Category: teaching

Adding learning technologies to backward design

When it comes to course design, I’m a big fan and advocate of Wiggins & McTighe-style backward design: identify learning outcomes, create summative and formative assessments, select instructional strategies.

Diagram with three small circles arranged together in a large loop. The three circles are labeled with the components of backward design: learning outcomes, assessment, instructional strategies. There are curved lines between the circles around the loop. The lines are double-ended arrows.
When developing a course using backward design, you identify learning outcomes, create summative and formative assessments, and select instructional strategies. (Diagram: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

I like this diagram because

  1. the loop suggests iteration: you design, teach, assess, redesign, reteach,…
  2. the arrows are double-ended: a novel assessment might allow me to aim for a higher learning outcome and force me choose a new instructional strategy, and so on

The last 2+ years have highlighted the importance of learning management systems and other learning technologies. They don’t just enable assessment and instruction, they can enhance it. Like, say, choosing Slido to run peer instruction (aka clickers) instead of think-pair-share.

So, I want to add “learning technologies” to the design process. A novel technology (like, say, Perusall) might allow me to raise the level of the learning outcome, requiring a different assessment and instructional strategy. Let’s add it to the loop:

Diagram with four small circles arranged in a large loop. The four circles are the three components of backward design -- learning outcomes, assessment, and instructional strategies -- plus a fourth circle labelled learning technologies. The circles are connected together around the loop with curved lines with double-ended arrows.
Add learning technologies to the backward design loop. (Diagram: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Uh-oh! If I just add another circle to the loop, I loose important connections, like how the learning outcome helps me select the instructional strategy, and how the assessment might rely on the capability of the learning management system. There’s an easy fix, of course.

Adding two missing arrows brings back the message that changing one component has consequences on the other three.

Diagram with four small circles arranged in a large loop. The four circles are the three components of backward design -- learning outcomes, assessment, and instructional strategies -- plus a fourth circle labelled learning technologies. There are curved lines between the circles around the outside of the loop plus two lines diagonally across the loop, so that each circle is connected to the other three. All the lines are double-ended arrows.
Two diagonal arrows completes all the connections. Changing one component has consequences on the other three. (Diagram: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

This is the version of backward design plus learning technologies I’ll be using when talking with course instructors. Until I iterate and revise, of course!

End notes

  1. This post first appeared as a thread on Twitter. Probably a good idea to back it up here, just in case.
  2. Part of my motivation for sharing these diagrams is the opportunity to practice using alternative text (alt txt), the written description that accompanies images posted on the web and Twitter. I’ve been learning a lot about alt txt from Ann Gagné @AnnGagne, Jorts @JortsTheCat (who always includes simple, clear, and wonderfully creative alt txt), and this excellent webinar “What is alternative text? How do I write it for images, charts, and graphs?” by Matthew Deeprose @VLEguru.
  3. I use PowerPoint to create simple diagrams like these. I like the auto-align features, the fine-control over the size of objects (down to 0.01 inches), and the easy “Duplicate slide” tool (I add new elements to copies of the slide so I can go back or try different options.) A new trick for these diagrams: I started with a custom 6″ x 6″ slide. “Save as PNG” pumped out a folder of identically sized (576 x 576 pixel) PNGs so I didn’t have to do any cropping.

What the Best College Teachers Do and Indigenous Pedagogies

In the early 2010’s, I read Ken Bain’s “What the Best College Teachers Do” (2004). One part jumped out at me then and I continue to quote and use it over and over. When describing the best college teachers’ classrooms, Bain writes

More than anything else, the best teachers try to create a natural critical learning environment: natural because students encounter skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating – authentic tasks that arouse curiosity and become intrinsically interesting, critical because students learn to think critically, to reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning using a variety of intellectual standards, to make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions about the thinking of other people.

(p. 99)

He observes that in these natural, critical learning environments,

students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again without facing a summative evaluation.

(p. 108)

The try, fail, receive feedback, try again cycle inspired me to create this graphic (feel free to use it, it’s shared under CC-BY):

In the best college teachers classrooms, “students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again without facing a summative evaluation” (Bain, 2004) (Graphic created by Peter Newbury, shared under CC-BY)

I frequently think about this learning cycle and happily encourage instructors and other educational developers to think about it, too, and build it into their courses and support for those who teach. In other words, it’s always active in my head, always ready to leap up and join the conversation.

Imagine my thrill, then, when I read this passage from Pulling Together: A Guide for Indigenization of Post-Secondary Institutions (Curriculum Developers edition) by Asma-na-hi Antoine, Rachel Mason, Roberta Mason, Sophia Palahicky, and Carmen Rodriguez de France (2018):

[L]earning from mistakes is a common aspect of Indigenous pedagogy, as it involves experiential learning and self-development. In this view, mistakes plus correction equals learning. Indigenous communities and families have a cultural process for “fixing” a mistake by creating a safe place to acknowledge your mistake, to fix it, and then learn from it…After the process of acknowledging and fixing a mistake, it’s then time to let go, move forward, and continue to work together.

(p. 34)

🤯 Mind 🤯 Blown 🤯

Let’s take a close read to compare these Western and Indigenous approaches to teaching:

What the best college teachers do Pulling Together
students encounter skills, habits, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and (authentic) tasks they find fascinating it involves experiential learning and self-development
students encounter safe yet challenging conditions creating a safe place to acknowledge your mistake
try, fail, receive feedback, and try again mistakes plus correction equals learning
try, fail, receive feedback, and try again acknowledge your mistake, to fix it, and then learn from it
without facing a summative evaluation it’s then time to let go, move forward, and continue to work together

I’m so happy to continue confronting and correcting my colonial misconception that Indigenizing the curriculum means setting aside my Western knowledge and practices. How people learn is the same, and effective teaching is effective teaching, however we label and categorize it.

Astronomy Labs

When I worked as a Science Education Specialist in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at UBC with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, I had the opportunity to create lab activities for the survey astronomy courses (aka “Astro 101”). These are courses aimed at students outside the Faculty of Science who need some science credits to graduate. One course was about the Solar System; the other is about stars and galaxies.

With the support of the CWSEI, I worked with some terrific course instructors to first write learning outcomes for each course. We then identified the outcomes that would be better supported by hands-on learning in the labs. For example, it’s well known students struggle to learn about the phases of the Moon by listening to the professor and looking at diagrams in a traditional lecture, whereas in a hands-on lab setting, students would be better able to

  1. use the geometry of the Earth, Moon, and Sun to illustrate the phases of the Moon and to predict rise/set times
  2. illustrate the geometry of the Sun, Earth, and Moon during lunar and solar eclipses and explain why there are not eclipses every month

I aimed to develop activities that gave students opportunities to practice thinking and acting in more expert-like ways, rather than replicating and confirming known results. So, some of these activities are a bit unusual, like figuring out the best night of the month to sneak across campus or spaghettifying a Playdoh astronaut as he falls into a blackhole.

Format and Files

All the activities have a similar format:

  • The activities are designed to be completed in 50 minutes by 20-30 students in a basic lab environment (large tables to support teamwork and collaboration, some specialized equipment, space for students and TAs to circulate). They’re classified as “tutorials” because they’re only 50 minutes long, rather than 3-hour “labs”.
  • Each activity has a brief intro that motivates the outcomes, one or more active, hands-on, discovery phase(s), and ends with a short assessment the students hand in on their way out the door.
  • The activities are facilitated by 1 (or sometimes 2) trained and engaged Teaching Assistants and that required us to write guides for the TAs. It’s well known that “recipe” labs are less effective: students are able to follow a detailed set of instructions but often are unable to transfer what they verify to other contexts. We learned quickly that providing TAs with a recipe for running the activity (“1. Do A. 2. Get students to do B. 3. Do C….”) did not engage the TAs, gave them no opportunity to learn about teaching, and provided minimal professional development for those looking ahead to academic careers. So, I revised the TA Guides so they identify the required equipment and steps and also give recommended questions and scripts to drive the discussions and explanations for the pedagogical choices.
  • The files linked here include PDFs of the materials handed out to students, the TA Guide, and a .zip file with LaTeX, .eps graphics, and any other supporting materials. The LaTeX files use several packages including pstricks. Overleaf has no problem compiling the files when you select xelatex instead of pdflatex.


You’re welcome to copy, borrow, and adapt to fit your context and outcomes. If there’s an opportunity to add some attribution, you can write

Unless other wise noted, resources are shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC-BY) license by Peter Newbury This work is supported by the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia.


When a meteorite hits the surface of a planet or moon, it creates an impact crater. This picture of our Moon’s Mare Nubium and surrounding hills shows some of the Moon’s surface is quite smooth while other regions are covered in craters. By measuring the sizes and number of craters, astronomers can learn about the objects (called the “impactors”) that struck the surface and also about the ages of various regions on the planet’s surface.
An orrery is a mechanical model of the Solar System. When you turn a crank, the planets and moons orbit the Sun at correctly-scaled distances with correctly-scaled periods. In this tutorial, you and your classmates build a scale model of the Solar System by marking the locations of the visible planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, at regular intervals of time. Later, when you and your classmates step from location to location, you’ll reproduce the motion of the planets – a human orrery!
Every month, the Moon appears to change shape in the sky as it goes through phases from new Moon to full Moon and then back to new. Ancient civilizations used the phases of the Moon to track the passage of time. Today's Gregorian calendar no longer depends on the phases of the Moon but the Islamic, Hebrew and Chinese cultures still base festivals and holy days on the cycles of the Moon.

The more you understand the nature of the Moon's phases, the more you can appreciate how astronomy influences our culture and the better you'll be able to predict when important events like Ramadan, Hannukah, Easter and Lunar New Year will occur.

In this tutorial, you will explore the changing geometry of the Sun-Earth-Moon system that produces each phase of the Moon, and then the connection between the geometry and the time of day the Moon rises and sets.

Madden et al. (2020) use an adaptation of this activity in an interesting astronomy education research project that compares students' learning and experiences using VR, a desktop computer simulation, and this hands-on analog activity.
The Sun, stars and planets cross our sky in complicated patterns that depend on the Earth’s daily rotation around its tilted axis and its annual revolution of the Earth around the Sun. For thousands of years, astronomers have watched the sky, figured out the patterns and built “computers” so they could predict when and where the Sun, stars and planets rise and set each day. In this tutorial, you’ll use your 21st Century computer to explore the motion of the Sun.


Note: this activity was built using the NAAP Motions of the Sky Simulator which doesn't function any more. You can easily adapt the activity to a simulation that shows the path of the Sun across the sky.

(Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle)
Astronomers have discovered hundreds of planets orbiting other stars. These planets are in solar systems beyond ours so they are called “extrasolar” planets. A growing number extrasolar planets are found by the transit method. In the transit method, astronomers take precise, long term observations of the brightness (or “intensity”) of a star and create a light curve for the star. In this tutorial, you’ll explore the connections between light curves and extrasolar planets and learn how to decode the light curve. Then you’ll examine the light curve of a real star and discover the characteristics of the planet HD 209458b, the first transiting extrasolar planet ever found.

(Credit: Robert Gendler)
Stars are the building blocks of the Universe – there are billions of stars in our Galaxy and billions of galaxies in the Universe. To understand how the Universe works, we need to understand how stars work. In this tutorial, you'll create a concept map to organize the content, reveal relationships and patterns, and make the content easier to recall later.
(Image credit: : Mt. Wilson Archive, Carnegie Institution of Washington)
Since the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, the Universe has been expanding. We know that because we’re watching other galaxies follow a curious pattern: the farther away the galaxy, the faster it is moving away from us. This discovery, made by Hubble in 1929, is known as the Hubble Law. The Hubble Law comes with an optical illusion: it looks like we’re at the center of the Universe. Are we really that special? In this Tutorial, you’ll clear up this illusion.
In this activity, students investigate the quantities that determine the strength of the force of gravity between two objects, identifying what matters and how that quantity changes the force. So they can recognize and appreciate the inverse-square law of gravity, the students first play with an analogy: the amount of pain the cartoon character Fry feels when he looks are different sized light bulbs, from near and far and with open or squinting eyes. They do this through an “invention activity” (Schwartz and Martin, 2004) which are proven to increase students’ understanding of the new concept (gravity) and their ability to transfer that knowledge to other situations.
Look at the desk and look around the room. Seems pretty flat, doesn’t it? But the Earth isn’t flat, so why is the room? What about the Universe? Is it flat? Does it have positive curvature? Negative? How can we tell? In this activity, you’ll do experiments that explore the effects of curvature. The key to determining the shape is the number of degrees in a triangle.
White dwarfs and neutron stars are two bizarre forms of stellar corpses left behind after the star collapses. For a very massive star, though, nothing can stop its end-of-life collapse. The star becomes a black hole, one of the strangest and most extreme objects in the Universe. How extreme? Spacetime is so curved (or as Newton would say, “gravity is so strong”) not even light can escape once it falls into a black hole. What would happen to a star or a planet that gets too close to the black hole? In this tutorial, you’ll figure that out by watching a poor astronaut fall into the black hole of death!
The colour of a glowing gas, like a candle flame, the burner on a gas stove, or a star reveals its temperature: hotter gases glow blue, colder gases glow red. On more careful inspection, though, the light we receive from each gas contains an enormous amount of information: not just its temperature but also its chemical composition, motion and more. This information is found by decoding the spectrum of the gas. In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to “crack the code” and reveal what the glowing objects are made of.
Stars come in all colours and sizes, masses and brightnesses, ages, and distances. How can we possibly learn how stars work when each one appears to be unique? What we need are some relationships between the characteristics of stars. We already know that the colour of a star is directly related to the temperature of the star: red stars are cool, blue stars are hot. That means we don’t have to measure both colour and temperature – we get one from the other. Are there any other relationships? What does a “relationship” look like, anyway? And what does a relationship tell us about how stars work? In this tutorial, you’ll see what it means for characteristics to be related (or not related) and then see how to use the relationships.