Tips for designing a college course

by Julie Dodd

Designing a course is one of the challenging and rewarding parts of teaching and can enable you to combine successful learning ideas and approaches from other instructors with your own teaching insights and skills.

Let me suggest four strategies for developing college courses and recommend readings that can help you dive deeper into thinking about instructional design.

#1 – Consider the big picture of your course

Before you select a course textbook or start inviting guest speakers, step back and consider the big picture of your course.

collage of book covers on teaching advice

Add these four books to your reading list to help you develop strategies for designing courses and improve your teaching.

Start with the goals of the course.

Those may be provided in the form of Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), which are a list of what students should be able to do by the end of the course. Sometimes the goals are included in the college’s or department’s curriculum standards and sometimes stated in the syllabus that has been used previously for those teaching the course.

If you teach a course that is part of a sequence of courses, you can talk with an instructor of the course students take following the course you are teaching to see what the expectations are of students coming into that course after completing your course. (And those should align with the SLOs for both courses.)

Once you know the goals, you can use what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, authors of Understanding by Design, call “backward design” to plan the course. Begin with a final goal (i.e., a team project, a class presentation, a notebook of completed lab assignments) and then back that out, listing the skills the students need to learn/master in order to successfully achieve the final goal.

I observed an undergraduate course where the students were to conduct a small research project, create a poster of their research, and present the research to the class. The day I observed, students were showing their poster (as a slide) and taking five minutes to explain the research. Their research proposals had been approved by the instructor, and their posters followed a template provided by the instructor. So their research design and the posters were good.

But most of their presentations were weak. The students turned to look at the screen as they read material from the poster. They spent too much time talking about conducting the research and not enough time discussing the results. When I talked with the instructor after class, he said that he hadn’t talked about how to make a presentation as he had thought the students would know how to do that. He said that the next time he teaches the class, he needs to include instruction and practice on making oral presentations.

By approaching the course goals with “backward design,” you can map out the course, going in reverse, from the final goal back to early assignments in the course. That process can help you consider the sequencing of assignments and the amount of time allocate and  help you determine how to provide feedback so that students can move to the next step.

#2 – Include low-stakes and high-stakes assignments

An important part of the course design is determining what assignments the students will be completing to earn their grade in the course and then how much each assignment will count toward the final grade.

Too often, instructors determine a student’s grade on just three or four big assignments, such as three exams and a paper, with each worth 25 percent of the student’s final grade. If a student does poorly on any of those four assignments, the student’s overall grade could be significantly lowered. Also, students often feel unprepared to take a big exam if they’ve never had a quiz to see the kind of test questions that you’ll ask. Or they’re concerned about turning in a big paper if you’ve never given them feedback on their writing previously.

In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie encourage instructors to structure the course grade to include both low-stakes and high-stakes assignments. The low-stakes assignments would be quizzes and the high-stakes assignment is the major exam. The low stakes assignments for a major paper would be the paper proposal and a rough draft of the paper (or at least several sections of the paper).

#3 – Plan how to incorporate technology into the course

In Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, José Antonio Bowen takes on the issue of how to incorporate technology into your courses in a productive way for you and the students.

Bowen discusses how to design assignments to have students use technology outside of class (such as watching a YouTube video or a recorded lecture) and then use time in class for active learning, such as class or small group discusisons. A key to the success of such activities is for the instructor to have expectations for what the students are to accomplish in their outside-of-class technology experience, to give the students clear directions, and to incorporate those outside-of-class activities as low-stakes grades.

#4 – Make small changes in your teaching to led to greater student learning

James M. Lang advocates that significant changes in student learning can come from teachers making small changes in their teaching.

Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and his columns in The Chronicle of Higher Education offer many do-able teaching strategies.

One suggestion is helping students make connections between your course and their lives by having them keep a commonplace book (journal). Students either can use a notebook and pen or a digital format like Evernote.

Here are two prompts Lang gives students to help them connect the course to their lives:

  • Write down the most important thing you learned in class today and why it matters to you or to society.
  • Identify a television show, film, or book that somehow illustrates a course concept from class.

Lang suggests making the journal assignment a low-stakes activity, with the instructor collecting the journals one or two times during the term and awarding participation points. Allocating 10 minutes at the end of class once or twice a week for writing in the journal will encourage the students to maintain their journals.

These four books are a sample of the many excellent books available to help you as you design/update courses and strive to keep improving your teaching. Please share books you’d recommend or tips for designing college courses.


One thought on “Tips for designing a college course

  1. Pingback: Changing your course syllabus as you are teaching the course | Strategies for Successful Teaching

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