Category Archives: pedagogy

Beautiful Questions and Big Ideas

This is the first of several posts summarizing ideas from this year’s jmUDESIGN, the annual Backward Design institute offered by JMU’s Center for Faculty Innovation (CFI).

Start at the end

The first stage of backward design is to figure out where you want to go, but not in the way that most faculty think. If you asked most faculty what this would mean, they would probably answer that they start with the content they need to cover and the objectives they have been given by their department, accrediting body, or professional society. This is completely the WRONG thing to do.

The problem with this approach is that it embodies a content-centric teaching philosophy, in contrast to a learner-centered philosophy. One of the key changes to make when adopting a learner-centered teaching philosophy is to reconsider the role of the content. The content is the medium, not the goal.

Instead of starting with the content, the goal of a learner-centered teacher practicing backward design is to consider where you want the students to end up. You need to craft a vision of how you want you students to change, because that is ultimately the goal: Learning is a change in the functional capacity of the students. In any class, students will change and they will learn. But that change and learning might not be the type you intend. In backward design, then, you start by crafting a vision of what you want that change to be. Once that is done, you can move on to aligning your objectives and practices with your vision.

Big Ideas and Beautiful Questions

To get started with crafting your vision, you start the backward design process by crafting a 5 Year Dream, which is an explicit articulation of what you see for yourself and your students 5 years after the course. When articulating your 5 Year Dream, you should consider what you want your students to know, be able to do, and find value in. For instance, in my OS course, my 5 Year Dream includes students appreciating and applying principles of locality and separation of implementation from interface.

Once your 5 Year Dream is established, you should consider how it relates to your course. There are two separate ways of framing this discussion, and you should use one that works for you. One approach is to define Beautiful Questions. A beautiful question is one that leads students to deep learning and encourages the development of connections between content and life. Here are some examples of beautiful questions from various disciplines (some are directly from this year’s jmUDESIGN):

  • Biology: How do tanning beds increase one’s risk of cancer? How has antibacterial soap contributed to deaths caused by superbugs like MRSA? Why is direct access to genetic testing causing some families to fall apart?
  • Social work and sociology: Is there a right way to “do family?” Why are some communities and individuals more likely to relapse into drug addiction?
  • Political science: How will clashes between state and federal laws about marijuana impact cancer patients? Why did the Supreme Court determine that same sex marriage bans violate the Constitution?

As an alternative to beautiful questions, another approach is to identify Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings. A big idea is a major overarching theme or concept, whereas enduring understandings are statements that you would be embarrassed if your students missed it. Many faculty in STEM fields find this framework very appealing. Here are some examples:

  • Big Idea: The theory of evolution. Enduring Understanding: Variations in species have emerged through the natural selection resulting from millions of years of reproduction.
  • Big Idea: Force. Enduring Understanding: The force applied on an object is measured by the mass of the object and the acceleration it experiences (F = ma).
  • Big Idea: Virtual memory. Enduring Understanding: An OS provides processes with the illusion of a contiguous memory space even though data is actually stored in many separate places.


For more information on Beautiful Questions and Big Ideas, as well as getting started with learner-centered teaching, I recommend the following books:

Backward Design Institute

This week is jmUDESIGN, a week-long course redesign institute for faculty. The institute is based on the principles of backward course design, primarily influenced by the work of Dee Fink. I went through this institute 2 years ago, and this is now my second time as a group facilitator. It’s a valuable program that has been very influential in my career development as a faculty member.

The essence of backward design is to start with your Big Ideas or Beautiful Questions (BI/BQ) and work backward toward designing your course structure. From BI/BQ, the next step is to define significant Learning Outcomes (LOs). These should go beyond just understanding concepts, but should be crafted to explain what you want your students to do with what they learn. The theme for this part of the institute is the 5-Year Dream, which encourages you to reflect on what they should do and know 5 years after your course is over. How do you want your students to change because of your course?

Next, we move to crafting both formative and summative assessments that are aligned with your LOs. At that point, we examine our pedagogical choices and practices to ensure that our classrooms are properly aligned to our goals.

Backward design is a fascinating concept to me because it is exactly what we should do when designing courses, but don’t. The week is exhausting, thought-provoking, inspirational, and a lot of fun. Even though this is my third time through the process, I am still learning and developing even deeper understanding of who I am as a teacher and what I want for my students. Over the next couple of posts, I’ll highlight a couple of interesting ideas that I am taking away from this week.

Flipping tip – The role of source material

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that my experience this semester was unique. I converted my Computer Organization course to a flipped classroom using Team-Based Learning (TBL), while also taking a Physics class that was taught in a flipped style. As such, I got to experience both sides of the flipped classroom model at the same time. (Confession: They do it better, but hopefully just because they’ve had more practice.)

This was the first time I taught Computer Organization as a TBL course. To help students prepare for each module, I gave reading assignments along with a guide of questions to discuss beforehand. The discussion never quite emerged to be as interactive as I would have liked, but the students did complete the readings and were in a good position to start the modules. Overall, I am quite pleased with the results and feel confident that those who completed the course took a lot from it. However, my Physics experience tells me that there I still made their lives a lot harder than may have been necessary.

In the Physics class, we were assigned 3-5 videos to watch before every class, each video ranging from 3 to 12 minutes (5-6 was typically). Generally, the total time commitment was less than 20 minutes. The videos were critical to the success of the class. They brought the equations to life, illustrating the manifestation of the concepts rather than just the calculations. (Granted, not all videos were created equal. Some videos, particularly those that were 10-minute mathematical derivations, were less enlightening.)

There were times where I used videos in my course, to great success and relief from the students. Yes, they’re a lot of work (I estimate 8 hours for each 15 minutes of video). But you can get a lot of reuse out of them, particularly if they’re not closely bound to a particular programming language or architecture. I plan on reusing some of these for my Operating Systems course this fall and for some other courses.

But I can hear the collective voice of faculty everywhere: What about the textbook? Why can’t they just read that? Shouldn’t it be a learning objective that they develop their skills reading technical sources?

Absolutely. I very much believe that they need to learn how to read source material. However, I don’t think this can be accomplished by edict. Rather, I believe we need to make this skill a more explicit learning objective and provide scaffolding to support it. Videos can serve that role. They should not be perceived as a replacement for the textbook. Rather, the emphasis should be that videos illustrate main concepts while the text provides the details.

It’s incredibly tempting to think that reading guides can serve this role. Provide them with a list of questions that they need to answer as they read, possibly with some hints about what major points to think about. The problem with reading guides is that they are using the same language as the text: words and concepts the students don’t yet understand. And frankly, my view is this: If the students aren’t reading the textbook, are they really going to read your guide in a meaningful way?

I’m going to audaciously suggest that we in the active learning community underestimate the importance of source material supports. When flipping the classroom, we focus on changing our in-class activities, homework, and projects. That is, we put all of our work into refining the things that we and our students will do. We do not put nearly enough thought into what resources our students will use.

So, if you are thinking about flipping your course, you need to re-evaluate your relationship with textbooks and other source material. You will probably find that you need to provide additional support in the form of videos. Yes, they’re a LOT of work. But they really help the students progress. And it’s okay if they suck. I’ve produced some pretty bad videos in the past, and the students still loved them.

Flipping tip: process matters

This semester, I converted one of my courses to Team-Based Learning (TBL). I’ve dabbled with TBL (or parts of it) in previous semesters, but this was the first time I’d tried it in this class. If you’re not familiar with TBL, the first thing to note is that TBL does NOT just mean using teams in class. It’s a specific process as follows:

  1. The course is broken up into 5-7 modules that each take about 2-3 weeks.
  2. Each module starts with a Readiness Assurance Process (RAP) that requires pre-reading and holds the students accountable for it on the first day. To assist in this, I give out a reading guide that includes key questions for them to consider. The rest of the module is spent on in-class application activities.
  3. Students are assigned to persistent, diverse teams for the entire semester.

The  RAP includes an individual test (iRAT), team test (tRAT), and clarifying instruction. What I’ve found from this semester’s experience is just how critical the RAP is to the success of the module and the course as a whole. While module 1 went decently (it’s always expected to be a transition), module 2 was a disaster. No one had done the readings ahead of time, so they weren’t prepared to use the concepts on activities. The blame for this falls solely at my feet. I didn’t adequately explain the process.

So I took a mid-semester break and showed them this flow chart:

TBL Process

I also gave them these pieces of advice for completing the readings:

  • Start by reading all questions, get a feel for terms
  • Skim the reading assignment to identify where to find information
  • Try to answer SOME questions on a scrap of paper
  • Read the assignment in a bit more detail, checking answers
  • Propose an answer to a single question
  • Monitor others’ responses and verify their responses
  • Ask follow-up questions for questions you doubt

To me, these seemed like no-brainers. CS textbooks are, in general, awful. They are dry, boring material. They have mistakes or opinions masquerading as facts. They are not necessarily written with scaffolding and conceptual reinforcement in mind. And yet, many students had been approaching them as novels, reading the chapter from beginning to end.

Since giving out these tips and explaining the process in detail, the turn-around has been dramatic. In fact, the midterm grades for this group far exceeded those of previous years. But for that to happen, they must understand the process. Just putting it on the syllabus and hoping for the best won’t work.

From this observation, I’ve come up with an idea to try in future semesters: Have a module 0 that serves as an introduction to the course. Include a custom 2-page reading assignment with multiple pages and clearly marked terms and sections. At the start of the second page, include a statement such as the following:

If you read the first page in its entirety, you should reconsider how you approach reading assignments. If you would check the reading guide, you’ll notice that none of the material from the first page is mentioned in the questions.

If you are considering a flipped classroom model, it is critical that you work early in the semester to train your students to follow the process. If you don’t, you will experience disastrous modules and/or courses.