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 runners, cyclists, or skiers? That is, you'd need to imagine the course as something situated within a broader landscape, and designed to help a specific group of users reach a certain destination. Within the academic setting, we should be asking the same questions: what sorts of students will take this course? Where am I trying to take them? How will I get them there? How will I know whether they’ve arrived?

At the Bok Center we have developed a method of developing course materials which combines both the latest research into student learning and the accumulated wisdom that comes with our years of working with faculty from all across Harvard's curriculum. In what follows, we share our advice for designing a course that will maximize student learning.

Learner-Centered Design

What are the essential features of a course? How can you translate the things that you, as the instructor, wish to teach into a syllabus that is transparent, engaging, and wholly focused on your students' learning?

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Putting Evidence at the Center

Can you really say that you have taught something if you can't show that your students have learned it? What kinds of evidence can you collect about your instruction, and what your students still need to learn?

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What Should Students Learn?

How should you set goals for your students? How can you draw upon the literature on teaching and learning, your disciplinary identity, your research interests, and your sense of what students need for the future to set the agenda for your teaching? 

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Start with the Capstone

How will students make sense of the full arc of your course? Are your goals and students' experiences aligned? How can starting the design process with your final assignment(s) help you to bring your goals into greater focus, and guarantee that they permeate the rest of the semester?

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How to Write an Effective Assignment Prompt

Are your students' assignments giving you good evidence about what they are (or are not) learning—and, for that matter, about how effectively you are teaching? How can you draft assignment prompts that stand the best chance of eliciting the evidence and feedback that you seek?

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Scaffolding: Using Frequency and Sequencing Intentionally

How can escape from the tyranny of the academic calendar, and create the most sensible sequence of assignments that prepare students to undertake their capstone projects or final exams? Will they learn the skills necessary to succeed sequentially, or practice them all repeatedly? When, and how often, should your students receive feedback on their progress?

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Grading and Responding to Student Work

What kind of feedback is most helpful to students as they progress towards mastery of your course material? How can you use rubrics effectively to norm the grading across your teaching staff? If you think a creative assignment is the best way for your students to demonstrate their learning, how can you make sure they are the occasion for substantive feedback? How can you grade them fairly?

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Syllabus Design

How do you transform the assignments and curated content you've chosen into a document that is transparent, engaging, and useful to your students? What is the best way to make sure that your priorities and expectations come through on the page? Can your syllabus layout motivate students?

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Catalogue Materials

Are your course catalogue materials—namely, the title of your course and brief course description which students see through the my.harvard portal—mere "advertising"? Or do they present an opportunity to engage students in the intellectual project of your course before the semester has even begun? How can you write a catalogue description that accurately reflects what students will experience in your classroom?

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