyze their DNA. Or are they better off with a more open-ended approach, where students get to decide what question they want to answer and then design an experiment to address it?

Another graduate student is looking at how to best teach evolution. I started with the assumption that students struggled with evolution because they didn’t appreciate the evidence-based nature of science and hadn’t learned to evaluate scientific claims. But our study suggests that’s not the case. Our pre/post tests show that our teaching modules are leading to significant gains in student’s understanding of evolution by natural selection. Even with those learning gains, however, our students fail to evaluate claims for intelligent design by the same standards they use for other types of arguments. So I want to know how we can approach the issue differently. I want to find a way to help students allow themselves to tackle this issue.

Michelle Withers is an assistant professor in the biology department at West Virginia University.