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  • Step 1:  Define Your View of the Purposes of Education
  • Step 2:  Set Course Goals
  • Step 3:  Select Course Content
  • Step 4:  Arrange Course Content
  • Step 5:  Consider Student Goals and Characteristics
  • Step 6:  Choose Instructional Modes
  • Step 7:  Select Readings and Activities
  • Step 8:  Write a Syllabus
  • Step 9:  Plan to Get Student Feedback
  • Step 10:  Seek Advice from Colleagues and Experts

Planning a course is not always linear but typically involves a series of steps.

A course plan demonstrates our values and beliefs about higher education in general, and what we believe about our roles as teachers, specifically. The following steps describe alternative planning decisions you can make in regard to your own course. For more information, see Planning a College Course by Ryan and Marten, published by The National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1989.

Step 1. Define Your View of the Purposes of Education

If it is to make the world a better place, you'll want to use contemporary social issues to help students learn their roles in accomplishing this goal.

If it is to teach students to think effectively, you'll need to plan student interaction employing the intellectual skills of observing, classifying, applying, analyzing, and evaluating.

If it demands systematical instructional processes, you'll need to specify course goals and objectives clearly, with the processes designed to achieve them.

If it is to provide students with the ability to earn a living as productive citizens, you'll need to include vocational knowledge and skills.

If It is to engage students in personally enriching experiences, then you need to select individualized content so students will discover themselves as unique individuals and develop personal autonomy.

If it should emphasize the great ideas, products and discoveries of the human mind, you must select content from the discipline to illuminate major ideas and concepts of important thinkers.

If it should help students clarify their beliefs and values to provide guidance in their lives, you must plan exercises which consider the merits of alternative values.

Step 2. Set Course Goals

The goals for your course should reflect some of those identifed for the department or program. Usually your course can be located on a "curricular map." For example, it might be described as:

  • a general education course for students with limited background in the discipline
  • a general education course for prospective majors and others
  • a general education course for all university students
  • an introductory course for prospective majors
  • an introductory course in a technical career program
  • an advanced course for majors
  • a graduate course

Ask the question, "How should students be different when they finish this course?" Is there consensus in your discipline on what should be included in such a course?

Step 3. Select Course Content

Careful selection of content will reflect the most important topics. Questions to ask include:

Does your topic:

  • illustrate a method of inquiry?
  • indicate guiding principles in your field?
  • teach a valuable skill among course goals?

This Step requires a balance so that there is sufficient content to make the course challenging and not so much content that the pace of the course is too rushed. Leave room in case a topic takes longer or other unpredictable events occur. Use student feedback devises to adjust coverage rate.

Step 4. Arrange Course Content

Organization of the content is extremely important in enhancing students' learning. Content can be arranged in several ways:

Structurally based content is consistent with the way relationships in the field occur, e.g., spatial, chronological, physical, etc.

Conceptually based content uses major ideas or concepts to show important relationships such as:

  • relationships of classes and groups of objects or phenomena
  • relationships of theory to application of theory, or rule to example, or evidence to conclusion
  • relationships that proceed from simplest ideas to those of more complexity, and abstractness
  • relationships of logical sequence in which one idea is necessary to comprehend the next.

Learning-based content is organized by principles such as:

  • students should first learn skills that are likely to be useful later in life
  • students should encounter familiar ideas and simple phenomena before those that are more unfamiliar and complex
  • students should understand an idea or concept before attempting to interpret and use it
  • students should encounter material geared to their readiness to learn.

Vocationally based content helps students become familiar with practice and employer needs.

Knowledge utilization content is arranged so problem-solving situations encourage students to take responsibility for developing logical, organized solutions.

Knowledge-creation based content is organized around processes of generating, discovering, or verifying knowledge in the field. It shows how scholars discover relationships and draw valid inferences.

Values-based content is organized around issues, dilemmas, ethical problems or value dimensions that help students clarify and become committed to values and beliefs.

Step 5. Consider Student Goals and Characteristics

Why are students taking your course? Some reasons may be to:

  • develop a philsosphy of life
  • learn to interpret numerical data
  • understand scientific principles/concepts
  • become an informed voter
  • learn to communicate effectively
  • pass a certificate or licensing exam
  • learn to solve complex problems
  • learn to organize ideas
  • understand how researchers gain knowledge.

They also may be there to get a better job or meet social expectations. The match between your goals and those of your students is important. Try asking students what their goals are. Share your goals and explain why they are important. What background have your students had and what external pressures are they working? The answers help guide your pace.

Step 6. Choose Instructional Modes

Use both active and passive modes of instruction. Lecture is the most common passive mode while active modes include discussion, case studies, labs, clinics, and field experiences. Research about teaching and learning shows that students learn more content, more quickly, and retain what they have learned longer if they are actively engaged. A combination of the two modes often works well.

Step 7. Select Readings and Activities

Textbooks can be used as an organizing source wich integrates the course content. Tell the students how you expect them to use the text in their learning, and what is useful about it. Do not criticize it or the author. This isn't constructive and it can undermine learning. If discrepancies occur between your views and the text, explain that rival interpretations exist, and give reasons for your choice. You can encourage realization that clear "truths" are not always agreed upon. Do clarify for students which ideas are acceptable for examinations.

If textbooks are not used, you'll need to help students organize and integrate knowledge in the course. Monographs and articles can:

  • provide depth of information
  • demonstrate research processes
  • provide a variety of perspectives
  • provide up-to-date ideas

A combination might be useful.

Step 8. Construct a Syllabus

The syllabus formally communicates your expectations, grading procedures, and assignments. The following elements are often included:

  • your name and contact information
  • course number, section, and title; and meeting schedule
  • prerequisite(s) for the course
  • description of the course, along with course goals or objectives
  • required materials: text and supplies
  • space for names and telephone numbers of at least two classmates
  • class schedule with topic and readings sequence, due dates for assignments, and dates and times of exams
  • grading standards and criteria, including "late work" policy
  • policies regarding attendance, participation, and academic integrity
Read more about creating a syllabus.

Step 9. Plan to Get Student Feedback

The following indicators can help collect information for revision:

  • exams or quizzes
  • observe students' faces and body language
  • monitor participation and attendance
  • monitor frequency of out-of-class discussion or use of office hours
  • monitor assignment completion
  • analyze students' papers/journals
  • examine course evaluations
  • ask students directly

The best time to make your own notes about needed changes is after each class session.

Step 10. Seek Advice from Colleagues and Experts

Colleagues from the field can provide useful ideas for planning your course on topics such as instructional modes, test construction, and student feedback. Your discipline may have teaching journals which have useful ideas.