March 17th, 2011

Instructional Design Strategies for Freshening Up Your Course


This week I’m writing articles for an upcoming issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter and that always prompts lots of reading, thinking, rethinking and revising. Two articles I’m highlighting for the March issue begin with instructional problems, plagiarism in one and poorly written lab reports in the other, which are addressed by thoughtful and creatively designed assignments. With the plagiarism problem, it’s a brand new assignment and with the poorly written lab reports, it’s a complete redesign of the lab report assignment.

These articles have prompted thinking about the role of faculty as instructional designers and how often we under estimate the complexities involved in well-design activities and assignments. Dee Fink so aptly titled his well-known and widely-read book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences. Creativity is involved. A well designed activity or assignment can be a significant, as in very important, learning experience. And the assignments we design for students serve dual purposes. They illustrate the level at which material has been mastered thereby allowing us to assign grades. But before the grades, as students complete assignments, they are having learning experiences and most assuredly the design of those assignments impacts the quality of that learning experience.

Too often we are tied to tradition. We have students engage in activities and complete assignments that students have been doing for decades. In the case of exams, it’s more like centuries. I’m not saying these traditional approaches are wrong or bad. I am saying that they have been used for so long and by so many faculty, we lose the ability to imagine alternatives. So when we sit down to plan a course and it’s time to figure out assignments, most of the time, most of us aren’t all that innovative. We do what others do and what we have done in past courses.

What I liked about both the articles I was reviewing is that they started with careful, honest and critical analysis. Why were students still writing poor quality lab reports even with a writing guide, a sample report and constructive instructor feedback on their first efforts? How could students know that plagiarism was wrong and still be so confused about how to not to do it? Answers to questions like these involve admitting that current practices aren’t accomplishing the desired outcomes. Once that is faced, the instructional designer should revisit the goals—what students should know and be able to do with this particular content?

Objectives (what those in education call goals) have gotten a bad name—too many faculty gloss over them. They needed to be described with more detail and fewer platitudes. The objectives identify the destination. Once you know where you’re going, you have a much better chance of seeing the various ways to get there. It’s best to leave the assignment or activity alone until you’ve got a clear set of learning goals. Then you can consider design changes and new alternatives.

Here’s another place where working with a colleague is so helpful, especially if both instructors are trying to solve a similar problem or come up with an alternative that makes the learning experience more significant. You can brainstorm, each look in a different place for possibilities, debate the alternatives, each try something different, and help each other assess the redesigned activity or assignment.

I know, college teachers are so busy—who has time to undertake a major redesign project? That’s a question you have to answer for yourself but don’t let “busyness” become a perennial excuse, especially when there are ways to make these projects manageable. Tackle one during a semester or the summer when you are less busy. Do the redesign in pieces. Maybe the piece you work on one semester is part of a larger redesign plan or maybe the one new piece will be the impetus for changing other aspects. Do one redesign project at a time. Start by experimenting—try out a couple of new approaches to quizzing. I do know that once you start working on a new assignment or major revision of an old activity, it is an energizing process. It can add life to one of those courses that has become all too familiar.