Backwards Design for Long-Term Outcomes Marta Caminero-Santangelo English
Backwards Design for Long-Term Outcomes
Work by Wiggins and McTigue suggests that effective
backwards design of a course considers the most
significant long-term course goalsthe enduring
questionsrather than just what is important to know.
In thinking through my course
Introduction to US Latino/a
Literature, I realized that my
assignment structure assessed
a mid-range level of outcomes
(familiarity with specific literary
texts) rather than the higherlevel understanding and skills
I really wanted students to
retain long term. For instance,
mid-terms and exams assessed
student retention of details about our analysis of particular
texts and the ways we had applied key concepts in class.
But a more important higher-level outcome, I realized, is
skills based; I want students to be able to analyze new
cultural texts they may encounter in the future (literature
but also visual images, speeches, advertisements, news
stories, songs, etc.) by applying an understanding of key
concepts they have learned about in class.
Students have found microthemes to be both less
stressful and better for their learning than exams.
1. My major innovation was that I replaced midterms and
finals with microthemesshort essays on each
individual text. These were the equivalent of essay
questions on the exams, and asked students to apply key
concepts, but also gave students greater opportunities to
independently process class discussion towards a specific
end and to formulate and organize their ideas.
2. I focused on deliberately scaffolding classroom
activities and out-of-class assignments, including group
close-reading activities during class-time to build towards
Microthemes are much more effective for my learning
than midterms/tests/finals. I think they actually help me
discuss what I think were the most interesting and
important things about each text. I think that because we
have microthemes instead of tests, I am more focused
on understanding patterns and themes and critically
thinking about the text because I'm not focused on
remembering small details to prepare for an exam.
Hypothesis: Students would perform better on their first
longer papers if they had been processing texts and
getting feedback on their writing with microthemes first.
Preliminary data suggests that this occurred, with
students moving up into higher range grades (many
more students getting As, and fewer getting Cs and Ds).
ENGL 337 - 2009
ENGL 337 - 2016
Paper 1 Grade
Paper 1 Grade
Because students receive my feedback on each
individual microtheme, students also learn over the
course of several microthemes how to more effectively
construct and support an analytical argument.
I honestly think microthemes as a replacement for
midterms and finals is an incredible idea. They're a great
way to see how we're processing the information and to
see what our personal takes on certain materials are. I
feel like finals and miderms wouldn't give you that
perspective on the way your students think.
Challenge #1: Backward Design: Reconsider the
course assignment structure so I would be asking
students to develop independent critical and analytical
skills over a more sustained period rather than assessing
primarily short-term content retention.
Because students are asked to review, process, and
apply course material immediately, this learning is
immediately reinforced (as opposed to a periodic cram
3. I made the longer paper assignments more synthetic
and comparative so that students could use their
microtheme essays as potential building blocks toward
the longer essays.
Challenge #2: Scaffolding: I felt that course
assignments could be better scaffolded to build skills.
Assignments, modeled on traditional assignment
structures in an English class, generally included two
short answer / essay exams (midterm and final) and two
longer papers. There was no discernable scaffolding that
allowed students to build skills from one kind of
assignment to another.
Microthemes are a great alternative to a midterm or
final! Small writing assignments that I can get feedback
on and have a chance to improve before the next one is
due are better in my opinion than an in-class
essay/exam you have to cram for.
This whole microthemes as replacement for standard
memorization tests is brilliant. Short essays that I get a
day or two to think over make me actually engage with
what I learned on a personal level (as opposed to
panicked, caffeine-fueled in-class tests).
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