SAGE Musings: Backwards Workshop Design

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Oct 26, 2017 9:02am

One of the sessions I attended at GSA this year was about On the Cutting Edge: Fifteen Years of Impacts on Geoscience Education. On the Cutting Edge is the professional development program for geoscience faculty that introduced me to many of the ideas and practices we are using in SAGE 2YC; in fact, Eric gave a talk in this session about adapting and extending the Cutting Edge model of faculty professional development for the SAGE 2YC project. One of the truly remarkable aspects of the Cutting Edge program was the effectiveness of its workshops, based on this workshop design philosophy.

The strength of the Cutting Edge workshops, which we work to replicate in SAGE 2YC workshops, is that they are planned using the "backwards design" approach, described by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design. This book outlines the process of designing a course by first articulating what you want the end results to be and then mapping out a path to that destination, aligning course activities and topics with the course goals. The beauty of this approach, besides its efficacy, is its applicability to many tasks in many contexts, including planning a workshop.

When you are designing a new course, you might be tempted to start by listing the topics you will cover, fitting all of them into a timeline of meeting dates for the course, and then planning a series of lectures about those topics. Likewise, when you are designing a professional development workshop for your colleagues, you might be tempted to start by listing the topics you plan to focus on in the workshop and then brainstorming ideas for presentations or activities that you could use to address those topics. However, this isn't the best approach in either context. What's missing from this "forward" design process is any goal beyond "covering" the material. Consider, in contrast, the "backwards" design process:

  1. Identify the desired results.
  2. Decide what evidence would allow you to determine whether the desired results have been achieved.
  3. Plan activities to produce the desired results.

Here's how I think about these three steps in the context of workshop design. Step one is identifying the goals for the workshop. What do you want workshop participants to know, and what do you want them to be able and ready to do at the end of the workshop? The second step is to figure out how you will measure the success of your workshop. What outcomes would allow you say, "Yes! Our participants got out of the workshop exactly what we were hoping for!" And the third step is deciding what experiences you can build into the workshop program to ensure that participants reach those goals. What I particularly enjoy about backwards design is that once I am quite clear about my goals, the plan for achieving them - that is, the workshop program - almost writes itself.

It's been very gratifying this fall to talk with SAGE 2YC's Cohort 1 Change Agent teams about your plans for your regional workshops. It's clear from your plans that you all are following this design process, consciously or otherwise. I see it in the alignment between your workshop goals and your workshop programs. Thank you all for carrying this model to new audiences.


Bowen, Ryan S. (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved 24 October 2017 from

On the Cutting Edge Workshop Design Philosophy. On the Cutting Edge. Retrieved 25 October 2017 from

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe (1998). Understanding by Design.

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