Instructional Design: Designing Courses and Assignments That Promote Deep Understanding of Essential Concepts

Our college is in the midst of a curricular project that aims to transform courses so that they promote a deeper understanding of core concepts through carefully designed assignments. The college hired Grant Wiggins, co-author of Understanding by Design (Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins) to assist faculty in making these changes, and I’d like to report on my experiences redesigning a course I teach called The Legal Environment of Business.

As a new teacher of this course, I was dismayed when I discovered that virtually all of the texts condense three years of law school courses into a one-semester course. It seemed to me that this was an unrealistic amount of material to teach undergraduate business students. I opted to redesign the course to promote deeper understanding of a few topics. But which topics should be covered?

The hardest part of transforming the course involved determining its core concepts, what Wiggins and Tighe call the essential questions. A colleague recommended I think about it this way: “If a student visited you five years after graduation and said ‘I remember your class! I learned that _______’, how would you like the student to fill in the blank?” After many revisions, I decided on four questions that serve as the foundation of my course:

1.Why does the government regulate certain activities?

2.Who are the stakeholders involved in governmental policy-making, and from what power base are they operating?

3.How is governmental regulation enforced?

4.To what extent do laws and judicial opinions interpreting laws reflect the policy underlying governmental regulation?

With Dr. Wiggins help, I created assignments that allow students to wrestle with the answers to the essential questions and develop a deep understanding of contemporary legal issues. Instead of taking the three-years-of-law-school-in-one-semester approach, I helped students master the essentials of legal methods (how to read a court case, the trial process, the court system, judicial and statutory interpretation, and basic legal research) and then let the students do a group research project, which, by its very structure, would require them to answer the essential questions. It worked like this.

Students could choose from one of seven pre-selected research topics based on bills currently pending in Congress (for example, medical malpractice, human cloning, and Social Security privatization) or one of several pending Supreme Court cases (the Nike free speech case and the University of Michigan affirmative action cases). Some students picked their own topics such as the reexamination of Title IX and SUV safety. Students worked in groups of three or four.

Additionally, each student was required to complete five assignments on the group topic: a book report, an editorial, Congressional testimony, a class presentation, and a group report. Students were assigned to represent a stakeholder in the group’s topic. For example, members of the Social Security privatization group chose to represent one of the following stakeholders: young Americans, women, African-Americans, and older workers. Each student read a book on how Social Security privatization would affect the selected stakeholder group and wrote an editorial on why the stakeholder group supported or opposed privatization. Each student found a Congressional bill to research and wrote Congressional testimony analyzing the bill and its potential impact on stakeholders. For the class presentation, group members introduced the class to two bills — one pro-privatization and one anti-privatization — gave Congressional testimony for and against each of the bills, and asked the class to vote on which bill should be enacted. For the final paper, the group members wrote an objective paper, outlining the pending bills and advising me (as a Senator) how each bill would impact my constituents.

This series of assignments required students to complete successive drafts of essentially the same document. For example, students used the book report to gain an overview of their topic. For the editorial, students simply had to redraft a portion of their book report, do additional research, and add evidence to support their opinion. For those who wrote an excellent editorial, the Congressional testimony was simply a longer version of the editorial in a different format. Those who had not written a strong editorial used the feedback from the editorial to strengthen their arguments and add more persuasive supporting evidence. The final presentation was a logical extension of the group work so far: it allowed students to present their previous work in front of the class and motivated them to develop a strong introduction so that the class would understand the issues involved. Finally, the final report required students to transform their persuasive arguments into a strong objective research paper. Through this sequence of interconnected, cumulative assignments, students answered three of the four essential questions.

Some professors might worry that this teaching method is more time-consuming than the traditional method. Actually it was coming up with the essential questions and developing the series of assignments that took weeks. As for extra time commitments when I implemented it, I met with each group at least once out of class to help them with their projects. But, on the other hand, I had two classes free while the librarian taught research, and at the end of the semester, I enjoyed several weeks of class presentations and witnessed the metamorphosis of college students into confident legislative interns, making any extra time well worth it.