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What Does It Mean to Design a Course?

For Those Who Teach

What Does It Mean to Design a Course?

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It’s a great question and not one most of us ask ourselves as often as we should. Is creating or reconstituting a course a design process, or is it more like course assembly? Even though instructional designers are more visibly present than they used to be and the term instructional design is commonplace, our sense of what we do to get a course ready hasn’t changed all that much. Do we really understand that we’re designing a set of experiences that shape how students encounter the content?

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Recently, a group of researchers put that opening question to a small group of faculty who teach math and science courses (Smith, Stark, & Sanchez, 2019). They used a qualitative research design that implicated what they looked for and found. The faculty participated in semi-structured, 60- to 90-minute interviews, and that opening question was followed by others that focused on the processes the participants used to design or redesign courses as well as those they thought their colleagues might be using. The researchers then analyzed the interview transcripts and generated a set of categories that reflected the participants’ notions about course design. These weren’t generalizable findings but attempts to organize ways of thinking about and approaching course design.

Course design as content

This is how many faculty, especially those just starting out, approach course design. The process may begin with some goals and objectives, but the compelling question is, What do I have to teach? I know I approached course design like this for years: look at the textbook or several of them, generate a list of topics, put them in chunks (or modules, if you need a more impressive descriptor), and figure out a sensible order. While this orientation to the process might include checking the content others have put in the course, it’s mostly about selecting and organizing rather than designing.

Course design as method

This way of thinking about course design focuses on the best way to teach the material. Given the nature of the content, what approaches will support student efforts to learn the material? The content is there; now, however, there are questions about students and learning and how the teacher selects and fits instructional methods to the content. The question has changed from “what to teach” to “how to teach it.”

Course design as reflective practice

This approach to course design grows out of an analysis of the course or the teaching in general. What’s working? What isn’t? What could be working better? These questions capture what happens in the course redesign process. The frame can be larger if the focus is on student learning generally. What do students bring to the content? Do they have adequate basic skills? Where do they struggle? The quest is for design details that address what has happened in the course or a class session or what has been learned across a set of teaching experiences.

Course design as departmental collaboration

This design orientation describes faculty collaboration over multiple sections of the same course. The goal is to align teaching with learning experiences so that the course effectively achieves its objectives regardless of who’s teaching it. There’s a sense of shared responsibility for the course and a recognition that those teaching it can learn from each other.

Course design as collective change

Here it’s not just a course within a department but course design elements that transcend disciplines and become ways of teaching and learning that improve courses across an entire institution. It’s not a set of courses all designed the same way but the larger notion that course design can be a priority and shared interest of all faculty at an institution or within the same field.

These notions of course design are useful places to begin conversations about design with ourselves and others. Designing a course means engaging in a process with great implications for learning. That’s the vision more of us need to have as we confront this important task.

Reference

Smith, G. A., Stark, A., & Sanchez, J. (2019). What does course design mean to college science and mathematics teachers? Journal of College Science Teaching, 48(4), 81–91.

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