Course Building

via decade_null on flickr:

Tomorrow I’m talking about “Course Building and Pedagogical Media” in the Provost’s Office’s Pedagogy Workshop, a course for all new teaching assistants and teaching fellows. There’s been a lot of ticket scalping, so I’m considering doing a couple extra shows at Terminal 5 (yes, that’s a joke). For those of you who can’t join us, here’s what I plan to address:

Much of what follows is drawn from the following sources:

  • Barbara Gross Davis, “Preparing or Revising a Course” In Tools for Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993).
  • Bob Fox and Alex Radloff (Curtin University of Technology), “How Can We ‘Unstuff’ the Curriculum?” In Romana Pospisil and Lesley Willcoxson, Eds., Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, Australia (1997).
  • L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).
  • Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki, Eds., McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 12th ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
  • My 10 years of teaching 25 different classes (holy crap!) at five different universities.

stuff to do and think about when developing a new course:

(It’s important to remember that, although there are a lot of variables to measure and interests to negotiate when building a new course, we shouldn’t regard course design as a rigidly regimented process. It’s also a tremendously creative act!)

Clarify the rationale and context for the course

  • Some of us have the luxury of creating our own “boutique” courses, but most adjunct and junior faculty and graduate instructors are either commissioned to develop a syllabus for a course the department needs, or asked to teach a section of a “scripted” course.
    • Talk with others who have taught the course before
    • Ask your department and search online for syllabi for similar courses
  • Consider the role that your class plays within the curriculum as a whole, and its relationship to other classes.
    • What will students have learned before reaching your class? What texts will they have read? What skills will they have practiced?
    • What are other instructors depending on you to cover in your class?

Identify YOUR learning objectives and outcomes

Many of us are tempted to design a course by listing the readings or topics we want to cover. A “learner-focused” approach starts by listing your short – and long-term learning goals. Fink (2003) advocates  “backwards design”:

“the [course] designer starts the process by imagining a time when the course is over, say one or two years later, and then asking: ‘What is it I hope that students will have learned, that will still be there and have value, several years after the course is over?’” (63, italics mine)

Fink proposes a taxonomy of “significant learning” that we might use to identify a set of parallel, or nested, learning goals for our classes (75):

  1. Foundational Knowledge: what information do you want students to remember and understand in the future?
  2. Application: what kinds of critical, creative, and practical thinking should students practice; what skills should they develop; and what “complex projects” should they know how to manage?
    • Some people frame these various thinking practices as “literacies” — What literacies do you want your students to cultivate?
  3. Integration: what connections should students be able to make between ideas within your course; between your course and other courses; and between your course and various extra-curricular contexts?
  4. Human Dimension: what should students learn about themselves and others?
  5. Caring: how can you help students care about the course content, about learning itself, about themselves, and about one another?
  6. Learning How to Learn: what should students learn about how to be a good student, how to “engage in inquiry and construct knowledge,” how to be a self-directed life-long learning?
    • For the challenges of encouraging students to take time for this “meta”-learning, see my “The Other Spring Class

I would add one additional consideration:

  • You should consider, both when you’re building the class and perhaps at various points as the course is in progress, what will your students want to know and be able to do?

Fink acknowledges that some instructors, after being encouraged to adopt this “learner-centered approach,” panic: “But I can’t cover all the content I need to cover now, and you are telling me I need to spend time on whole new kinds of learning as well??!!” (56). He responds:

“[I]f students learn how to apply the content, can see how it connects with other knowledge, understand the human implications of what they have learned, and come to care about the subject and about learning how to keep on learning, it seems much likelier that they will both retain what they have learned and continue to enlarge their knowledge after the course is over” (57)

Learn about your learners

  • Find out how many students will be in the class; whether they’re upper- or lower-level undergrads, grad students, etc.; what their typical life/professional goals and learning styles are; what the conventions of their majors are, etc.
  • You may need to appeal to students from multiple programs, build “hooks” for students with varied interests and ways of learning.
  • Speak with the directors of, or faculty in, your students’ programs.
  • Conduct a survey on the first day of class to gauge students’ interests, learning styles, and expectations for the course.
  • Post course development notes on your website and solicit student input!
    • Duke’s Cathy Davidson enlists her classes in crowdsource-designing their syllabi. Read about it here and here.

Develop assessment criteria to match your overall objectives

  • Consider how different formats (and technologies) of assessment can allow you to assess different variables, and to operationalize those variables differently.
  • Weight assignments/requirements appropriately.
  • “Increase feedback but reduce formal assessment” (Fox & Radloff)
    • “… create a safe environment in which students can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again” (Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 2004: 60)
    • Fink distinguishes between backwards-looking auditive feedback (i.e., grading) and forward-looking educative feedback. Educative feedback is “frequent, immediate, discriminating” delivered “compassionately.”
  • Provide opportunities for instructor feedback and self-assessment.
    • Allow students to work with you in developing criteria for assessment.
    • Encourage them to practice using those criteria on one another’s work, then on their own.
  • Fink encourages the use of “authentic” assessments — those that are “realistic”; involve the students actually “doing the subject,” engaging in activities and performing in contexts that would be “authentic” for real practitioners (86).


  • If you use a textbook, these “framework” decisions will largely have been made for you.
  • What are your units?
    • Consider using a flow chart or mind map
    • Fink encourages us to “look at the whole subject of the course and identify the most important concepts, issues, topics, or themes that constitute the subject of the course — usually at least four and no more than seven.” (128)
  • How do the building blocks fit together? Consider the interrelationships between individual class topics, activities, and assignments.
  • Possible organizational strategies: Theoretical ==> Applied, Micro ==> Macro, Chronological, etc.
  • Examples:
    • See my “Media & Architecture” syllabus: After years of organizing the class chronologically, I decided to move reverse-chronologically — from the contemporary / familiar to the historical / unfamiliar. This organization also emphasizes the recurrence of various questions presumed to be unique to our time.
    • See post chronicling the development of my “Media & Materiality” Class: “Media and Materiality…Slowly Materializing
    • See post chronicling the development of my “Urban Media Archaeology” class: “The Big Dig: Urban Media Archaeology
  • Provide “signposts” throughout the semester so students see where they are in relation to the whole, so they understand the logic behind the course design.
    • You could build these signposts into the syllabus via narrative introductions to, or transitions between, thematic units.
  • Build in time for review and reflection
    • Read about my experience of saving time mid-semester for students to reflect on their first-half-of-the-semester learning, and to design their learning experience for the second half of the semester: “Plug-In Syllabus

Select Texts (Reading/Listening/Screening Assignments), prune and prioritize

  • Various pedagogy books offer tips on selecting textbooks
    • Many recommend supplementing textbook w/ current/popular pieces
  • I never use textbooks. I construct my own readers, for which I  commonly choose a primary text, a secondary text, and a popular application text for each lesson.
  • Contextualize your chosen texts: explain their value.
    • Perhaps you could provide reading questions/guides on the syllabus
  • What’s essential, recommended, and supplemental?
    • What to do with the “clippings,” those texts that didn’t make the cut? Add endnotes to your syllabus, or create a “supplemental materials” section for your course website. Students can use these materials in their independent research, or you can integrate them into your prepared lessons

Gauge the workload of each unit and the class as a whole

  • Consider how long it will take students to read difficult texts that demand multiple readings.
  • Cut back on readings and recurring assignments when major assignments are due.
  • Spread assignments throughout the semester — and consider implementing “incremental” assignments that build upon each other toward the creation of a comprehensive final project.
  • Fink also recommends finding ways to “move the initial learning of the content to out-of-class activities” (131). In other words, have the students expose themselves to the course content at home, so you can devote your in-class time to “learning how to use” that content.

Evaluate Uses of Technology + integrate them appropriately

  • Assess your own, and your students’, skill level and availability
  • Different modes/degrees of integrating technology:
    • Presentation media: delivering content
      • e.g., PowerPoint, Prezi
    • Comprehensive course management
      • Password-protected Ning site for “Understanding Media Studies”
    • Resource provision, e.g., posting readings, posting supplemental materials
    • Interaction: discussion boards, required blog posts
  • See Learning Through Digital Media edited collection
    • Chapters on: Google Wave, Facebook, Google Docs, Individual / Collaborative Blogs, CommentPress, Zotero, Delicious (my chapter!), Omeka, Twitter, Arduino, Second Life, Google Maps / Ushahidi, Seesmic + Voice Interaction, YouTube + Vimeo, Apps, etc.
  • See also DML Central + ProfHacker

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