Learning Theory

Course Design Theory

UNL's page "Planning Your Course" is a good review for how to set up a new course.

First, define your view of the purposes of education. I don't think there's one answer here - it depends on the course and, ultimately, the student. But it's an excellent idea to give this some thought, as the main idea is form follows function - the purpose of the course will give define the underlying structure of it. The examples given on the page are really helpful in this respect.

Next, set course goals. Is it an intro course for undergrads fulfilling GE requirements? Is it an intro course for prospective majors/minors/in a technical career? Advanced? Graduate? Ultimately, what comes out of this section is an answer to "How should students be different when they finish this course?"

Third, select course content. Balance between making a course challenging but not rushed. Leave a little wiggle room and consider student feedback as you go.

Fourth, arrange course content. A number of content-focused ideas are given here:

  • Structures
  • Concepts
  • Learning hierarchies/modalities
  • Vocation
  • Knowledge-use/problem solving
  • Knowledge creation
  • Values/value dimensions

Like the first section, items in this list are not necessarily exclusive of each other, but picking one as a focus undoubtedly helps create a clear path for structuring the content of a course.

Fifth step is to balance student expectations/needs. For example, the pace of the course will be affected by the student who take it. Check to see that your expectations and your students' match up.

Six, define ways to balance instructional modes [passive (lecture) and active (pretty much everything else)].

Seven, select readings and activities. Textbook? Maybe. If not, find ways to provide appropriate depth of information, a variety of perspectives, and up-to-date ideas.

Eight, construct a syllabus. This is a formal document that provides a lot of information:

  • Course number/section/title/meeting schedule
  • Prerequisite(s)
  • Course description, goals, objectives
  • Required materials
  • Schedule of readings, assignments/quizzes/exams schedule
  • Grading standards & criteria (including 'late work' policies, participation, attendance)
  • Instructor's name & contact info, office hours

Next, define how you will get feedback/progress from students. Professionals don't wait until the course is over to get student input. After each course session note any changes needed and at regular intervals track the progress of the course overall.

  • Note student facial expressions, body language, participation, attendance
  • How often are you engaged in out-of-class discussion?
  • How are office hours used?
  • Check assignment completion rate
  • Ask students direclty
  • Course evaluations

Finally, get advice from colleagues and other experts. Find new ideas on topics such as instructional modes, testing formats, technology. Be the kind of learner in your profession that you want students to be in your courses.

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