Sometimes we are asked to step during an emergency situation when a colleague cannot finish teaching a course. Sometimes enrollment or structural changes mean we are unexpectedly assigned to take on a new course just days before the semester starts. And sometimes, beyond our wildest imaginations, a pandemic causes us to reformat our on-campus courses for online delivery overnight.
All these options are far from ideal. As someone who regularly helps faculty thoughtfully redesign their courses, I know that quality course design takes time. Ideally, we want any redesign process to involve rethinking assumptions, developing a clear sense of overall goals, considering internal and external expectations, and tinkering (sometimes excessively) with content, resources, assignments, and instructional activities. A thorough course redesign is best completed when you have carved out some time and space for fresh thinking. But what do we do without the luxury of time?
If you’re currently teaching a course that needs to be retooled, restructured, or redesigned midstream, here are a few things to keep your expectations realistic and your sanity intact.
In an unexpected course redesign situation, many questions are going to emerge before you have the time to think them through. Can students complete alternative assignments? What if a student misses an essential component of the course? What if your final exam or class presentations need to occur online? At this point we can borrow some lessons from the established course design models, such as integrated course design (Fink, 2013) and backward design processes (Wiggins & McTighe, 2011). It is immensely valuable to have a clear mental picture of our end goal.
While we may be tempted to start planning what needs to happen tomorrow, taking even just 20 minutes to breathe, step back, and write out the long-term goals for student learning can help us make the right decisions in the short term. What do you hope that students will carry with them long after completing this course? What impact do you want this course—or the current situation—to have on their lives? These are not small questions, but the clearer our intentions and purposes are from the outset, the easier it will be to make those “in the moment” decisions.
The benefits of “depth over breadth” approaches to teaching provide value for any course but are especially important when the time frame changes. We may have to face the reality that we simply cannot do everything we want to do in the course and that trying to “get it all in” may actually do more harm than good. Instead, take solace in the value of going deeper in learning—perhaps less reading, less content, and more focus on connections, reflection, and application. Carefully consider what is essential to accomplishing those long-term goals, what could be left out, and ultimately where you want your students to focus their limited time and energy.
Students can be incredibly supportive and understanding when given the chance. If they know you are doing your best and have their long-term interests at heart, they are often very willing to work with you. Share your long-term goals with them and discuss your planned changes. What if they tried to write the course learning outcomes, in their own words and in ways that make sense given their situations, or even create their own learning plans? Discuss why what they learn in this class matters—or better yet, ask them to make this connection themselves. Why not ask for their suggestions at how best to achieve the learning goals? They may uncover some creative options or find their own technology solutions. You don’t have to adopt every idea, but they may come up with some great options, and you’ll gain valuable student buy-in through the process.
These are far from ideal situations, and no one can expect perfection. We may even make mistakes—add in too many activities, focus on the wrong resources, or set up a new project that fails. These are mistakes to learn from! Yes, if we had more time, we could do some truly wonderful things. But we can also appreciate the small steps we’ve taken to support meaningful learning. Be patient, and be kind and gracious to yourself and your students. Keep your eyes on those long-term goals, and celebrate small achievements along the way!
Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2011). The understanding by design guide to creating high-quality units. ASCD.
Bridget Arend, PhD, is the owner of Intentional College Teaching and is affiliate faculty and the former executive director of the Office of Teaching and Learning at the University of Denver.
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