Spending time up front in the planning stage of a course can save you time and effort in teaching the course by helping you consider a number of decision points before you actually begin teaching.

The learner-centered course model addresses content mastery and the intellectual skills students should develop when they complete the course. It places the responsibility for learning on the students because you make your planning decisions based on the activities students must perform. It also makes it easier for you to select material to cover, since your course goals dictate the content to include.

A learner-centered instructor begins by asking four key questions:

1. What are my instructional objectives (that is, what do I want students to be able to do when they finish this course)?
2. What assessment strategies will help me know that students have achieved the outcome?
3. Which instructional strategies are most appropriate to help my students learn?
4. What learning activities will best help students to achieve the outcomes?

1. Learning Objectives

Objectives should be sufficiently specific so your students know what is expected and you'll be able to recognize when the objectives have been achieved. Use these questions to guide your goal setting:

  • What skills and levels of knowledge can you expect of students who register for the class?
  • What level of performance can you expect from them?
  • In what ways will students be "different" when they finish the course?
  • What should students be able to do with the knowledge and skills gained in the course?
  • What information or skills do students need to be able to do the things they should be able to do after passing the course?
  • What kinds of tasks could students perform to help them acquire the information or skills needed to achieve the learning goals?
  • How will you measure students' level of "difference" when the course is finished?
  • How will you know they can do what they should be able to do?
Effective goals provide a clear guide to the concepts covered in the course and a good framework on which to plan the details of the course.
Example A
Sociology 112: Social Stratification

The focus of this course is on contemporary social stratification in the United States. However, we will also cover the historical development of stratification, different theoretical perspectives on the origins of social equality, stratification in communist societies, and theories of world stratification.

Stating your course goals in terms of student performance (Example B) eases course development, gives students clear expectations, and simplifies assessment.
Example B
Sociology 110: American Society

After this course, you should be able to do the following:

  1. Recognize and define the basic concepts of society and the ways in which sociologists use these concepts in constructing explanations for individual and group problems.
  2. Explain how American institutions are maintained or changed by individuals or groups in society.
  3. Analyze a selected number of American institutions using the basic concepts and theories of the sociological perspective.
  4. Analyze selected past, present and future problems of American institutions using the knowledge you have gained in 1, 2, and 3, above.

2. Assessment Strategies

In what ways can you gather information that would tell you how well each student or the class as a whole achieved the instructional goals of the course?

• Multiple choice exams?
• Essay exams?
• Project assignments?
• Weekly quizzes?
• Writing assignments?
• Oral reports?

Evaluation methods should be appropriate to the objectives and need to be planned when you design the course. For help deciding which assessment method is best suited to your objectives, see the chapter on Evaluating Teaching and Learning in this handbook.

Also consider student feedback in assessing how well your students are learning. Good grades aren't necessarily a good predictor of student learning; neither is your outside perspective as instructor.

3. Instructional strategies

Once you've mapped out the course objectives and determined how you'll assess student performance, you are ready to ask what kinds of learning experiences seem appropriate for students to master the course goals and objectives. Some strategies you can use to help students achieve the goals include:

• Continuous series of lectures and readings, with one or two midterms
• Sequence of reading, reflective writing and discussions for each topic
• Field or lab observations, followed by readings and discussions
• Lectures, followed by field or lab work
• Assigned readings, followed by mini-tests (individual and collaborative), followed by a collaborative application project
• A developmental series: build knowledge/skills; work on small application projects; work on larger, more complex projects
• Grade contracts: For example, if students read text and pass exams they earn a C grade; if they also conduct research they can earn a B; if they also complete an extended project they can earn an A.

4. Learning Activities

We talk a lot about "active learning" in higher education and, at least intuitively, most of us have some idea of what it means to be actively involved in the learning process. But, just to be sure that everybody understands what we mean by the term, here are some general characteristics commonly associated with active learning:

• Students are involved in more than listening
• Less emphasis is placed on transmitting information and more on developing students' skills
• Students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation)
• Students are engaged in activities (reading, writing, discussing)
• Greater emphasis is placed students' exploration of their own attitudes and values

A wide variety of instructional strategies for promoting active learning have been proven to enhance students' motivation, develop students' thinking skills, and improve students' performance. See Teaching Strategies above for a list of alternative activities and assignments, then choose the instructional approaches that best fit the course objectives you've chosen for your class.