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Author: Qin Li, PhD, Holly K. Johnson, MA, and Jon Thomas, PhD

We observed a new level of interest and excitement among participants during a recent faculty-teaching workshop. We attribute most of this energy to an innovative course design tool that we have been piloting at our university. Course design cards help faculty to brainstorm new approaches to teaching and then to align these activities with their course objectives.

How the design cards work

The 52-card course design deck includes three categories of cards:

To use the cards, we first place a blank objective card on a table and ask the faculty member to write down a single course objective on a sticky note and attach it to the card. For example, one faculty member wrote, “Students will be able to commit to thinking critically about information they encounter.”

Next, we present the type of learning (TL) cards. Each of the seven TL cards describes a category of learning. (We based our seven learning categories on Bloom’s and Fink’s taxonomies as well as our own experiences.) The seven categories are comprehending, analyzing, applying, evaluating, forming, caring, and reflecting.

Each TL card is represented by a distinct icon and a color. At this point, we ask the faculty member to select the TL card that best matches their stated objective. We’ve found that matching an objective can initially be difficult for many faculty members, so there is often some back-and-forth exploration.

Once the faculty member has selected a TL card, we present the activity cards. Each activity card displays the name of the activity along with a brief description of how it encourages student engagement. The colors and logos on the activity cards can be used to match the learning activity with the TL card that the faculty member selected. Through the same process, faculty can align each of their remaining course objectives with supporting course activities.

We’ve found that the activity cards are useful for exploring new and innovative approaches to teaching. For example, one faculty member wanted to have students “learn how to reason through ways of reducing pollution.” The activity cards helped him come up with new ideas for teaching this principle in his course. At one point he realized there might be a connection between two activity cards that he had selected. He rearranged the cards to indicate that students would first engage in a pros and cons grid activity and then complete a growth reflection activity as homework.

Observing this move, we were somewhat surprised because we had not intended for faculty to use the cards to sequence learning activities. (Initially we were primarily interested in objective alignment.) But we have come to realize that the cards’ flexibility is one of their primary strengths. In using the cards, we are no longer bound to the linear structure of a grid. Activities can be sequenced, combined, and rearranged and identified as homework or in-class work, and much of this brainstorming can take place in a collaborative environment. This more flexible approach fits better with how faculty and even instructional designers actually design and build courses. Rarely do we get it right on our first attempt. The messiness of the creative process requires multiple starts, brainstorming, and an open mind.

As we piloted the cards across our campus with both novice instructors and experienced faculty, we collected some encouraging feedback. What faculty and instructors have said suggests that

Encouraged by this positive feedback, we are currently developing a second version of the cards with a new structure based on storytelling. The new version will help participants to identify the learning journey that students will take as they complete a learning activity. In this way, we hope to collaboratively share design ideas that honor the experience and time of the faculty we serve and the students they care so much about. A PDF of the cards is available for download at this link.

Qin Li, PhD, is a senior instructional designer and Holly K. Johnson, MA, and Jon Thomas, PhD, are adjunct professors at the University of Utah.