Course planning

Course planning

Course Planning

Planning for next round of teaching - What big picture ideas do you want your students to gain?

Before you immerse yourself in the day to day thinking of your courses, make a list of the big picture concepts that you want your students to gain in this course. In ten years when they have forgotten all of the details and most of the content, what do you want them to remember about this discipline? In addition, do you want them to acquire better thinking skills, be able to see connections, have a new set of skills, obtain new values, etc.?

Once you have thought about these broader picture issues for some time, then you can revise your courses to be more consistent with these ideas.

*Planning Process

When you get to planning for your next round of teaching use this planning process:

  1. First consider the situational factors - who are your students, how does this course fit into the large education program?
  2. Then consider your learning goals for the course. What do you want your students to achieve at the end of the course?
  3. Next plan how you will assess your students and give them feedback. Assessment should be consistent with the goals of the course.
  4. Finally plan your teaching and learning activities to help the students reach these objectives.

It may sound backwards, but it is more consistent and leads to a better course.

*Key Questions to Consider When Designing Courses

Consider answering these four key questions when you are designing your courses:

  1. What situational factors plan an important role in this course? Situational factors include the general context of the learning situation (e.g., the university, the profession, etc), the nature of the subject, the characteristics of the learners, and the characteristics of the teachers.
  2. What should the full set of learning goals be for the course to meet the expectations of the courses that come afterward, the profession, higher education in general, etc?
  3. What kind of feedback and assessment should the teacher provide?
  4. What kinds of teaching and learning activities will foster the achievement of the complete set of learning goals that have been set?

These should be unifying themes in your planning.

This tip comes from Dr. L. Dee Fink, an internationally known designer from the University of Oklahoma. He has developed a model for integrated course design leading to significant learning experiences.

*Are you thinking of revising your courses by next year?

Are you on the cusp of deciding if you want to revise your course or what to revise in your teaching? If so, consult with the important stakeholders (people to whom the course matters) before you make revisions. Important stakeholders for any course include students, faculty who teach courses for which your course is a prerequisite, or co-requisite, the faculty who teach the prerequisite courses to yours, and your chair.

If you want to get ideas form previous students, you might consider a post-course survey or focus group. Keep the stakeholder faculty informed if you will be changing the content or delivery of your courses so they will know what to expect.

Since the first time you offer a revised course or make innovations, it may not be perfect. Let your chair know of your plans in advance. All of these stakeholders will be wonderful resources for ideas for improvement.

*Curriculum Development Process

A standard curriculum development process involves the following steps:

  1. A statement of need - why is this course needed, by whom, for what
  2. Development of the goals of the course
  3. Design the instruction, teaching and learning activities and the student assessment tolls to match these goals
  4. Deliver the course - implementation
  5. Use feedback to evaluate how well it went, where it can be improved
  6. Revise the course as needed, based on feedback and experience.

Don't forget to incorporate the feedback loop into your thoughts and revisions. Feedback can come from many sources including your students directly, student evaluations, your own experience with the course, faculty who teach your students afterwards the changing demands of the field or profession, peer evaluation, etc.

*Depth vs. Breadth

As you plan your courses, think of the curriculum to be learned as a rectangle, with the horizontal sides = breadth and the vertical sides = depth. In this image the area of the rectangle basically remains constant regardless of how you construct the rectangle. Which do you need for your course, greater breadth or greater depth? You cannot have it both ways. Mathematically inclined folks will remind us that the maximum area of a rectangle with the smallest parameter is a square. Perhaps you also need to make your curriculum more of a square than a very narrow, but long rectangle. (Adapted from John Biggs- Teaching for Quality Learning at University, What the student does), SHRE and Open Press, 1999

*Preparing course syllabi

The more explicit you make the course syllabus, the more you are communicating with your students about their course. This improves the chances that the students will succeed in the course. Here is a checklist of topics (not comprehensive, I'm sure) to include in an expanded course syllabus or course manual:

  1. Why would a student want or need to take this course?
  2. What are the course objectives? Where do they lead the student intellectually and practically?
  3. What are the prerequisites for the course? This includes not just previously taken courses but major concepts that the students are assumed to know and be able to use in the course. How will students acquire necessary, but missing skills or concepts?
  4. Why do the parts of the course come in the order they do?
  5. What instructional formats (lectures, labs, discussions, student presentations, group work, etc.) will be used, when?
  6. What does the faculty member expect from the students in day to day classes, in assignments, on tests, etc.?
  7. What is the purpose of assignments and exams?
  8. What will be exams and assignments evaluate - memory, understanding, ability to synthesize, application, presenting evidence logically, writing skills, problem solving, etc.?
  9. Why have the books been chosen? What is their relative importance in the course and in the discipline?

10.  What other resources should the students obtain/access. e.g., calculator, lab materials, professional attire, access to the Web, etc.

11.  Include a detailed schedule of events, classes, assignments, exams, date due and your expectations regarding them.

12.  Include your policies on lateness (both personal and for assignments), make-ups, absence, class participation, etc.

13.  How will the final grade be determined - Will you curve the grades, allow students who are getting an A to be excused from the final, etc.? What weight does each assignment, exam, class participation, presentation, etc. have?

14.  Who the instructors will be if more than one is used, and how the students can contact them.

Take time to plan and develop detailed course syllabi, it will save you time later.

*Planning written assignments

As you plan your written assignments for next semester, take a tip from the faculty who teach writing. Ask your students to hand in a draft or a section of a major paper a few weeks before the deadline for the final paper. Then spend time making suggestions for improvement and comments throughout. This will force the students to work on the paper earlier and once they see what you want, they will hand in a better final copy. The writing faculty say that the time you spend with the rough drafts will be saved in the correcting of the final paper.


*Content Coverage

As you plan your courses, ask yourself the following questions about content coverage:

  1. How much content are you expecting the students to learn? Is this reasonable?
  2. Is the content covered in a context that will help the students to learn the material?
  3. Am I assuming that content coverage (by the instructor in a lecture or in the readings)= student learning, mastery?
  4. What can the faculty member do to promote students learning the material?

It is better to thoroughly learn less material, than to superficially learn, but not understand more material.

A quote from a very well respected educators says it very well, "The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage. If you're determined to cover a lot of things, you are guaranteeing that most kids will not understand, because they haven't had time enough to go into depth, to figure out what they requisite understanding, is, and be able to perform that understanding in different situations" (Gardner, 1993)

*Consistency in expectations

Are you writing low level objectives, yet expecting high level learning? Or are you writing high level objectives, and only examining for lower level learning? When you develop your materials for a course, be internally consistent. If you are expecting higher levels of learning, then make sure the students see that they will be examined/evaluated in a manner that is consistent with higher level learning. Higher level evaluations might include multiple choice questions involving problem solving based upon a scenario, student reports presentations asking student to graphically or pictorially represent a concept or develop a schema for organizing the major topics of the semester, essay questions, critique primary literature in the field, etc. Many of these techniques can be streamlined in the time required for correcting. The way you present material can also encourage higher level learning. Do you go over all the material, or expect the students to come prepared to class and ask questions? Give the students assignments or projects to do in class that encourage higher level learning.

*Rethinking how Objectives are Met

Before you begin actually planning the specifics of your course, take a fresh and critical look at your objective and goals. Ask yourself, are there other ways to meet these objectives than what you have been doing in the past? You might consider how technology might affect the nature and structure of the unit or course itself? These technologies may not have been available a few years ago when the course was first planned. For example, you might move a large part of the dissemination of information out of the classroom activities to self-paced or structured study through the use of mixed media, including print and electronic. This frees up classroom time for discussions, answering questions, exams (and not have to schedule them at 7:30AM), demonstrations, etc.


*Making sure your students get the big picture from your class

During the break from the regular routine of classes, take stock of what you are doing and what you are trying to achieve in your classes. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What really matters in this class?
  • What major learning outcomes do you want the students to achieve?
  • What are you really good at with the students?
  • Are you doing enough of that with your students?
  • What do you really want to accomplish with these students?
  • What are you doing to help your students reach these important goals?

If you find that you are not concentrating on these answers, what can you let go of to help achieve what you really want to achieve?

*Planning Courses to help students become intentional, responsible and enabled learners

A national panel of educators has recommended that college graduates should be intentional, responsible and enable learners.

  1. To meet the goal of an intentional learner, we need to help our students to become integrative thinkers and see connections among disciplines, reflect on their acquired knowledge and their learning to learn skills.
  2. Since responsibility to act as informed citizens is based on values, principles and commitments, we need to help students acquire these values and principles. Responsible citizens are active participants in their society and can see consequences of their own and others' actions and decisions.
  3. Enabled learners can use their knowledge and skills to communicate their ideas, solve complex problems and manage practical situations.

As you review, revise and plan your courses for next semester ask yourself how well or how much are you fostering these skills on our students. This thought process may allow you to incorporate these desirable outcome indicators without making huge changes to your course structure.

*Are your students realizing that learning in your subject should not end when the course does

As the weeks roll on through the semester are your students coming to realize that their learning in your subject should continue after the course ends? What are you doing to help students continue learning when the course in over? Think about trying to do some of the following. Here are a few ideas to foster the idea that learning this discipline can continue after the formal class end:

  1. Are you showing how interesting the subject is and how much you still enjoy learning about it?
  2. Have you made it clear that you will still be accessible to the students as they continue to learn?
  3. Have you fostered intellectual curiosity in this subject matter?
  4. Have you helped students to develop these learning to learn skills in this discipline:
  • ability to ask good questions in this discipline
  • knowledge of print, electronic, human resources that are available to them
  • ability to evaluate the appropriateness of these resources for their continued learning
  • ability to read the primary or secondary literature on this topic

If we can get our students to achieve this lifelong learning in a subject, we and they will have succeeded.

*Setting expectations and welcoming your students

If you are completely changing your course over the way it was taught in previous years, or if you are teaching a brand new course to advance students, you might consider sending these students a letter or email to their homes explaining the course and outlining some of your expectation of the course. You might also want to welcome them into the course and tell them how excited you are that they will be in the course. This letter should only be used in special cases and not for routine courses or course changes. It might work best for the students that you have already taught and have some expectations about what your course will be like.

*Plan and Teach to Foster success in your students

As you plan your courses and teach them, remember three 3 important goals to foster success in your students:

  1. acquisition of knowledge that can be used and applied
  2. development of self confidence
  3. learning to take responsibility for their own learning and professional development

*Plan what kind of time schedule make the most sense for your courses now

We will be doing zero-based scheduling next year. This means that the registrar will be planning all of the courses from scratch and not using this year's schedule to plan next year's schedule. Thus, we are in a window of opportunity to really think about what makes sense for our courses in terms of scheduling. For example, would larger blocks of time (but meeting less frequently) meet your needs better than 50 minute classes. Literature from both adult education and secondary education indicates that longer blocks of time promote more interactive learning activities and seem to support increased learning. However, you need to really re-think or perhaps learn about how to use all time effectively. Once you make these decisions, please convey your rationale to the person in your department who is responsible for making the scheduling request for next year.

*Helping students to succeed with changes you are making to your courses

Are you planning to change the way you run your courses next semester? Perhaps you want to incorporate more learning-centered teaching, a different evaluation scheme, or requiring students to hand in drafts or parts of a project before the final copy is due, but are afraid that the student will not accept the changes or will not be able to do well with them. For any of these changes, you need to build in enough structure and guidelines to help the students overcome their resistance or learn how to succeed. You might want to write a rationale in your syllabi and go over the rationale repeatedly in class. You need to spend time convincing the students why they need to move from their current, perhaps overly dependent state, to becoming autonomous learners.

*Helping students to understand your syllabi or how you are teaching

If you are innovating how your course is being run, using a different assessment process than usually done by others or if you have a complicated series of events for the students, make sure all of this is spelled out in the syllabus. To get the students to read and understand these directions, assessments, events, etc. tell the students they will be responsible for the material on the syllabi for the second class. Then in that class play a short quiz game on the way your course will be run to insure student understanding.