Some Thoughts on Course Design Principles

The first time that I worked on a lesson plan for a course, I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant preparing to lead a seminar section for a group of students enrolled in a first year university large lecture/small seminar survey course — one of the Beowulf to Virginia Woolf starter kits for aspiring literary connoisseurs.

For my first foray into teaching, it was a great course to be assigned to as a Teaching Assistant.  The course instructor, whom I still admire enormously for the care and thought he applied to his teaching, relished the time spent in the lecture hall with his students.  He had an exhaustive knowledge of the subject matter and a passion for literary studies — every lecture had a soundtrack to start the class and featured slides filled with images to set the context for consideration of the works under examination.   Every class had compelling questions provided in advance.  During lectures, he would wander throughout the lecture hall and up into the seats, quoting long passages from memory in a resonant, theatrical voice, and inviting questions and debate.  Lectures were fun and fascinating and attendance was high.  Every student was welcomed personally to see him during office hours at least once during the semester and he met with his TA team every week to discuss his objectives for the seminars we were leading.  And, even better, he had prepared a seminar guidebook chock full of lesson plans for the Teaching Assistants. In retrospect, his TA guidebook was a thing of beauty that I should have been enormously grateful for as a TA because it prepared me expertly to guide my seminar group at a time when I had a few other things to focus on as a first year Master’s student.

wife-of-bath-ellsmere-chaucerBut for me at the time, using the guidebook felt like cheating.  I wanted to pursue a career in education and thought that I should really learn how to prepare my own lesson plans.  So, two weeks into the semester, I decided that I would lay aside my TA guidebook and create my own lesson plan for the seminar the following week.  I was diligent.  I read and re-read the assigned readings scheduled for seminar discussion for the following week.  I did read the guidebook to see what the Professor had intended to do and I went to the Library (yes, I was a pre-google Grad Student) and I read up on the seminar format and read up on the Socratic method (without really appreciating its finer points) and then I went to work on my lesson plan.  I started with the source materials and critical articles and then added a few more to weave in during seminar.  I was going to expand their minds by exposing them to even more approaches to understanding the meaning and structure of the Wife of Bath’s Tale in Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales.  I scripted the whole thing out.  It was going to be awesome.

But it wasn’t.  It was actually pretty far from awesome.  The students, who had been quite interactive and engaged in seminar the week before, sat blank-faced, shifting uncomfortably in their seats as I expounded on the diverse critical interpretations of the Wife of Bath’s tale and were mum in response to what I thought were carefully crafted Socratic questions, which I posed at carefully timed intervals, and then anxiously and hurriedly moved away from when the students did not enthusiastically offer their thoughts in response.  It was a painful seminar — for them and for me — and at first I was pretty shattered about it.  I couldn’t understand how all of my careful planning had led to such a flop of a seminar.  The following week, I humbly returned to the TA Guidebook seminar plan and listened carefully to the Prof’s suggestions for how to engage the students in the activities planned in that week’s preparatory team meeting.  Then, at the end of that week, to the best of my ability, I executed his recommended plan of approach for that week’s seminar.

The seminar went over time and conversations continued in the hallway after the incoming class ushered us out of the seminar room to begin their own class.  The students had great ideas — sure, some were a bit wonky or not entirely thought through — but generally great.  They got it.  First they reviewed the questions alone and made their own notes, then teamed up with a partner to cultivate more complete ideas, and then finally they all came together as a whole seminar group.  The final, large group conversation was brilliant.  They bounced around from the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale, to the Knight’s Tale and back to the Wife of Bath, and they were comparing and contrasting and drawing out connecting evidence and talking about how history and culture came alive in the passages of the Cantebury Tales.  The whole seminar was pure joy.  I mean, really, what teenager gets excited about Middle English texts?  My group did.  They really got into it.

I couldn’t believe the difference in the seminar group from one week to the next.  Some magic had happened, clearly, and I didn’t think it was me.  I concluded quickly that it must have been the lesson plan in the TA guidebook and when I revisited it, looking at it with fresh eyes from the perspective of how it functioned as pedagogy only, I was convinced that the seminar plan the Prof had devised was the key.  It was focused on the students, their ideas, and their thinking, whereas my effort at a seminar plan was focused on the content and the ideas held within, as well as the thoughts of the expert literary critics I had found and a few of my own.

When I had wandered off script and created my own seminar plan which focused on the readings and more expert thought, I had done something close to what Mark Sample talks about in his ProfHacker article, “Planning a Class with Backward Design.”  He describes his unsatisfactory experiences with an early approach to course design in which he: “was letting my reading list design the course, instead of designing my course around goals. I was thinking about what I wanted my students to read, rather than what I wanted my students to learn.”

My seminar lesson plan was similarly off the mark in its design.  My focus had been on bringing knowledge to the students rather than on bringing the students to the knowledge.  While reading the primary and secondary works on their own time, they had lots of opportunity for exposure to expert writing and thinking.  They didn’t need me to add more of the same.  The point of the seminar was to provide them with an opportunity to start to explore some of the approaches to expert thinking and work through successive efforts and improving their own knowledge and skills — their own critical thinking and writing.

When I provided an opportunity for knowledge transmission rather than an opportunity for knowledge and skill experimentation and development, my students responded with passivity and disengagement.  They listened distractedly, took few notes, and simply waited me out in silence when I asked them to respond to questions that, in retrospect, would have seemed directionless and difficult to know how to respond to for the students, and were not particularly tied to any semblance of question that they would need to address in their essays or exams.  When I followed the Prof’s plan and provided opportunity for them to work alone and in groups, performing activities pegged at just slightly beyond what level most were at, they found or crafted carefully composed responses to compelling questions, and they lit up.  They were motivated and engaged and clearly thinking and learning from each other as well as from the works in question and through the guidance around obstacles and black holes that I provided.

As much as I am sometimes still tempted to give students what they need to learn in the course — to just stand up in front of class and spew the more challenging or complex bits out there so that I can at least feel confident that they were exposed to the critically important stuff in advance of exams (as though they might be infected by knowledge through being exposed to it as one is to a cold virus when sneezed upon), I have learned that I need to let go of my grip on the steering wheel and let them drive.  I am convinced that I am a better, more effective teacher when I learn the map of the overall territory, know where we are going, talk to them about where we are going and why, and then give them the steering wheel and carefully and patiently help them to navigate their way through to the outcomes of the course.  My students have gotten more out of my teaching when I have been focused not on telling them what they need to know, but on helping them to find their way to those essential and enduring knowledge, skills and values that will stretch their intellectual capacity and help them to understand their chosen discipline or profession more intimately.  It may sound straight-forward, but I find it sometimes messy, challenging and nerve-wracking to design and deliver courses this way and appreciate that I need to work on constantly improving my ability to help students be more successful learners through learning more about course design, delivery and assessment models that have proven to be effective.

The move from content-centred and teaching-centred course design to a more learning outcomes-centred and learner-centred course design approach is one that I feel fortunate to have made fairly early on in my career.  Starting early has given me more time to read and learn about these approaches from scholarly literature, respected colleagues and through reflection on my own experiences.

If you are interested to learn more about outcomes and learner-centred course design principles as well, I would like to recommend just a few brief, but good pieces to get you started:

Understanding by Design Framework by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggens

Integrated Course Design by L. Dee Fink

Course Design through Constructive Alignment by Natasha Kenny

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