Five Big Questions for Course Design
First, a warm welcome to all of our new colleagues joining us at FSU this semester, and a warm welcome back to our returning colleagues. We hope your preparations for fall are going well, and that you’re looking forward to meeting your new students and helping them to grow intellectually, professionally, and personally during your time together this year.
Our first weekly teaching tip of the semester is meant to serve as a brief guide to course design, so it’s longer than usual, and there are many linked resources to explore as you work on designing your fall courses. At the bottom, you’ll find information about the Syllabus Clinic we’re holding next week, so if you have a question or an idea you’d like to discuss, we’ll look forward to working with you then, and throughout the academic year.
As we plan for fall, here are five important questions we can ask ourselves:
Who are our students?
On August 22, FSU will welcome a culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse class of around 6,000 talented first-year students, selected from over 78,000 applicants. Seventy-six percent of our incoming students ranked in the top ten percent of their graduating classes, and 76% made all A’s and B’s in high school. They’ve completed an average of nine AP, IB, AICE or dual enrollment classes. Approximately 22% are first-generation college students, and about 19% are eligible for Pell grants. They come from 50 states and DC, as well as all 67 counties in Florida. Georgia, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Texas are the states (beyond Florida) sending us the most students.
You can learn more about your own students in the first days of the semester by any number of means: surveys, writing assignments, or intro videos posted to Canvas. You’ll want to discover who they are as well as what they already know. When we take steps to learn about our students as people, and to humanize ourselves, it helps us to establish a classroom community conducive to learning. We can inquire about our students’ interests, where they come from, what courses they’ve taken before, etc. Your curiosity will show students that you care about them, and you can use what you learn to tailor assignments, examples, and policies.
What do they need to learn?
What do you really want your students to know or to be able to do when they’ve successfully completed your course? How will they be changed by the semester they spend with you? Will they make different connections, different decisions? We need to provide learning opportunities that will help them to grow and stretch, so some of your goals may address mindsets, perspectives, ethics, or habits, as well as concepts.
Working backwards from meaningful, relevant goals for student learning will help you craft a powerful course. When we allow a reading list or textbook, rather than our goals, to shape our course design, we tend to pack in too much, so we don’t leave room for students to grow as thinkers. Learning requires reflection, practice, and feedback—so (paradoxically) too much content can hamper learning (Nelson, 1999). We need to create opportunities for students to develop their reasoning: solving problems, analyzing case studies, evaluating evidence, and so on.
How will we know they’re learning?
After you’ve fine-tuned your goals, you can take a closer look at the alignment amongst the goals, the ways you attempt to measure students’ progress, and the practice and feedback they get along the way. Assignments and exams are some of the ways we gather evidence of students’ learning, and help them evaluate their own progress. Fink (2003) points out that “when we become clear about what constitutes successful student performance, it is much easier to develop effective teaching/learning activities.”
The real purpose of assessment is for students to have opportunities to show what they have learned, so our challenge is to find the best way to let them show it. Sometimes a traditional exam or term paper is not the best way to collect evidence of how much students know, or can now do, or now believe because they took your course. You can explore alternative methods of assessment here, and we’re also available to consult with you about your plans for the semester.
How can we make the most of their time?
The work we ask them to do, whether individually or together, should provide frequent opportunities for students to get practice and feedback. As Terry Doyle (2011) reminds us, “the one who does the work does the learning.” The more students have to do—the more they have to think through, puzzle out, solve, inquire, explore—the more they’ll learn. When we let students do the work, we guide them through the thinking processes we want them to practice, but they have to do the thinking for themselves.
Making that thinking “visible” will require students to talk, write, and collaborate. Classroom Assessment Techniques offer opportunities for practice and feedback during class time. (Great tips on group work, including how to form the groups and design effective assignments, are available here.) Classroom response systems and games like Kahoot can help you create a loop of immediate feedback, letting you and your students gauge their progress and identify trouble spots, so that you can both get back on track.
How will we communicate with them about their learning?
Your syllabus is the document that introduces students to your course design. It’s their first (written) point of contact with your course, and you can craft it to be a learning guide. (The ever-longer list of course policies and any abstruse language added to conform to accrediting standards can wait until the end of the document. That way, the majority of your syllabus can be an opportunity to motivate your students.) Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do(2004), describes a “promising syllabus” as one that makes a promise to students about what they can expect to gain as a result of the class; describes the course activities designed to fulfill this promise; and “begins a conversation about how the teacher and the student would best come to understand the nature and progress of the student’s learning.”
Your grading criteria are also an important form of communication (Cox, 2009). By assigning points to the work students need to do in order to learn effectively, you instruct them how to use their time. If all of the weight rests on a couple of exams or major projects, students will be very likely to cram for these high-stakes tests, rather than keeping up with daily work.
A learning-centered syllabus includes learning goals that students can understand and value; descriptions of all major assessments and their relation to the learning goals; and a sense of how the class will be conducted to support their learning–all phrased in a positive, respectful, and inviting way. You can use this checklist to make sure your document sets the tone for a productive, learning-filled semester.
If you’d like to discuss your course design, get help crafting assignments or group exercises, get feedback on your syllabus, or think about how you want to use class time, please consider attending our upcoming Syllabus Clinic on Friday, August 19th, from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. We’ll be available to work with you on any issue related to teaching. You can drop in to our office at 432 Diffenbaugh any time during the clinic. (If you’d rather meet remotely, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to make an appointment.)
We look forward to working with you. Welcome back!