creative course design

Creative Course Design (Yes, You Can!)

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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common teaching mistakes

Four Horsemen of the Teaching Apocalypse

Four problems account for the lion’s share of serious teaching problems:

  1. Misalignment
  2. Expert blind spot
  3. Content overload
  4. Over-identification

An overstatement? Perhaps, but over the many years we’ve worked with faculty in a wide range of disciplines, we’ve seen these issues undermine students’ learning, motivation, and morale in insidious ways. Easy to fall prey to, they compromise the effectiveness of even seasoned teachers. Here’s some advice on recognizing the problems, avoiding them, and preventing the host of headaches they can cause.

Misalignment
Three important elements characterize any well-designed course: objectives (what students should know or be able to do by the end of the course), assessments (the means used to gauge students’ progress toward those objectives), and instruction (the methods and materials employed to help students acquire the knowledge and skills articulated in the objectives). A solid course design requires that these elements be aligned, each dovetailing with and supporting the others.

Misalignment occurs when these three elements are not in sync, in particular when the knowledge and skills being taught are not the same as those being assessed. “I’d never do that!” you might be thinking. And of course, no one ever means to. But it can happen more easily than most of us realize. All too often, we teach the whats (terms, definitions, formulae) and the whys (concepts, principles) of a subject but assess the hows (procedures, methods) and the whens (conditions of application).

Think of how we learn to drive. We study the whats and whys of the rules of the road in order to pass a written test. Then we have to pass a test of actual driving. Would studying for the written test prepare us adequately for the driving test? Of course not. Actual driving requires other knowledge, skills, and practice, for which road rules are necessary but not sufficient. If we prepared for the driving test solely by learning road rules, it would constitute misalignment: the instruction and assessment don’t line up.

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getting your students to read

Reading to Learn

For some time now, students in my first-year biology course have been protesting that I’m assigning too much pre-class reading. I use the flipped classroom structure in most of my courses and that means students prepare for class by reading assigned pages in the textbook. To hold students accountable for completing the reading, I administer a two-stage reading quiz before we discuss the content and apply the concepts to problems during class. Those who complain tell me that reading is not part of their learning style and I’m putting them at a disadvantage.

The research on learning styles is inconclusive and contradictory (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008). The theory behind them proposes that students learn best when teaching matches their learning preference, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. The research, however, does not support this theory in very convincing ways.

What the research does suggest is that learning occurs best when the teaching method matches the content and the learning task. Thus, if problem-solving is the skill to be learned, then practicing problem-solving is the best way to learn it. If concepts are what’s being learned, then various explanations of the concepts and practice explaining them is the best way to learn them. Learning can be approached in many different ways, and we each have our preferences about how we like to learn. But our preferences do not, indeed should not, prevent us from learning in different ways. If we find it difficult to learn by listening to a lecture, that does not mean we must live with poor listening skills. It means we need more practice at listening for meaning when we find the content challenging. If we have difficulties understanding the written material that appears in texts, that does not prevent us from becoming more skillful readers of text. It means we need a better understanding of the skills involved in reading textbook material and repeated practice in applying those skills.

What troubles me about learning styles is that they promote a fixed mindset and that evolves into a perceived learning disability where none exists. Certainly, learning disabilities are real and experienced by some students, but many of my students conflate having a particular learning style with the inability to learn any other mode. They treat their difficulty with learning from texts as an incurable problem and ask to be excused from ever having to do it. I can’t think of any profession where people are excused from reading. Rather, poor reading comprehension comes with consequences.

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course design and planning

Creating a Course Calendar that Aligns to the Rhythms of the Semester

Do you have a system or standard process for prepping a course you’ve taught before? Where do you start? Early in my career, “one chapter per week” described my course outline. It wasn’t an effective system. Poor planning left my students and me burnt out at the end of most terms. For some, planning revolves around syllabus revision, closing loopholes, and adjusting dates. When time’s abundant, some teachers read books like Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design, a thoughtful, research-based system. I highly recommend their work.

But as I write this article in mid-December, the reality is there are papers and projects to grade, events to attend, holidays to celebrate, and a short break before spring courses commence. Few of us will be able to work through a comprehensive system at this time of year.

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UDL- student with tablet

UDL: How to Improve Satisfaction and Retention for Students at All Learning Levels [Transcript]

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) isn’t just for students with disabilities, it can help all students be better learners.

The increased (and increasing) diversity of students at colleges and universities means learning needs to be flexible enough to accommodate that diversity. A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching doesn’t take students with different abilities or learning styles into consideration. But that’s where UDL comes in.

Universal Design for Learning provides students with more choices about and control over how, and even when, they learn. Whether it’s choosing the way they get the information you offer, having options for staying engaged, or choosing how they show just how well they learn, UDL gives all students a better chance to be successful.

This transcript, based on an online seminar by Thomas J. Tobin, will help you:

  • Improve interactions with students by using UDL
  • Implement campus-wide UDL at your college or university
  • Use UDL to increase access for students on mobile devices
  • Create interactions that will encourage students to stick with a course and return next semester
  • Structure your courses to include at least one alternative way of learning
  • Advocate for the adoption of UDL at the administrative level of your institution

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What does it mean. Questions about research.

The Questions to Ask about Research on Teaching and Learning

Faculty have access to more information about college teaching than ever before. Researchers have studied a host of instructional approaches and published results in myriad journals. Educators have shared summaries of and links to such studies informally on websites and through Twitter feeds. This is good news for those of us who want to learn more about a particular instructional method or technique before we try it in our own courses.

Not all of us are educational researchers, however, and that brings some challenges for making sense of these studies. The research questions and methods may not be as familiar to us as those in our home disciplines. Unfamiliar research approaches can make it challenging to determine how much stock to place in study findings. This challenge increases when different studies report mixed or contradictory results.

How can we assess the research quality? How can we determine whether a given instructional method is something worth trying in our courses? What follows is a set of questions that you can use when evaluating individual studies and collections of them. The goal of these questions is to help you glean information from research to consider whether or how to implement a pedagogical approach.

Is the research question one you want to know the answer to? Education researchers ask and answer questions that may or may not have practical application for our teaching. For example, although hundreds of researchers have asked whether active learning is superior to lecture, some of us are not particularly interested the answer. We don’t see lecture and active learning as an either/or proposition and instead believe that we can use both approaches together. What we might want to know instead are the combinations or particular features of lectures or active learning methods that make them more or less effective.

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UDL framework for learning

Applying Universal Design for Learning Principles

When creating course materials, it is important to be as inclusive as possible. A common way of working to ensure that materials respond to different approaches to learning is to use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which proposes inclusive course design. It is a framework that helps to make content, activities and assignments, and instruction accessible to students at different levels, with different abilities, and who take different approaches to learning. While this sounds straightforward and relatively simple, when one dives into the UDL literature and works to implement its guidelines, the task quickly starts to feel overwhelming—at least that’s how it made me feel.

Last year, I attended a year-long faculty working group in which we focused on implementing UDL in our courses. Here’s what made this a daunting task. A course that is truly adhering to UDL guidelines makes every aspect of the course as inclusive as possible, including the syllabus, lectures, and any online components such as videos, PowerPoints, etc. It can mean creating closed captioning for videos and ensuring that all documents are created and saved in a manner that is screen reader ready.

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self-regulated learners

Ways to Promote Student Responsibility for Learning

As noted in the Teaching Professor Blog post, student responsibility for learning can happen in three different arenas. First and foremost, students are responsible for their learning. Teachers can encourage and support learning endeavors in a variety of ways, but students must do the learning.

Second, students should have responsibility for all those tasks that improve learning and develop learning skills—the kind of tasks teachers do so regularly that students have come to believe that they are teacher responsibilities. It’s the teachers’ job to tell them what’s important, review what they need to know and provide every assignment detail. However, doing for students what they should be doing on their own creates dependent learners. They’re unable to make decisions or don’t make very good ones, and they resist assuming responsibility for the very parts of the learning process that enable them to learn.

Finally, there are responsibilities that students could share with teachers. Students could be given some say in how the class is run, how they will learn the content, and how that learning is assessed. Students can be involved in providing feedback and evaluating the work of their peers. Sharing responsibilities with students empowers them as learners.

Teachers frequently talk with students about their responsibilities as learners, but telling students doesn’t usually garner the desired results. However, a number of faculty are using strategies, approaches, activities, and assignments designed in a way that they can’t be completed without students assuming some responsibility for learning. Here’s a collection of ideas with references for those that have been published.

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young professor at chalkboard

23 Practical Strategies to Help New Teachers Thrive

“If you know the content, you can teach.”

How many of us have heard this sentiment before? How many of us believe it ourselves?

It is easy to assume that a content expert is automatically qualified to teach a course on his or her area of expertise. Much of the graduate-level preparation for entering university teaching is based on this assumption; graduate students study their subject areas, but little discussion is had about how to teach and what methods might be most effective. This is regrettable, because while content is important, the content needs to have solid pedagogy behind it in order to be effective in the classroom. Content can fall flat if all the instructor is doing is sharing the information in didactic fashion.

The concept extends to become a belief that good teachers don’t need to practice. This belief is also false, as many faculty development experts know; faculty development usually means remediation, whether one is dealing with experienced administrators or new faculty.

Higher education supports this myth; if an instructor gets good ratings and is considered a “good teacher,” then no one recommends that he or she work with a faculty developer. However, few instructors can say that they have had an entire class period go perfectly, let alone an entire course.

The reality is, there are ways to improve a class in both large and small ways every day. What works well one semester may not work well the next time the course is taught. There is always more to learn and there are always better ways to serve students.

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faculty mentoring

A Case for Coaching in Faculty Development

I recently spent a rainy afternoon watching the semi-finals of the Madrid Open and noticed how often one of the players looked to his coaching box for reassurance about his strategy. Coaches are not just for players trying to make it into the big leagues; “even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every elite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.” (Gawande, 2011)

If coaching is a proven strategy for ensuring that athletes perform at their best and is used at the highest levels in the business world, why shouldn’t faculty turn to coaching to ensure continued growth and peak performance? In a piece in The New Yorker magazine, renowned surgeon Atwal Gawande recounts his experiences in hiring a retired surgeon to coach him to even higher degrees of professional excellence than he had achieved on his own. Rather than coasting at mid-career on his accomplishments, Gawande stretched his skills further, reduced his complication rates, and concluded that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” (Gawande, 2011)

Coaching as a professional development strategy is beginning to take hold in the education sector. In the preface to his text, “Instructional Coaching” Jim Knight recounts an experience all too familiar to those of us working in faculty development in higher education. At the conclusion of a workshop, he invited participants to send him an update after they’ve had a chance to experiment with some of the evidence-based instructional strategies discussed during the session. “At the end of 2 years, I had not received one postcard. The reality was, I suspected, that inservice sessions just did not provide enough support for most people to implement what they had learned.” (Knight, 2007)

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