Course Design 101: Or, How to Let Intuition be the Guide When Planning a New Course

Summer term begins in two weeks or so (I should probably check). This means that I will have to decide what my classes are going to be all about. My courses are:

  • General Psychology (online)
  • Human Development (online)

Yes, my school publishes course descriptions. But these are always vague and somewhat boring. “In general psychology, students will commit to memory a tedious catalog of names and dates and concepts,” and so on. I have never found these descriptions helpful or inspiring.

And, yes, my school publishes learning objectives for courses. I am told that there exists a private document, probably somewhere in the office of the department chair or program coordinator, or in the office of a former department chair or program coordinator, upon which there is a list of the psychology courses with the main purpose or goal that each course is supposed to satisfy. Like shoppers choosing ingredients for their submarine sandwich, students choose courses that, at the end of their degree, will add up to one whole psychology. 

I think the common method of course design begins with a textbook. An instructor peruses SAGE publications or Rowman & Littlefield for a book on Human Development. These publishers usually provide entire courses for the uncertain teacher, including semester schedules, quizzes, powerpoint presentations, and on and on. The work of the instructor is minimal. If I wanted to be done with course planning in five minutes, then that would be my route. (It was my route for a number of years, so I'm not throwing stones.)

As attractive as the textbook method is, I have found that when I do so I bring just about as much enthusiasm to the class as my students, which is to say that we are all terribly flat and indifferent. When taught this way, the objective of each class is covering as much of the content as possible. I am getting sleepy just writing about it.

My process:

I enjoy it more and find it more meaningful when I let my intuition out to play during the course design stage. That is what I will try to describe throughout the rest of this post.

I begin at the end. I ask myself: What do I want students to take from this class? I have answered this many different ways (independence, critical thinking, writing skills, reading skills, presentation skills) and have documented how each has gone. I use what I learn from a previous course to inform future iterations of courses. (That way I am always growing and improving as an instructor.)

So let me do that for my courses in front of you now. I honestly don’t know what will emerge, or how long it will take to emerge. I’m teaching two courses this summer. They are 8-week courses, and they are 100% online.  One is in general psychology, the other human development.

I know that I would be pleased if students used either class to… 

  • learn about themselves
  • practice personal development (emotional intelligence, stress reduction, goal-forming and planning)
  • explore areas of interest to them (self-directed learning)
  • connect to each other and/or their professor (me) 

I came up with these four bullet points in about 30 seconds. I feel a vague interest in each, but I must wait to see how they will fit together, or if anything else needs to be added. I will set this on simmer on the back burner of my mind and let the concoction reduce for a bit. When I go run hills later or have lunch with my friend and colleague Scott or when I am getting my haircut I will be working on my courses in the background. I will be wondering openly about the possibility of relating to students (and providing a method for them to relate to one another) in a completely online course.

** Five hours later **

I learned during lunch that I have a full two weeks, so I am in no hurry. Right now I am thinking that I will give students four or five options for each of the above bullet points, and then ask them to choose one from each area. I will create detailed instructions for a variety of activities that satisfy each area, as well as a few reflection sheets. I will probably also have the following requirements:

  • Syllabus quiz (a simple "I agree to take this course" activity, which is for mostly legal purposes demanded by our university registrar)
  • Single paper reflecting on each of the chosen activities
  • Personal letter to the professor
  • Midterm grade (students choose their midterm grade)
  • Final grade (students choose their final grade)
  • Course evaluation (students evaluate me)

Because I think that the course material should reflect the students and their interests, the materials for general psychology and human development are almost identical. If a student is interested in learning about neonatal development, then I do not make them wait until human development to learn about it. I provide resources for them to learn about it when the desire hits them.

I don't feel wonderful about these, but I feel good. For the rest of this week I will keep an open mind, and, if still feeling okay about them next week I will build my classes.