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Refresh Your Course: Step-by-Step

Course Design

Refresh Your Course: Step-by-Step

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You’ve decided you need to update, redesign, refresh your course. Maybe for your own reasons, such poor student performance. Or perhaps you want to try a new technique or a tool. Or maybe your reasons are external, such as a change in the curriculum or new material or a new text. Most instructors simply don't have enough time to do everything we'd like to do in our teaching, including redesigning our courses. I’d like to share my process, which will allow you to be systematic about how you go about changing your course, keeping it fresh for you and for your students—and letting learning happen the way we intend it to.

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You’ve decided you need to update, redesign, refresh your course. Maybe for your own reasons, such poor student performance. Or perhaps you want to try a new technique or a tool. Or maybe your reasons are external, such as a change in the curriculum or new material or a new text. Most instructors simply don't have enough time to do everything we'd like to do in our teaching, including redesigning our courses. I’d like to share my process, which will allow you to be systematic about how you go about changing your course, keeping it fresh for you and for your students—and letting learning happen the way we intend it to.

Step 1: Identify your reason(s) for changing the course.

What is it that makes you think you need to do something to the class? The more clearly you focus on the reason for the change, the easier it is to figure out what direction you want to go. There are many possibilities. Here are some common ones:
  • Student performance is not where you want it to be. Maybe students are weak in a particular topic or skill, or their performance throughout the course is failing to meet your expectations.
  • Some course content is obsolete. Curriculum revisions or other program changes may have changed the course objectives, or you may just realize that the content is outdated.
  • A new text has been chosen. New texts often require changing the order in which course content is presented and possibly the content itself.
  • You have learned about new teaching techniques or tools. Powerful instructional technology tools, for example, appear with increasing frequency.
  • You and/or the students are bored, and you want to liven up the course. It’s easy to get burned out on a course after teaching it a number of times. Changing the course can increase your motivation and energy, and your renewed energy can help energize the students.
Spend some time with step one, because that will target your action. Sometimes people jump too quickly to just finding new resources. And they haven't really thought about what the issue is that they're trying to address.

Step 2: Gather ideas and resources.

Once you have determined your motivation to change, consider which features of the course you want to change and how changing them will address the problem(s) you’ve identified. Then use some of the following strategies to begin putting a plan together.
  • Reflect on student feedback. Look at student comments from the last times you taught the course to get ideas about how to make the course better.
  • Discuss your course concerns with others and collect and evaluate ideas. Experienced colleagues and teaching center staff members are good sources. By the end of this step, you should begin to identify teaching resources that might be useful in your revision.
  • Evaluate teaching resources. The Internet is a treasure trove of resources, many of which can be downloaded and used at no cost to you. Online material such as class session plans, handouts, photos, videos, screencasts, simulations, case studies, and interactive tutorials can be found using general digital resource libraries (which in 2016 included Google and Bing Images, YouTube, Wikimedia Commons, Khan Academy, MERLOT, the National Science Digital Library, and the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science), or enter “[type of resource][topic]” into a search engine like Google or Bing to find subject-specific resources.

Step 3: Plan the changes.

This is the fun part! Step three involves actually deciding on ideas. What are you going to do? Think about deciding on a change and then making a schedule for that. It could be short and sweet—something simple like adding new readings. Or it could be big, like flipping your class. It is easy to get overwhelmed. It is a huge job to completely flip your class. Most people find that they can manage it much better if they take an incremental approach. The idea is to make those major changes gradually. Once you decide on the specific changes you want to make, lay out a schedule for making them. There are a number of things you might do, depending on the kind of changes you’re considering. Here are just a few of them:
  • Add connections between course content and students’ interests and prior knowledge. (This suggestion is discussed in detail later.)
  • Begin or increase instruction in metacognition, critical thinking, or creative thinking. An example of the gradual incorporation of self-regulated learning strategies, metacognition, and critical thinking in a sociology course is given in: Pelton, J. A. (2014). How our majors believe they learn: Student learning strategies in an undergraduate theory course. Teaching Sociology, 42(4), 277-286.
  • Update an assignment. An excellent description of a change from journaling assignments to blogging in a marketing class is: Muncy, J. A. (2014). Blogging for Reflection: The Use of Online Journals to Engage Students in Reflective Learning. Marketing Education Review 24(2), 101–113.
  • Incorporate technology into course instruction. Resources and where to find them are listed in Step 2.
  • Use pre-class quizzes to encourage students to read material and to give them retrieval practice on key information and concepts.
  • If your course involves selecting materials as bases for instruction and discussion (such as readings in a language or literature course), introduce new selections.
  • Use active learning to enhance students’ knowledge acquisition and skill development—including critical and creative thinking skills—and to reduce their boredom and yours. (This one is also discussed later.)
  • Use case studies to make course material more relevant to important social issues and students’ interests. An excellent listing of resources on case study teaching is available at http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/teaching/publications/
  • Develop group assignments using structured cooperative learning to promote skill development—including critical and creative thinking, communication, and teamwork skills—and reduce grading loads in large classes. A chapter on the basics of working with groups can be found at http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/CLChapter.pdf
  • Flip your classroom. Use online assignments to give students their first exposure to course content, and then in class actively engage them in applying the content to solve problems, analyze readings and cases, discuss important points, etc.
Following are tips for increasing the effectiveness of course modifications. Use learning objectives to guide your changes Learning objectives are statements of actions students may take to demonstrate whether and how well they have learned what you have attempted to teach. Objectives begin with a concrete, observable action verb, such as list, explain, calculate, construct, deconstruct, derive, prove, critique, formulate, and design. (Avoid words like know, learn, understand, and appreciate—those actions are not directly observable.) Think of objectives as anything you might ask students to do on an assignment or test. Try to formulate a fairly complete set of learning objectives for the course you are redesigning, and once you have them, use them to guide all of the changes you make—adding, modifying, and deleting content; designing assignments, projects, and tests; and changing teaching methods and tools. When examining content, distinguish between “need to know” material (which directly addresses your objectives) and “nice to know” material (which doesn’t), and focus on the former. An introduction to objectives is given at here, and additional resources can be found on the CTL sites at Iowa State and Carnegie Mellon. Connect content to students’ interests and prior knowledge Cognitive science has shown that students don’t learn by receiving brand new information and inserting it directly into their long-term memories. Instead, they learn by integrating new information with related material in their long-term memories. The more we activate their prior knowledge (help them remember related information) and give them chances to make sense of the new material themselves, the more likely they will be to learn it. Here are several ways to do it.
  • Ask students on Day 1 to list questions they have about course topics and things they’d like to learn.
  • Challenge students to find real-world applications of course topics to current issues and their personal interests.
  • Use graphic organizers to help students integrate what they know with what they are learning and to organize the combined material in a way that makes sense.
  • Give students choice in course readings, project topics, and other aspects of the course.
Use active learning Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves. –Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, “Seven Principles for Good Practice,” AAHE Bulletin 39, 3-7, March 1987 Active learning is anything course-related students do in class other than watch the teacher and take notes. An activity can be done by individuals or groups of 2–4 students, or by students who first work individually then pair up to synthesize something better from their individual efforts (think-pair-share). The instructor asks a question or poses a problem, and gives individual students or student teams from 10 seconds to 3 minutes (rarely longer) to do something. It might be to
  • recall prior material
  • answer or generate a question
  • explain a concept in their own words
  • translate or interpret a passage of prose or poetry
  • start or work out the next step in a problem solution, derivation, or case study analysis
  • think of an example or application of a method taught in class
  • figure out why a predicted outcome turned out to be wrong
  • brainstorm a list (goal is quantity, not quality)
  • summarize a lecture
The instructor stops the activity after the allotted time and randomly calls on one or more students for their responses, or sometimes calls for volunteers. This activity works for all class levels and sizes. Active learning is a great strategy for getting students to engage with challenging material and practice skills. If you’re concerned about weak student performance, consider using active learning. The following references provide more information about active learning:
  • M. Felder and R. Brent, “Active Learning: An Introduction.”ASQ Higher Education Brief, 2(4), August 2009. A short paper that defines active learning, gives examples of activities and formats, and answers frequently-asked questions about the method.
  • University of Pittsburgh TA Services, “Designing In-Class Activities: Examples of Active Learning Activities” found here.
  • Prather, E., Rudolph, A., & Brissenden, G. (2011). Using research to bring interactive learning strategies into general education mega-courses. Peer Review, 13(3), Summer, <aacu.org/peerreview/pr-su11/UsingResearch.cfm>. Classes that spent 25% of their class time or more using active strategies averaged more than double the normalized gains of classes that spent 25% or less, independent of class size (which was as large as 800 students).
  • Creating Partnerships: Active Learning in an Engineering Class.A 32-minute video on YouTube containing clips of Dr. Richard Felder using active learning in a large class, with narration by Dr. Felder and Dr. Rebecca Brent and post-course comments from several of the students about the impact of the teaching method on their learning. Access the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0p7gNXGvcww
Make major changes gradually The greater the change you propose to make, the more uncomfortable you are likely to be, the greater the likelihood of your making mistakes, and the more student pushback you are likely to encounter. Remember that whatever changes you make don’t have to be completed in one term. If you’d like to make a big change (like flipping your classroom), consider making it gradually over several terms so you never venture far outside your comfort zone. As your confidence builds, you can apply the changes to more and more of the course. The following plan for flipping a classroom can be adapted to any major course change you might want to make.

Illustrative plan for flipping a class

  • Identify one or two topics for flipping.
  • Collect or develop short video clips and screencasts (about 6 minutes in length and no more than 10 minutes) and other online resources.
  • Develop a strategy for getting students to do the online assignments and plans for what you and the students will do in class (e.g., active learning exercises, computer assignments)
  • Try the course with the flipped topics and take notes on what works and what doesn’t.
  • Ask for student feedback on the flipped topics.
  • Make adjustments in the topics to address problems and suggestions from students.
  • Teach the modified course.
  • Identify two additional topics for flipping and repeat the sequence.

Step 4: Plan the evaluation.

When you change a course, the one thing you can be sure of is that you won’t get it right the first time. Before you implement the changes, it’s important to have an evaluation plan in place that you will use to determine the effects of the changes. Use the plan to help you determine which changes to keep, which ones to modify, and which ones to drop next time you teach the course. Here is how you might formulate your plan.
  • Decide whether you want to carry out a formal or informal evaluation. If you are making significant and costly changes, or small changes that might be scaled up if the results are promising, or you plan to publish conclusions about the effect of specific changes on students’ performance or retention, you should conduct a formal evaluation in which the effects of the changes are rigorously determined. In cases in which none of those conditions apply, an informal evaluation based on students’ survey responses and your impressions about changes in their performance should be adequate.
  • Informal evaluation. Collect midterm evaluations that specifically ask students whether they believe the new or modified features of the course helped their learning, hindered their learning, or did neither. If you can include similar questions on the end-of-course evaluations, do so. While the course is in progress, note any improvements (or lack of them) you see in students’ performance and attitudes in areas targeted by the changes.
  • Formal evaluation. Decide on the measures you will assess to evaluate the effects of your changes, such as grades on assignments, project reports, tests or test items, surveys, and observations. Either carry out a study in which the assessment results for students in the modified course are compared with the results for a matched group of students taking the original course, or teach the course once before making the changes and again with the changes and compare the assessment results for students in both course offerings. (For more details on carrying out such action research studies, see http://celt.ust.hk/teaching-resources/action-research )

Step 5: Implement the changes and evaluate the outcomes.

Carry out the plans formulated in Steps 3 and 4. Examine the results, and use them to plan what, if anything, you will change the next time you teach the course.

Step 6: Regularly reflect on the course and how you are teaching it.

All teachers should have a goal of continuing to grow and improve their teaching. Here are ways to do it in the course we have been discussing, assuming that nothing dramatic has happened to make major changes necessary. (In such cases, you would go back to Step 1.) After each class session - In your office immediately after a session, spend a few minutes going through the session plan and reflecting on which lecture segments, questions, and activities went the way you had in mind, which didn’t, and what changes you will make next time you teach the course. Jot the changes down on the session plan, and prepare revised plans for all sessions before you teach the course again. After you’ve taught the course two or three times following this procedure, the session plans should be close to where you would like them to be. At the end of the term - After the course is over and the assignments and projects and exams have been given and graded and evaluations have been collected from students and faculty colleagues, spend an hour or so going over all of it and reflecting on how you think things went. Then make notes on your syllabus and other course materials about what you want to do differently next time, and carry out the changes when the time comes.

Adapted from the Magna Online seminar presentation, “Refresh Your Course with Straightforward Design Changes,” 2015.