Reverse Long-Term Planning​

I work with many of my middle school and high school students on developing systems that help them plan for long-term assignments. One approach that works well for some students is to ask them to plan in reverse, and scientists at the University of Iowa have found it is actually a more effective way to plan.


Essentially, students start from a deadline and work backward, thinking about all of the steps they'll need to take in between to reach the goal and marking their calendar for when each piece should be completed. According to scientists, reverse planning works best with complex tasks like studying for a semester exam or putting together a long-term project with research and multiple parts.


Why is this more effective?


This article from Mind/Shift explains:  "Reverse planning for challenging assignments is more effective than forward planning for a few reasons. For one, it helps the planner consider critical steps and then identify likely obstacles—all from the point of view of having completed the goal, which sharpens clarity. 'When visualizing the endpoint, things seem clearer and more positive,' said [researcher] William Hedgcock. 'If you start at the present, you could go this way or that way—it can be more negative,' he added, because of the multiple possible steps to be taken. Backward planning also kickstarts motivation at the time when inspiration lags most, during the middle of a goal pursuit. Finally, backward planning from an imaginary finished goal lessened the perception of time pressure."


Fascinating, right? When students start with the finished product in mind, it helps them think more clearly about what they will create, stay positive, and maintain motivation.


How does this look?


Let's take a research project with a PowerPoint presentation for example. I would ask students to have their rubric and assignment sheet handy so they know the parameters of the assignment. We would also have a calendar or planner on hand. Thinking about how long tasks take them, I'd ask them to go backward from the due date, thinking about when each piece should be completed: the PowerPoint, the bibliography, the research notes, the initial source gathering, and the brainstorming. We would build a couple of extra days in, if the student had them, for unseen issues.


It takes some trial and error, and often a couple of long-term assignments, to get it right. But once students know how to use this method it is often an excellent way for them to feel they have a handle on complex assignments.