A better way to think about and discuss course planning

When we design courses or papers at a University we often start by deciding who is going to teach, what they going to teach, and the mode of teaching. For example, I might decide to teach topic x and y, using lectures with associated tutorials. This is a default way of thinking about course design and teaching, often based on how we administer teaching or assign EFTS funds.

But this way of thinking constrains us and limits what is possible. We think and talk about what we will teach, what we will cover, and what students will know, but this automatically frames teaching in a teacher-centred way based on what we will do, and in a knowledge-centred way about what students will know. We think about learning solely in terms of the knowledge we will cover, and we are blinded to the other things that students might learn.

If I think about teaching in this default way, then I assume that teaching is about covering knowledge, and I cannot make sense of students learning skills, values or ways of being. For example, I take it for granted that I will cover topic x and y in my lectures and tutorials, but this leaves no room for students to learn broader communication skills or learn to be critical and reflective. Even if topic x is communication, if I think about teaching as covering this topic, then I end up telling my students about communication, rather than enabling my students to be good communicators.

I don’t mean to imply that all university teachers think about teaching in this way, just that it is a tendency, a common discourse, that is problematic. We need to resist this way of thinking, and discuss course design in a different way if we want to revise or reinvigorate our courses and get better results for our students.

Here is a better way of thinking about course design, influenced by the idea of seeking constructive or instructional alignment.

Start designing your course by deciding what you want your students to learn, and in particular, prioritise the broader and deeper objectives. What skills and conceptual understandings will your students get from the course? What values or dispositions will they develop?

Second, work out the structure of the course that will enable students to develop these broad learning objectives. You are better to first structure the course based on what students will do rather than what the teacher will do. For example, what will the students do in the course so they have a deep conceptual understanding of communication, and so they learn to be good communicators? They will need multiple opportunities to do tasks where they can practice their communication, get feedback, reflect on the nature of communication, and then tackle more sophisticated communication tasks. Yes, they will also need to listen to some lectures to understand some of the theories about communication, but if we want our students to develop broad skills and understandings, then the backbone of the course needs to be the communication tasks completed by the students, not what the lecturers cover.

Third, work out the assessment structure. How will you know that students have learned the skills, understandings and ways of being that you aim to cultivate? Set assessment tasks that guide students to develop these learning objectives, and which will allow you to judge how successful they are in developing them. You are assessing the broad skills and fundamental understandings, rather than the details of the content that you have covered. And, these need not be formal, graded assessments, but they can be informal opportunities for you and your students to assess their performance.

Only then do you decide the specific topics that you will ‘cover’. These will be the areas of knowledge students need in order to develop the core skills and understandings. You need not cover everything, only the fundamental concepts and principles, with some details to illustrate.

So in summary, we need to change the way we think and talk about course design. We should give up thinking and talking about what we will cover, and instead think and talk about what students will learn and what they will do to learn this.

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About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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