creative course design March 12

Creative Course Design (Yes, You Can!)

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A lot of teachers don’t think of themselves as being particularly creative. Creativity in education doesn’t mean coming up with a revolutionary new idea or complete reinvention of something. Creativity means doing something original or unique. A lot of educational creativity involves repackaging or “putting your own spin” on something that somebody else has already used successfully. We believe in adding your own stamp and style to already existing educational approaches—that’s being creative. Sometimes all that’s required to take a course or lesson from sleepy to exciting is a small, but personal, creative adaptation. It is almost always easier to modify than to create ex nihilo.

Every program, course, and lesson can be made more effective, efficient, and exciting. What we’re suggesting is illustrated by IDEO—a California-based design and consulting firm that specializes in product and process improvement. The design principles they use can readily be applied to educational course design.

Sometimes we lack creativity in education because we work in isolation. Collaboration with colleagues fosters creativity. IDEO, for example, uses a team-based design methodology that consistently results in product designs that no single team member could have created (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M66ZU2PCIcM). Here are some of the principles they use when collaborating as a group—repurposed with an emphasis on course design:

  • Encourage wild ideas. Too often we end up doing what we’ve always done. We’re busy and need to get lesson plans, assessments, and assignments completed in a hurry. But take a moment, consider an ideal teaching situation: What would you do for or with your students to help them succeed and master your course? Let your imagination run loosely. Of course, there are constraints, but letting them go (just temporarily) can help unlock new solutions to old problems. “Blue sky” brainstorming can yield imaginative, yet realistic possibilities.

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zombies in the classroom May 22, 2017

Six Classroom Elements Learned from Zombie Films

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College courses, like movies, can inspire, entertain, shock, or repulse. Instructors produce, direct, and star in a series of semester-long scenes, complete with audiences, critics, and awards. If your course could be equated to a movie genre, what would we be watching? Would we see a romantic comedy, focused on relationship-building and a predictable, subtle narrative? Perhaps it would be an action film – colorfully energetic, thrilling for some, and uncomfortable for others.  Current research on learning suggests you may want to consider plot elements in zombie films as you design your courses. Here’s why.


Steps concept January 5, 2017

Refresh Your Course: Step-by-Step

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You’ve decided you need to update, redesign, refresh your course. Maybe for your own reasons, such poor student performance. Or perhaps you want to try a new technique or a tool. Or maybe your reasons are external, such as a change in the curriculum or new material or a new text.

Most instructors simply don't have enough time to do everything we'd like to do in our teaching, including redesigning our courses. I’d like to share my process, which will allow you to be systematic about how you go about changing your course, keeping it fresh for you and for your students—and letting learning happen the way we intend it to.

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college classroom December 1, 2016

Using Brief Interventions to Maximize Student Learning [Transcript]

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The shift toward student-centered learning has transformed our classrooms, and it’s no longer enough to be a subject-matter expert. Instructors have to not only know the material their students need to learn, but they also have to have a reasonably good grasp of how students learn it.

The task is to master both, because that’s when the real learning magic happens. That’s the idea behind cognitive theory and its application in higher education. And while it took you years of study to earn credentials in your discipline, you can learn how to apply relevant aspects of cognitive theory to your courses in far less time.

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students in lecture hall April 11, 2016

Six Things You Can Do to Deepen Student Learning

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For baseball fans and players, springtime can only mean one thing: spring training. Every year professional baseball players head to Arizona or Florida to hone their craft. These are professionals mind you, but they continue to spend hours each year working on many of the same things Little Leaguers work on during the start of their seasons—throwing, catching, hitting, base running, and so forth.

As they make minor adjustments in these fundamentals of the game, the overall outcome is a major improvement. The same is true for faculty who remain mindful of their fundamentals, and make small, incremental improvements to their teaching.



instructor thinking October 19, 2015

Refresh Your Course without (Too Much) Pain and Suffering

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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.


April 8, 2015

How Assignment Design Shapes Student Learning

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The design of assignments, that is, the actions required to complete them, shapes the learning that results. We know this, but do we make the most of what we know when we design and select assignments?

I’ll try to make the point with writing assignments. We have come a long ways since the days when term papers were the gold standard of writing assignments. Paper options now include authentic assignments that approximate professional writing tasks. The Writing-Across-the-Curriculum movement has introduced us to low-stakes writing activities from students jotting down a few ideas before they speak, to free writing that starts the flow of ideas, to journals that encourage personal connections with course materials. Technology adds still more assignment design options. Students can blog and respond to posts; they can write collaboratively on wikis and Google Docs. The options are many, but the features of each writing assignment directly shape the learning that results.


May 8, 2014

The Last Class: A Critical Course Component

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There has been significant and well-deserved attention paid to the first class. This class is critical in setting the tone and expectations of the course. Unfortunately, the same amount of attention has not been paid to the last day of class. To us, this class is as important as the first. It is the class where the professor has an opportunity to celebrate the learning of the students. Unfortunately, this day is usually saved for final exam review, finishing up projects or dealing with logistical details like date, time, and location of the final or where to pick up graded term papers. The course ends with a whimper instead of a bang.


students reading October 28, 2013

Keeping Introverts in Mind in Your Active Learning Classroom

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Introverts. Who are they and how do we ensure they thrive in active learning classrooms? If you have ever come to the midterm point of the semester and graded a stellar paper of a student whose name you don’t recognize and who has never raised her hand in class, you may have just identified an introvert in your classroom.