Category Archives: Course design

Focusing on Ideas

While planning a new course this summer, I remembered something from when I was director of Elon’s Honors Program some years ago. Our advisory committee had been pondering the requirements of the program, including how it would be determined whether students could continue in it and retain their scholarships.

We knew it shouldn’t just be a matter of taking the right courses and maintaining a minimum GPA. Instead, we wanted to know that the students were learning and growing.

We decided to ask each student to submit an annual end-of-year report in which they reflected on their recent intellectual and personal development and looked ahead to how they’d be trying to achieve their academic and life goals.

One of the main prompts we asked students was: “Discuss the two or three most interesting ideas you grappled with this year.”

I assumed this prompt would yield rich answers. After all, I knew from student evaluations that they were very satisfied with their Honors courses and they reported continuing their discussions outside of class. I also knew that the faculty were thrilled with the quality of class discussions and student performances.

However, I found many of the responses disappointing. Students wrote a lot, but they rarely talked about ideas. Instead, they described courses they liked because the topics were interesting, the discussions were fantastic, the professor was great, or the project helped them get better at research.

“But what specific ideas were the interesting discussions about?!?” I would ask the piece of paper in front of me. (It was after graduation when I was reading the reflections.) “In these interesting courses, did you encounter any ideas or concepts that changed how you think or see the world?”

What explains this problem? It wasn’t the Honors students – they were smart, engaged, hard-working individuals who built great learning communities and conscientiously wrote their reflections. Maybe the prompt wasn’t worded to get at what I hoped. But I suspect a bigger problem – some kind of disconnect between students’ satisfaction with their courses in general and their ability to retain or articulate the specific ideas that engaged them.

I want all my students to encounter thought-provoking ideas in my courses, and I want them to be able to identify them and tell their friends and relatives about them. I don’t know for sure what will work, but I’m exhorting myself to do two things:

  1. As I design each class meeting, I need to come up with a clear answer to these questions:
    • How am I going to get students to really think today?
    • What’s a big idea l want students to take away from class today?
  1. I’ve got to help students become more aware of the big ideas. I need to refer to these ideas as ideas (so students realize the difference between mere facts and big ideas, and so students think of themselves as thinkers). I can’t let students lose sight of the forest. I need to regularly build their awareness of these ideas (their metacognition, that is):
    • At the beginning of class (“We will be grappling with this idea/concept today”)
    • At the end of class or a discussion (“What are the implications of this idea? Take 2 minutes to write your thoughts”)
    • Periodically (“What were the big ideas from this week/this unit of the course?”)

I’m now heading off to my planning document to put an idea at the top of each class meeting….

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.