I frequently sit down with faculty who are in varying stages of panic concerning their syllabus for an upcoming course. Sometimes it is a brand new course, or one inherited from a colleague. Often, they have already taught the course once or twice and are seeking to make it better. Many times the instructors tell me that they are aware that “something is not working” (unfortunately, often because of poor student ratings) but they are unable to pinpoint the problem.
Understandably, when I ask them about how they designed the course, many faculty will tell me that they constructed the syllabus by focusing on the content they wanted to teach, rather than thinking about what they wanted their students to learn.
So I might ask them, “Well, why do you have the students write these five papers?” or “What is the purpose of this final presentation?” or something similar about the course. I’m not judging their choices, I’m just trying to understand their pedagogical rationale. Very often they reply, “This is what I had to do in grad school or as an undergrad,” or “This is how my colleague does it,” or “I’m really not sure. I thought X would make the course more rigorous/interesting/compelling.”
This is often where the challenge lies.
Certainly content and course themes are important, but we recommend that instructors take what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have called a Backwards Design approach to constructing their courses: Beginning with the end–learning outcomes–in mind. This means that the instructor would have a clear purpose and reason for every aspect of the class, and can make that rationale transparent to his or her students and others.
To do this, we recommend that faculty think through these fundamental teaching questions in designing a course, to better align the course around learning:
(1) What is it I want my students to be able to do or know, by the end of the course/module/term/session? This question will help you think through the learning objectives, which will ideally promote higher order thinking and learning. We recommend Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy or Bigg’s SOLO Taxonomy to help you think through the levels of thinking you might like your students to achieve.
(2)What activities or methods will I use to help my students achieve these learning objectives? What activities will help students think critically or communicate ideas clearly or whatever the learning objectives you decided on? Is it small-group work? Interactive lecture? Discussion? Do these activities and methods clearly align with your learning objectives?
(3) How will I–and my students–know whether my students have met these objectives? How will I assess my students’ learning (achievement, performance, progress towards learning objectives)? What projects, assignments, homeworks, exams etc will I assign? What formal (e.g. grades, rubrics) and informal methods will I use? (e.g. surveys, ungraded quizzes, peer and self reflections, student feedback, classroom assessment techniques). Do these assignments clearly align with my learning objectives?
(4) And finally, How do I know if and whether my teaching has contributed to my students’ learning outcomes? Do I need to change the readings or tweak the assignments? Do I need to change the order of assignments? Do I need to clarify my expectations more? Did my activities and assessments align with my stated learning objectives?
Designing a course around learning, especially for the first time, is not easy. Certainly, it takes time to do well. However, beginning with the end in mind may make it easier to pinpoint challenges and lack of alignment, and ultimately to improve a course or make it your own. But what do you think?
References: Light, Cox, & Calkins (2009). Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Professional. Sage; Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design guide to creating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Susanna Calkins is an associate director at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching and regularly consults with faculty about issues related to learning and teaching.