Structuring the Course in Modules:
I know, I know — talking about organizing lessons and structuring course content sounds so droid-like and robotic — it seems to defy the notion of a free and organic process of inquiry and discovery. Nonetheless, given limited time and resources, and the need to identify what specifically students are learning and how they are learning it, even the most liberating of teachers and self-motivated of students must pay attention to how a course is structured.
The best way to design a course is to begin with the end in mind: the question is not “What will I teach?” the question is, “What will the students learn?” In other words, what will the students be able to do by the end of the course? How will they demonstrate their learning? Once you are able to answer these questions, the methods of teaching, course activities, course content, and methods of evaluation will suggest themselves.
You will want to think about the course in terms of modules: What will be the modules that make up this course? What will be accomplished in each of these modules? How will each module serve to meet the course objectives?
It always comes back to course objectives and what the students will be expected to do in order to demonstrate what they have learned in the course. This is what educators mean by having a “well-aligned course.” You want to create alignment between course objectives, methods of instruction, course content, course assignments, and methods of evaluation of student performance. Poor course alignment, for example, would have one method of instruction and course activities, but would evaluate students on performing completely different tasks and demonstrating skills that they haven’t been given the chance to practice during the course.
Each module, within the course is like a mini-course. Each module should have an objective. The objective of the module should drive the activities in the course. Each activity should have an assessment linked to it. The assessment should demonstrate how well the student has mastered the concepts within that particular module of the course — leading, eventually, to overall success in achieving the course outcomes.
Course outcomes should be measurable and observable. One should be able to measure or observe student behavior, or the student application of the contents in the course. Essentially, there should be a mission statement and goals for every class session in the course to keep things aligned and oriented toward the desired course outcomes.
Don’t try to cover too much, or go into too great a depth as you design your course. Consider the time that is available and the background of your students and structure the course accordingly.
Whether you are required to provide a syllabus or not, every teacher should have their own personal blueprint for the course they are teaching. First you will want to meet with some of the other teachers or faculty members, and, above all, the dean or department chair (if there is one) to find out how your course fits within the overall curriculum of the program and the academic objectives of the school. What prior knowledge and experiences are students expected to bring with them as they are entering the course, and what are they expected to be able to do upon completing your course?
If you provide a syllabus to your students, the following sections should appear near the beginning of it; if a syllabus is not required you should still develop an outline based on these points:
Section One: Discuss course objectives; what are students expected to know upon completing your course?
Section Two: Discuss the skills students will need to meet those course objectives and demonstrate their knowledge of course content.
Section Three: Discuss the methods you will use to evaluate students’ mastery of the course objectives. What assignments and assessment tools will you use? Note: you should use frequent and diverse methods of evaluation to give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in different ways.
Section Four: Discuss the material that you will present to students, that students will be expected to engage, in order to meet the course objectives. What content will students be assigned?
Section Five: Discuss the teaching strategies you will use to help students learn and practice these skills. How will you teach? How will you use technology, small groups, lecture, discussions, projects, etc.?
Building On Academic Virtues:
Test the quality of thought.
No matter what subject matter you are teaching or studying, within the social sciences or the humanities, you want to evaluate your work, or that of your students, by its adherence to intellectual standards of clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, appreciation for complexity, logical consistency, significance, and fairness.
You can test your work, and the work of your students, against these intellectual standards by keeping in mind the following principles:
For Clarity — Have them elaborate further, provide examples, and illustrate what they are saying. You don’t want to be unclear. Typically a teacher will ask, “Could you state your perspective a little more clearly?”
For Accuracy — Have them discuss how one might verify their claims. You don’t want to be inaccurate. Typically a teacher will ask, “How can we check the accuracy of your information?”
For Precision — Have them be more specific and provide more details. You don’t want to be imprecise. Typically a teacher will ask, “Could you be a bit more precise in what you are saying?”
For Relevance — Have them explain how their discussion or writing relates to the problem at hand and what bearing what they are saying has on the question. You want to avoid irrelevance. A teacher might note, “These are interesting points, but how are they related to the question we are trying to answer or the topic we are trying to understand?”
For Depth — Have them examine the complexities of the question and the difficulties one needs to deal with. You want to avoid superficiality. Typically a teacher will ask, “How might this perspective take into account the complexities and nuances of the topic we are trying to understand?”
For Breadth — Have them look at the thing from another perspective; have them consider another point of view. Typically a teacher will ask, “What might be another, reasonable interpretation or explanation for what has happened here?”
For Logic — Have them show how it all holds together and how their conclusions or arguments follow from the evidence. Typically a teacher will ask, “What might be a more logical connection between the factors we are observing here?”
For Significance — Have them discuss how the problem they identified, within the subject matter, is important; why is this a topic we should focus on? What makes the details we are discussing significant?
For Fairness — Have them discuss their own stake, background and biases on the issue. Have them identify the article of observation and interpretation they are using. If they don’t think this is important, have them watch the Kathryn Schulz video below.
Your students (and other people in your life) might hate you for asking these questions — few people enjoy engaging in conversations with people who challenge them to actually think — but you are really paying them the highest complement because asking these questions means that you are listening to them carefully and you respect their opinions enough to take them seriously. You respect their ideas enough that you believe that they can demonstrate that their ideas are not shallow and superficial.