October 19th, 2015

Refresh Your Course without (Too Much) Pain and Suffering


instructor thinking

See if this sounds familiar.

You’re scheduled to teach a course you have taught before that desperately needs revision. The content and pedagogy go back for a decade or more and are both sadly obsolete, or the grades have been abysmal and the students are threatening to revolt, or someone (the department head, a faculty committee, or you) has decided to offer the course online, or maybe you’re just bored and dread the thought of teaching it again.

We’ve all been there. It’s time to revise the course, but with little extra time to spare, the task seems daunting. It doesn’t have to be! A few relatively straightforward design changes can give any course new life, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Often the best approach is to spread the changes out over several semesters.

course redesign flow chart

Step 1: Identify your reasons for change. Take a little time to think about the last time you taught the course and what problems you noted. Maybe student performance was not at the level you wanted it to be, or elements of the course seemed out of date or boring. You can review student feedback on the course and see whether they had suggestions you’d like to try or concerns you want to address.

Step 2: Gather ideas and resources. Here you have lots of choices. Check with colleagues. Pay a visit to your Center for Teaching and Learning. Scan journals and conference proceedings. Look for online materials, such as course syllabi and handouts and course-relevant videos, screencasts, simulations, case studies, and interactive tutorials. You can find a whole host of quality materials by searching digital resource libraries (e.g., YouTube, Wikimedia Commons, Khan Academy, MERLOT, the National Science Digital Library, and the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science), and by entering “[type of resource][topic]” into a search engine like Google or Bing. Photos can spark new interest to a topic and the Creative Commons on Flickr has a rich collection of images.

If you’re contemplating changes in a class you’re currently teaching, enlist students in finding relevant resources for a few points on the next mid-term exam or homework assignment. (Many of our students are better at navigating the Internet than we are, and they’ll do a lot for a couple of points.) Sometimes something as simple as a new resource can help to perk up a tired course.

Step 3: Plan the changes. Some changes require little planning at all—you just make them. Others, like flipping a class or incorporating a problem-based learning approach, may take several semesters to plan and implement. Here are a few relatively simple but effective things you might do:

  • Add connections between course content and students’ interests and prior knowledge.
  • Incorporate technology resources you found in Step 2 into the course instruction.
  • Mix it up. If your course involves selecting materials as bases for instruction and discussion (such as readings in a language or literature course), introduce a few new selections.
  • Use active learning to enhance students’ knowledge acquisition and skill development and to reduce their boredom and yours (Felder & Brent, 2009).
  • Begin or increase instruction in critical and/or creative thinking (Fogler, LeBlanc & Rizzo, 2014; van Gelder, 2005).

You might also want to begin transitioning to a new powerful but more complex teaching practice than you have been using. Such strategies as flipping your classroom (Brame, n.d.) going through case studies (NCCSTS), giving team assignments and projects (Major, 2015), or using problem-based learning (Prince & Felder, 2007) can be transformative, but challenging. To get started, develop a step-by-step plan over several semesters and make use of support resources like teaching center consultants, books, journals, online how-to webinars, and workshops to hone your expertise.

Step 4: Plan the evaluation. When you change a course, the one thing you can be sure of is that you won’t get it right the first time. It’s important to have an evaluation plan to determine the effects of the changes, so you’ll know which changes to keep, which ones to modify, and which ones to drop next time you teach the course. Two evaluation strategies are especially helpful.

  1. In your office immediately after a class session, spend a few minutes going through the session plan and reflecting on lecture segments, questions, and activities. Make note of what worked and didn’t and what changes you will make next time you teach the course.
  2. Conduct a midterm evaluation that specifically asks students whether they think the new or modified features of the course helped their learning, hindered their learning, or did neither.

Step 5: Carry out the plans. Now you’re ready to make the changes you planned, evaluate their effectiveness, and enjoy the fruits of your efforts. If you reflect on your classes, stay open to new teaching ideas, and try them out thoughtfully, you’ll find your teaching continues to improve over time and teaching that familiar course will be something you look forward to.

Brame, C.J. (n.d.). Flipping the classroom [Webpage]. Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/flipping-the-classroom/

R.M. Felder and R. Brent, “Active Learning: An Introduction.” ASQ Higher Education Brief, 2(4), August 2009. Retrieved from http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/ALpaper(ASQ).pdf

Fogler, H. S, LeBlanc, S.E., & Rizzo, B. (2014). Strategies for creative problem solving (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Major, C. H. (2015). Choosing the best approach for small group work. Faculty Focus. Magna Publications. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/choosing-the-best-approach-for-small-group-work/

NCCSTS. National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. [Website] (n.d.). Retrieved from http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/

Prince, M.J., & Felder, R.M. (2007). The many faces of inductive teaching and learning. Journal of College Science Teaching, 36(5), 14–20. Retrieved from http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/Inductive(JCST).pdf

van Gelder, T. (2005). Teaching critical thinking: Some lessons from cognitive science. College Teaching, 53(1), 41–46.

Rebecca Brent, EdD, is a faculty developer, program evaluator, and president of Education Designs, Inc.