STEM Education Poetry

Retro Styles

Normal homework routine: questions answered.
A reframing can reset these standards,
If technique supplementary
We borrow from Jeopardy! 
Make progress by first thinking backward.  

This week’s limerick builds on the ideas noted in last week’s STEM education poem, which examined transparency in assignments, to look at the broader concept of backwards design, another long-established approach in educational practice. In particular, this poem attempts to highlight that an awareness of such pedagogical strategies could provide a possible metacognitive approach (a “technique supplementary”) for chemistry students.   

Normal homework routine: questions answered. /
A reframing can reset these standards…
The first two lines here emphasize the poem’s attempt to reconsider curricula in STEM classes, where homework often tends towards the algorithmic; this limerick will attempt to “reframe” this standard view.  

If technique supplementary /
We borrow from Jeopardy! /
Make progress by first thinking backward.  
Last week’s STEM-education-themed poem addressed transparency in learning and teaching (TILT) as a technique that instructors use to clarify the purposes of their assignments.  This week’s poem examines the related, encompassing idea of “backwards design,” where educators begin with the key learning outcomes that they want students to achieve in a course, then think backwards to intentionally design assignments and curricula that will help students reach those outcomes.  

Lines three and four aim for a familiar allusion with a rather imperfect rhyme, stating that this “supplementary” approach will echo the aims of the game show Jeopardy!  In Jeopardy!, clues are presented as “answers,” and contestants must respond in the form of questions, reversing the typical pattern stated in the poem’s first line, to progress successfully.  The concepts of TILT generally align with those of backwards design; as with Jeopardy! contestants, instructors using these approaches are thinking backward: here, to develop intentional assignments for their courses.      

While themes in both TILT and backwards design emphasize how assignments can be planned, they also present ways for students to consider their own coursework.  Can it ever be useful, in looking at a confusing assignment, to think deliberately backwards, considering what a teacher might have intended to be the process, task, and criteria? Experts in TILT have provided resources that emphasize this very approach!  Such exercises can help a student both to better understand assignments and to clarify conversations with their teachers.

This reversed thinking bears intriguing parallels to retrosynthesis, a technique from organic chemistry.  In retrosynthesis, a chemist considers the possible paths to a target molecule, thinking all the way backwards to the “starting material.”  This is often a challenging technique for students to learn in organic chemistry, and it would be similarly challenging to deconstruct a given assignment back to its goals and outcomes.  However, just as retrosynthesis is a powerful tool for chemists, the educational analog may be a useful model for students to keep in mind, in approaching a difficult course or assignment.