5 easy things you can do to your course this summer [from the archives]

5 things

The summer is a great time for redesigning or redeveloping a course. The process of redesigning, when it is done well, can take a good chunk of your time. I think the time spent redesigning a course is well-spent; you may see improved student learning and you may renew your excitement for the course.

Alas, some summers are busier than others, and you might not have time for a full course redesign. If that is the case this summer, I have 5 easy things you can do to your course that should make an impact on student learning:

1. Rewrite the student learning outcomes (SLOs).

Ah, the poor life of misunderstood student learning outcomes. They get such a bad rap but they can be one of the most useful and effective components of your course because they explicitly outline for students the skills and knowledge they need to develop in the course and they help you, the instructor, know how to assess students. Review the SLOs for your course and consider revising them to make them more active, measurable, or meaningful. For example:

Turn this learning outcome…

Students will understand the principles of the developmental period between childhood and adulthood.

(this SLO is not active, is difficult to measure, and lacks meaning)

into this…

Students will compare the cognitive, social, physical, and emotional development of typically-developing adolescents and atypically-developing adolescents.

(this SLO involves meaningful application of course concepts in a way that is easier to measure and requires active student participation).

I talked more about SLOs in video #2 of my blogcast series “Made from Scratch.”

2. Add a real-world application assignment.

Add or change at least one assignment to promote real-world application of course materials. In a chemistry course, students might be asked to analyze the chemical makeup of home beauty products. In an education course, students might write letters to state legislators describing and outlining a resolution for an educational issue. In a math course, students might be ask to use mathematical calculations to determine the answer to some engaging questions (check out this blog post by Dan Meyer).

The real-world assignment helps students to apply course concepts outside of the classroom. It requires students to actively seek solutions to real issues, rather than just regurgitate concepts. Any real-world assignment you use needs to measure whether or not students are achieving the desired learning outcomes.

3. Add formative assessment activities.

Formative assessment is assessment for learning. The goal of formative assessment is to give students chances to reflect on their learning and provide feedback on the teaching and learning processes. Formative assessment helps with metacognition, which is a crucial skill for students especially as they move into their careers.

Formative assessments may include self-assessments, reflection activities (journals, blogs), peer assessments, or any of the evidence-supported Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs). For more on CATs, check out these websites: http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/cat.html and http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/teaching-guides/assessment/cats/

4. Identify 1-2 “big questions” for the course (or use a course theme).

Big questions and course themes provide an overarching context for a course. In his book What the best college teachers do, Ken Bain says that questions are essential to the learning process and big questions help students to connect concepts to create a big picture. In a world religions course, a big question might be “what purpose(s) do religions serve for humanity?”

In my fall Adolescence course, I used the theme of “adolescence thwarted” to talk about typical adolescent development in the contexts of situations where that development is thwarted (e.g., war & adolescent development for child soldiers). By doing this, I required students to learn concepts of typical adolescent development and then to make applications of those concepts outside of typical adolescent development.

5. Add inquiry (and intrigue).

Many times, we approach teaching as if we are giving students all of the answers and information they need. But what if we allowed students to investigate, explore, hypothesize about, and analyze information? For example, in a history class, a professor might tell students that there are 3 different accounts of a historical event and ask the students, usually in groups, to hypothesize, investigate, and draw conclusions on which account is the most veracious. In a biology class, a professor might ask students to hypothesize on why identical twins who grow up in the same home have different personalities.

These inquiries, these mysteries to many students, often add an element of excitement as students search for answers, eliminate answers, identify red herrings, and evaluate their and other students’ conclusions. Start small; add just one or two inquiry elements into your fall course and, if you find that students respond well, you can continue to add inquiry and intrigue to future classes.

I hope that you will find some of these tips to be helpful. As always, the Stanford CTL team is ready to work with you on any course redesign efforts– big or small– or new approaches to teaching.

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