Messy and Fun Course Design

Designing a new course over the summer is fun.

I’m working on a course on the History of Disability and Disease in the U.S., and a great deal of the content is new to me.

I enjoy searching for possible sources. I like reading them and I’m excited about what I’m learning.

I don’t think of myself as a creative person, but I like the creative aspects of designing a course – using my imagination about what happened in the past and what the experience could be like for students.

To be honest, I enjoy the preparing more than the actual teaching. I love teaching, but it’s very intense. There are many people to be aware of and interact with, things to manage (like technology), and so much to think about (content, time, instructions, clear communication, comprehension). I get ramped up, I feel a lot of anxiety, and the experience can be exhilarating, disappointing, and/or exhausting.

I’m calmer – and I think better – when I’m planning over the summer rather than during the semester when decisions must be made quickly because it’s 4 p.m. and class meets at 8 a.m. tomorrow.

Although it’s fun, being in the middle of course design reminds me that it’s complicated. I intended to use the backward process I advocated in chapter one of my book, which was based on the models of experts like Dee Fink, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and Edmund Hansen.  

In backward course design, instructors begin by deciding where they want students to be at the end of the course, describing the main big-picture ideas, concepts, and skills they want students to understand. Once they’ve decided these specific higher-level learning goals, they determine what kind of work (the projects, major assignments, exams, etc.) best serve the purpose of assessing the degree to which students learned.

Only then do instructors make decisions about the day-to-day matters – on which topics they’ll need to offer instruction and exactly what students will need to read, think about, and do inside and outside of class in order to perform well on the assessments.

In backward design, then, one starts from the big picture and then works on the details. It’s more akin to deductive reasoning, I think, moving from the general to the specific; it’s more top down than bottom up. Backward design is a neat, sensible, lovely ideal.

In reality, my process has been messier. Since I am pretty new to the field of disability history, I have started by reading what others have recommended as good articles, books, and primary sources. Those sources led to other sources. As I read, I thought, “I have to use that!” or “Students would enjoy thinking about that!” or “Boring – not worth using. Find something else.” Or “We must discuss that event and its implications!”

Immersing myself in these specific sources and details helped me determine the bigger ideas of the course and the student learning goals and the assessments I’ll use. In other words, for me it’s been more of a bottom-up process (more inductive) rather than the backward design model of starting with the general high-level goals and working down to the details.  

However, after building those higher-level goals from the bottom up, achieving clarity on them has been important in deciding some of the details about specific topics, activities, and readings. So my process has not been exclusively top down or bottom up – it’s been a constant process of working from smaller details about ideas and topics toward larger themes and higher-level learning goals and then making decisions about specific readings and class meetings based on the larger themes and learning goals.

So I’m not sure what to call my process. Iterative? Back-and-forth design?

I suspect many historians use the same process – because we think about the details and implications of specific events, and we want students to encounter really influential works and primary sources. I don’t think we need to apologize for starting with the specifics – as long as:

  • Significant ideas and concepts (rather than the small details and facts) actually do end up driving the course – that is, we arrive at clear learning goals before starting the semester.
  • We design assessments (essays, projects, exams, informal writings, or whatever) that are aligned with the goals and truly check students’ understanding of the key ideas, concepts, and skills.
  • All the day-to-day details – what students read, what we do in class – build students’ capacity on some of the learning goals.

We don’t let students lose the big picture (because they’re focused on or overwhelmed by details). I’m hoping that my messy, back-and-forth process will result in a fairly coherent and integrated whole. I’m sure all the details won’t end up working, but the process of trying to design that whole course is enjoyable. Hope it is for you, too.

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