Progress in Reverse

Ginger Rogers, an American movie star, renowned for movies featuring music and dancing in the 1930s, did not make the statement herself; however she is remembered for the claim that she did everything Fred Astaire (her dancing partner) did, but “backwards in high heels”.  Undertaking a task backwards or in reverse is generally regarded as more difficult than going forwards. Progress is usually viewed as moving steadily forwards. The term ‘going backwards’ is generally considered a retrograde move, involving regression, a retreat from, or decline in position.

The lyrics of a song made famous through the musical, “The Sound of Music” opens with the phrase: “Let’s start at the very beginning / it’s a very good place to start.” Research undertaken at the University of Iowa questions this widespread belief.  Scholars, Jooyoung Park, Fang-Chi Lu and William Hedgcock, identified that there are occasions when it is beneficial to work backwards. Their findings have shaken long-established perceptions about progress involving forward movement. Investigating different ways to develop study plans, these researchers compared the effectiveness of the process of planning undertaken by students.

Two distinct methods of planning were identified and compared to establish the most effective outcome.  Forward planning – the form most frequently adopted by students – involves planning from the current point of time, and moving forwards.  Students using this method located the first task they needed to do and steadily worked forwards, identifying and listing each of the tasks that need to be completed chronologically in order to accomplish the final goal. Reverse planning required students to start with the final goal in mind and work backwards, systematically identifying and mapping each of the steps that need to be undertaken before the previously listed task.  A number of the research participants were required to plan forwards; the second group were asked to plan backwards, identifying in reverse what they needed to do.

Interestingly, the researchers found that a number of the students developed similar plans, even though they had undertaken the planning process from opposite directions.  It wasn’t the plans themselves that made a difference to the students’ academic results but the process of planning that the students adopted, i.e. whether they planned forwards or backwards, was identified as having a significant impact upon students’ academic results.  William Hedgcock commented that the way in which the study plan (preparing assignments or for exams) was constructed appeared to be the factor that defined students’ academic outcomes.

Students developed clarity by initially focussing upon the final goal.  Visualising the endpoint created a more positive orientation, the researchers found. By planning backwards, students were able to determine critical tasks to be completed while also identifying possible obstacles and planning how to handle or overcome these obstacles. Planning in reverse lessened students’ perception of time pressure.  Motivation was enhanced, especially during the middle of the task, when inspiration, energy and commitment tend to be reduced.  This research suggests that students could make significant progress through reverse planning.

© Michele Juratowitch