Let Learning (not a textbook) Guide Your Course Design

The deadline to order textbooks for spring is October 16. It’s tough to think ahead to next semester when it’s barely midterm, but the best time to reflect on your goals for your students is before you choose a text.

All too often, we let a textbook or list of readings determine the content or structure of a course. And why not? It’s tempting: publishers know that the typical college semester lasts 14 weeks, so it’s no surprise that many textbooks have 12 to 14 chapters. In Humanities classes, we’re often tempted to pack in all our favorite texts. But there are many reasons why you might want to resist the imposed structure of the textbook or reading list.

It’s unlikely that any one textbook or anthology is perfectly aligned with your learning goals. Even if all the goals are handled adequately, they may not arise in the order that makes most sense for your students: often one chapter is much more important or complex than another, and warrants much more time in your students’ learning experience. Foundational concepts may not be introduced until the middle of the book; the big picture may be buried in loads of detail; the most important material may be held until the end, so that students never get to the real point. You will build a better class if you begin by identifying the learning goals that are meaningful to you. What do you want your students to know or be able to do when they’ve successfully completed your course?

When we feel bound by a textbook, or a long list of readings, we’re more likely to fall into two common scenarios, both of which constrain students’ ability to learn: One, there’s simply too much content. Learning requires reflection, practice, and feedback–and an abundance of content often gets in the way, imposing an excessive cognitive load on learners. The other common result is a lack of integration among learning goals and learning activities—which also makes it less likely that your students will attain your goals for them.

So how do you avoid the textbook trap? How can you engineer a successful learning experience for your students? The “Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning,” by L. Dee Fink is a great road-map. You start by identifying what you really want students to take away from your course.

Once you’ve figured out what successful performance would look like, you can figure out the best way for students to provide evidence of their learning; and then you can design opportunities for them to practice. What materials they’ll need (i.e. what—if any—text) will be one of the final decisions you make. Of course, backward-designing your course in this way isn’t quick or easy, but it will be well worth the effort.

If you’re interested in thinking more about course design, or want feedback on your ideas, please contact us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu. We look forward to working with you!

And if you’re interested in using Open Educational Resources (OER), rather than asking students to buy expensive textbooks, you’ll be interested in the upcoming workshop offered by the University Libraries:

From OER to Open Pedagogy – Tuesday October 31, 10 – 11 a.m.

What is the relationship between the reuse and sharing potential of OER and what we know about effective teaching and learning? How can we extend, revise, and remix our pedagogy based on these additional potentials? This presentation will cover examples of how to leverage the power of open to enhance assignments, active learning exercises, and other pedagogical mainstays of traditional instructional design. Specific attention will be paid to intersections between open education practices and information literacy instruction.

Register here – http://calendar.fsu.edu/event/scholcomm_cafe_oer#.WdT8Lo6VhE4