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Elements of Course Design

How Do I Plan My Courses?

by Ken Bain

Based on the bestseller “What the Best College Teachers Do” by Ken Bain, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA: 2004.

A Systematic Approach to Teaching: Some Fundamental Questions to Define the Course Intellectually:

We cannot say that every outstanding teacher asks all of these questions when preparing a new course, but we certainly found some clear patterns:

Initial Questions

1. What big questions will your course help students answer? Or what abilities (or qualities) will it help students develop?

  • Identify a major (“big”) question that your discipline and course might help to answer.
  • Identify small, yet still significant, sub-questions from your discipline, the answers to which will help answer the larger question.

2. What reasoning abilities must students have or develop to answer these questions?

  • List the various abstract reasoning capacities that the student must already possess, or must be helped to develop, to confront the evidence and deal properly with the question and sub-question and not have to resort to memorization of the “right” answer.

3. What information will your students need to answer these questions? How will they obtain that information?

  • What will you ask them to read?
  • What will you explain? Why did you decide to explain this material?

4. What paradigms of reality are students likely to bring with them that I will want them to challenge?

  • How can I help them construct that intellectual challenge?

5. How will you help students who have difficulty understanding the questions and using evidence and reason to answer them?

  • What questions will you ask them to focus their attention on significant issues, or to clarify concepts, or to highlight assumptions that they are likely to ignore? What writing will you ask them to do that will help them grapple with these matters?

6. How will you confront them with conflicting claims and encourage them to grapple (e. g., collaboratively) with the issues?

  • Indicate how you will expose students to more than one interpretation so they will have practice making distinctions.
  • Indicate how they will learn to understand, apply and appreciate the criteria your discipline uses to reach its conclusions.

7. How will you find out what they expect from the course? How will you reconcile any differences between your plans and their interests?

8. How will you help students learn to learn, to examine and assess their own learning and thinking, and to read more effectively, analytically and actively?

9. How will you find out how students are learning before you test them for a grade? How will you provide feedback before and separate from any grading of the student?

  • Richard Light found in interviews with Harvard students that the most intellectually stimulating classes let students do their work (write papers, do problems, etc.) and get feedback BEFORE they turned it in for a grade. Indicate how they might provide feedback to each other.
  • Indicate how you will encourage students to think aloud. Indicate how you will create a non-threatening atmosphere in which they can do so. Indicate how you will give them the opportunity to struggle with their thoughts without facing assessments of their efforts.

10. How will you communicate with students in a way that will keep them thinking?

Summary Questions

11. How will you create a natural learning environment in which you embed the skills and information you wish to teach in assignments (questions and tasks) students will find fascinating–authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity, challenge students to rethink their assumptions and examine their mental models of reality? How will you create a safe environment in which students can try, fail, receive feedback and try again?

Questions About Evaluation

12. How will you spell out explicitly the intellectual standards you will be using in assessing their work and why you use those standards? How will you help students learn to assess their own work using those standards?

Indicate how you would lead the students to stand back, become conscious of the patterns of thinking and reasoning in which they have engaged, and if possible, connect this experience with experiences they have had in other courses.

13. How will you know when students are able to do what you want them to be able to do intellectually?
Comparing and contrasting what they hear with what they already think, asking why they should accept or reject, etc.