Designing Your Course

Outside of an academic setting, if someone asked you to design a "course," you'd first need to ask them some questions: where should it start? where should it go? will it be used primarily by swimmers, cyclists, or runners? That is, you'd need to imagine the course as something built within a broader context, and designed to help a specific group of users achieve certain goals. Within academic settings, by contrast, we often fail to think of course design in these terms. Instead, we focus on how we're going to distribute some mass of content across a semester-length arc, organizing it along common-sense axes such as chronology, geography, and theme, and punctuating it with problem sets, midterms, papers, or creative projects. In this way, often we end up with syllabi that are doing more justice to the topics of our courses and the vicissitudes of the academic calendar than we are to the needs of our students.

To be sure, when all is said and done and the semester is underway, these organizational features will be evident in almost any course. But in a well-designed course they are surface features, rather the than organizing principles themselves. These principles—the ones that help us decide what we assign, how we teach it, how we assess it, and in what order—only emerge when we step back and ask ourselves: what sorts of students is this class aiming to attract? Where am I trying to take them? How will I get them there? How will I know whether they've arrived? 

Backward Design

Rather than starting with the content or the "means" (lectures, textbooks, problem sets, exams), Backward Design begins at the end by asking "What should students learn in this course?" and " What should they know or be able to do by the end?" Within the framework of Backward Design, the student's assimilation of content—often thought of as an end in itself—gets rethought as a means to higher-order goals, e.g., applying content learned in the course through practice and recognizing the transferability of skills learned in the course to contexts beyond it. 

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Functions of the Syllabus

We recently asked a cohort of undergraduate and graduate students how, in a word or short phrase, they would define the function(s) of a syllabus. The results were impressive: while several answers (like "a contract") repeated as one might predict, others (like "a recipe book," "a user's guide," or "a provocation") reminded us of just how many audiences—and how many ends—this genre is meant to serve. Faculty (not to mention job market candidates) often compose syllabi as much to demonstrate their mastery of a topic to other instructors as they do to inform their students. While there is no single model of an "optimal" syllabus, there are at least some features which students report finding especially useful.

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Formative ("low-stakes") vs. Summative ("high-stakes") Assessments

Ask any student to define what an "assignment" is, and he or she will probably respond along the lines of "something you hand in for a grade." It's not a bad working definition, from the perspective of a student; but we encourage instructors to define the concept more broadly. At the Bok Center, we think of an "assignment" as "any activity which students are asked to perform so that the instructor may offer feedback on the student's progress towards mastery," whatever form it may take. While this broader definition obviously includes the kinds of high-stakes, graded essays, projects, and problem sets which students imagine when they hear the word "assignment," it has the virtue of also including a wide array of low-stakes (perhaps even ungraded) activities which instructors might set for students when they are just practicing and developing their skill or knowledge of a topic. These, too, are assignments. Ideally instructors will draw upon a mixture of high- and low-stakes assignments (known as summative and formative assessments, respectively) when designing their courses.

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Assignment Modalities

Assignments come in a wide variety of flavors - from essays and problem sets, to "alternative" assignments that might include designing a website, a podcast, or an interactive timeline.  For any type of assignment, there are a variety of factors to consider to ensure that your students are prepared to undertake the work and that you have strategies to provide feedback that will support learning.

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Timing and Sequencing Assignments

Timing is a crucial consideration when designing the global and more local aspects of a course, because learning is a process for which order matters. Not only is that true at the conceptual or thematic level, as we decide to place one lecture or reading or problem set before or after another, but it's also true at the level of smaller arcs within a course, as we figure out the best way to sequence lower-stakes assessments to help students track their progress leading up to higher-stakes assessments, namely, the mid-term or paper. When we think about course design in terms of timing and sequencing, we often refer to the concept of scaffolding, a metaphor that tries to capture the importance of providing students with low-stakes opportunities to practice—and fail at—using individual new skills alongside the skills they've already learned. Scaffolding leads us to think not only about the skills or content students need to know for the test or the paper—but about how the order in which they experience the acquisition of those skills and content has a defining effect on what those skills and content, in fact, are. 

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Grading and Responding to Student Work

Grading is among the most meaningful tasks we undertake as teachers, and it’s one that, even at its best, can require what feels like an outsized amount of time and energy. To be sure, we use a lot of that time and energy just doing the difficult job of grading, but a lot of time—and probably more energy—can get taken up weighing factors that, at their worst, make the task feel discouragingly fraught. These are questions that raise themselves nearly every time we sit down to grade a pile of papers or exams, and in fact they’re exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves—they reflect the complexity we would expect from so many overlapping and intersecting feedback loops taking shape over a period of months. With that in mind, our goal shouldn’t be to avoid the questions or iron out their fraughtness or hope for one-size-fits-all solutions to grading. In the end, those fixes just create bigger problems that lead us away from the meaningfulness of grading. What we can aim for, however, are general principles that will make grading as useful, fair, and efficient as possible.

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