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Designing Courses

Improving or Developing Courses

Near the end of a semester, when students are scrambling to prepare for exams and finish end-of-term projects and assignments, most instructors move into survival mode and look forward to a well-earned break from the hectic pace of classes. But the end of a semester is also the perfect time to reflect on courses that have just ended and seriously examine what worked–and what didn’t work quite the way one expected. Reconceptualizing a course makes good sense at this point while the classes are still fresh in mind, especially if students have provided useful feedback.

We often decide to revise a course because we find new research that we’d like to include or a newly published text that we believe should be on our syllabus. Or things that happened during the semester may also have sparked interest in creating a new course, based on our own changing interests or the discoveries made while working with students.

When contemplating the revision of an existing course or the development of a new one it’s wise to step back and look at the larger issues before getting lost in the details. Rather than focusing solely on the course content, it’s instructive to start with larger course goals. In Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross include a Teaching Goals Inventory which lists 52 possible goals and asks instructors to rank them on a scale from essential to unimportant (or not applicable). Goals are as diverse as “Develop ability to draw reasonable inferences from observations” and “Develop ability to distinguish between fact and opinion” to “Develop skill in using materials, tools, and/or technology central to this subject” or “Develop leadership skills.”

If this is a course you’ve been teaching, are the goals you’ve chosen on the inventory currently the real focus of the course? Are students assessed on achievements related to these goals or are they given tests that measure other skills? If the essential goals of the course aren’t clearly delineated, or if too many goals seem to be equally important, then not only may students be confused about what’s most significant, but trying to assess student achievement can become difficult. Reflecting on and isolating a few essential course goals can make teaching to and assessing these goals much easier; and students will have a much clearer sense of what they should be striving for. Copies of the Angelo and Cross Teaching Goals Inventory are available at the Faculty Development Center.

Another way of stepping back to see the big picture is to look again at the “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” developed by Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson (AAHE Bulletin, 39;7 March, 1987). Reexamining a syllabus with these principles in mind can sometimes spark new ideas for strengthening the educational experience our students are getting. According to Chickering and Gamson, “Good practice in undergraduate education:

  • Encourages student-faculty contact
  • Encourages cooperation among students
  • Encourages active learning
  • Gives prompt feedback
  • Emphasizes time on task
  • Communicates high expectations
  • Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.”

Clarifying for ourselves how our courses are built on these principles or how we can modify syllabi and teaching strategies to more closely fulfill their intentions will help guarantee that the courses are successful.

To help instructors begin the process of course revision or development, the Faculty Development Center and the New Media Learning & Development unit in the Office of Information Technology sponsor workshops on course design, emphasizing ways of including technology to achieve course goals. For information contact the Faculty Development Center at x3916.


Planning Course for Better Learning

With the end of this academic year in sight, most faculty currently teaching are trying to make certain that course material is covered and reviewed, tests planned, papers graded, and projects completed. The next several months are a time to concentrate on research activities, libraries or labs, and writing. But this is also a time to consider rethinking some basic assumptions about teaching–and planning ahead, so that courses run smoothly in the fall and so that the time invested now pays off in more effective student learning next year.

Too often faculty feel that the improvement a course needs depends solely on adjusting content, reorganizing materials, or concentrating on how topics, issues, or findings are covered. Yet student feedback suggests something entirely different–that what matters is how involved students become in the material presented and how much they are allowed to uncover information for themselves.

Sometimes a simple change in perspective and planning can have a significant impact on what happens in the classroom. For example, when faculty talk to me about difficulties with student participation in discussions, I ask about preparation for the class. What instructors mention, usually, is how much time they have invested in organizing the information for a thoughtful and probing investigation of issues. What they do not tell me is how they’ve made certain that students are prepared for this exchange. In essence, they are ready but the students are not. (Suggestions for avoiding this problem are numerous, from asking students to present brief summaries or critiques of readings, using listservs to get major problems aired before class, or setting up student study groups to raise fundamental questions.)

What this rethinking of a course requires is considering the ways responsibility is placed on students for their own learning. At UMBC we have instituted excellent programs for involving students in research, have developed new and challenging first-year seminars, and are moving toward a more comprehensive system for having students engage in disciplinary writing. But the model many of us still carry into course planning is one that requires faculty to present information which students then absorb and replicate.

Placing responsibility on students for their own learning may seem like something we have always planned for, in the sense that we know students will eventually apply their knowledge in future endeavors. But in organizing courses and structuring tests or assessments, we do not always consider the long-term impact of our course goals (and instead are testing for memorization). What do we expect students to know about the concepts in a course one or two years from now? Are students being challenged to think deeply about material and are they developing the critical thinking skills that our disciplines require for success?

These are the kinds of questions raised by several teachers engaged in the process of rethinking how we organize courses. L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2003) offers useful insights on structuring courses to help students retain and use information. Fink recognizes faculty concerns about students: that they “do not complete reading assignments. The energy level in class discussions is low. Students focus on grades rather than on learning” (p .4). In response to these concerns, Fink provides suggestions for alternative approaches to course design that place increasing responsibility on students. In laying out four essential aspects of teaching-knowledge of subject matter, teacher-student interactions, course management, and design of instruction-Fink notes that “of these four basic aspects of teaching, faculty knowledge about course design is the most significant bottleneck to better teaching and learning in higher education” (pp. 23-24).

This call for attending more carefully to how we design learning assignments for students is also prominent in Maryellen Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002). Weimer is less interested in presenting teaching techniques than in changing our perspective on how we get students to accept the responsibility for their own learning. Like Fink, Weimer is very aware of the difficulties professors currently face with students who seem unprepared or unmotivated for college-level work. And she too suggests that we confront this problem by adjusting our assignments and our teaching so that students can not remain passive observers.

And remember to explore the National Teaching and Learning Forum.