Monday, July 9, 2012

Course redesign: rethinking “traditional” design

The first reason why course redesign is both opportune and urgent is that redesigned courses can respond to what we know about how people learn.

First, though, to make the case for course redesign, we need to establish where, precisely, we are beginning. What, exactly, is being redesigned? 

A “traditional” course is one in which most class time is spent on delivery of content. Typically, this means that the prevailing instructional mode--what students spend the majority of their time in class experiencing--is lecture. It also matters what happens outside of class time. In a traditionally designed course, the expectation is that students outside of class time will read, complete writing assignments, or perhaps complete problem sets. Students in traditional courses, thus, are generally being exposed to new material in class and then doing something with that material outside of class. Finally, in “traditionally” designed courses, opportunities for students to obtain feedback are mostly limited to those moments when major exams or assignments are returned, which often happens days if not weeks after the feedback is most useful.

To be sure, there are plenty of excellent, engaging, college teachers who teach courses designed in this traditional way. We also know that traditional course design works for some students. Most faculty today did well as students themselves who encountered traditionally designed courses. The point, though, is that more students can learn more deeply if we take advantage of 1) what we know about how students learn and 2) a greater range of options for course design made possible by virtual learning environments and research-based findings about what "works" that now comprise decades of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

On a side note (and a point that I will expand on in a later post), this is a topic that is garnering more and more attention in the public, including among political leaders. Today's Denver Post features a column marking the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act by questioning the value of higher education. I don't endorse former Governor Lamm's view that our society's investment in higher education runs counter to our need for more auto mechanics (what about our need for an informed, educated, and engaged citizenry?), but this line definitely drew my attention:
One thing Lamm and (CSU President) Frank agree on is that the old model of a professor lecturing to an amphitheater full of young people doesn't work so well anymore.
Depends, I suppose, on what your goal is. If your goal is to cover material so your students can study on their own (read: cram) and pass an exam, then the model works. If your goal is for students to learn deeply and even remember something after the end of the semester, then Lamm and Frank are right.