February 23rd, 2010

Course Planning


The course planning activities of faculty have not been studied extensively. The most impressive studies done on the topic were completed 20 years ago. But then, I can’t think of any compelling reason why our planning processes might be different. Can you?

If teaching a course taught previously, instructors spend, on average, about two hours before the class begins planning the course. Most of the planning for these courses happens while the course is underway with the emphasis on fine-tuning or making adjustments as they are needed.

When planning a new course, instructors think first of content. In one study, 46 percent of the faculty reported their first planning step involved selecting the course content. Only 15 percent reported that they started by thinking about student needs and characteristics, and only 9 percent said they started to plan by choosing activities that promote learning.

The chapter in the book referenced below that summarizes what is known about course planning documents further how content oriented faculty are. When asked to list objectives for introductory courses, nearly half of the goals identified by faculty focused on learning the concepts, principles, or facts of the discipline. Faculty may say (in one study 90 percent who taught introductory courses did) that the purpose of education is to develop thinking skills, but when asked about the goals for a particular course, faculty start by listing the principles, concepts, and theories students need to learn.

When asked how they organized content in introductory courses, 41 percent said that they organized it the way major concepts and relationships are organized within the field; 20 percent said that they organized content based on the way students learned; andr15 percent said that they organized material based on the way relationships occur in the real world.

Certainly content should play an important role in course planning. But I think it’s a problem when it’s the only consideration or such an important consideration that everything else pales by comparison.

Reference: Luttuca, L. R., and Stark, J. S. Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Context. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009. See chapter five on “Creating Academic Plans.”

  • Becky


    First of all, I apologize for the belated response to this past post. It's due to the fact that I JUST finished your book, Learner-Centered Teaching (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and then I discovered your blog.

    The percents listed above are staggering. Between your book and Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do, I realize the importance of focusing on what the STUDENTS will do. When I read, "15 percent said that they organized material based on the way relationships occur in the real world," my heart skipped a beat since this is one of the major changes I am making to my math courses. A good portion of my students' grades this fall will be a "real world" group project.

    I generally get very high marks on my student evaluations; it appears that what I'm doing works. Most students say they "like what I do." But I'm not so sure I like what THEY do. THEY need to be doing more. I don't think there's enough deep learning. I'm about to give up some of my song and dance so that THEY can do the singing and dancing. As you recommended in your book, I'm only tweaking one course for starters. Yes, it's a bit scary, but I'm excited about it and I think it'll be fabulous.

    Thank you!