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Cutting Edge > Course Design > Course Design Tutorial > Table of contents > Part 1 index > Articulating context

If you have dropped into this Course Design Tutorial from somewhere else, you might wish to start at the introduction, overview, or table of contents.

Part 1.1 Articulating the course context and constraints

Teaching a course involves making choices about what you will ask your students to do and why. External factors such as context of the course, student demography, and support structure are significant and should influence the choices that you will make as you design your course. The sections below outline external factors that influence a course and explain why these factors are important to consider before you begin to set realistic goals for the students in your course.


Start by choosing a course or a portion of a course to work on during this tutorial. Then, download the worksheet (Microsoft Word 63kB May20 05) that goes with this part of the tutorial, and use it as you answer the questions with respect to your course.


The nuts and bolts of your course

Many of the nuts and bolts aspects of a course are ones that instructors naturally take into account in the design process. Although some of the questions addressed in this part of the tutorial are easy to answer, we have included them in order to have you think explicitly about their influence on design decisions.

Does the course serve as a prerequisite for a subsequent course or does it prepare students for a standardized exam? If so, what will students be expected to have mastered in the course?

Does the course have prerequisites?

How big is the course, and what kinds of rooms are available to teach in?

Does the course have a lab and/or on-line component, and does the same person teach the lecture and lab?

What are the options for frequency and duration of class/lab meeting times?


Task 1.1a: What are the nuts and bolts of your course?

Use the worksheet that you downloaded earlier to record your answers to the questions below (download the worksheet (Microsoft Word 63kB May20 05) if you haven't already done so). In addition to the facts, comment both on the challenges to designing your course posed by each factor and on the opportunities presented by each factor that you could take advantage of in designing your course.



Who are your students, and what do they need?

Later, in Part 1.2 of in this tutorial, we will ask you to develop overarching goals for your course. In part, those goals will reflect the subject matter of the course, but they will also reflect what you want your students to accomplish in the context of that subject matter. Who your students are and what they need should be an integral part of setting those goals and subsequently designing the course. Here are two examples of why it is important to set goals and design courses while bearing in mind a clear view of who your students are and what they need:

Other examples of how knowing who your students are and what they need might influence your decisions during the design process:
Most of the students in a typical undergraduate structural geology course will not become professional structural geologists, and the vast majority don't need a course designed to prepare them for graduate study in structural geology. Replacing some of the more esoteric aspects of structural geology with practice using structural principles to solve problems in a variety of other disciplines could make a course that more closely matches what most of the students will need to be able to do in the future using structural geology.
General education courses in geoscience are typically "terminal" courses—few students in the course will ever take another geoscience course and may never take another science course. Rather than feeding students a survey of physical geology, why not focus on a few geoscience topics about which citizens should be better informed and more capable of making good decisions, giving students the wherewithal and practice to make those decisions?
Let's consider an environmental geology course taught at an urban, minority-serving institution. While students could benefit from a standard environmental geology course, they would benefit more from a course designed to target environmental issues that are particularly relevant to minority populations living in urban settings.

Task 1.1b: Who are your students, and what do they need?

Use the worksheet that you downloaded earlier to record your answers to the questions below. In addition to the facts, comment both on the challenges to designing your course posed by each factor and on the opportunities presented by each factor that you could take advantage of in designing your course.



What is the support structure for a course?

It is quite possible, in a burst of creative energy and enthusiasm, to design a course that cannot be managed by an ordinary human being. Ambitious goals involving technology, lots of grading, diverse projects, and so forth may not be realistic if you do not have some help.

Are graders, TAs, or other assistants available?

A course that requires significant lab set-up, grading, student mentoring, or other labor-intensive activities can be tough to manage alone. Don't hesitate to think broadly about the possibilities for help. Undergraduates who have taken the course, for instance, can be invaluable and enthusiastic volunteers.

Is the faculty member the default computer troubleshooter, or do students have other support staff to turn to if they run into difficulty with a computer problem related to the course?

Coping with students who have computer hardware and software problems can rapidly overwhelm a faculty member. Be sure that you know what kind of help you can expect, and from whom, if you decide to integrate a significant computer component into your course.

Does the campus have writing. quantitative literacy, or speaking skills centers that can provide supplemental help/instruction for students?

Writing conferences, remedial help with math skills, preparation for oral presentations, library/web instruction, etc. can consume large amounts of faculty time. Be sure that you know what services are available on your campus to help students with ancillary skills that you want to emphasize in your course.

Are there professionals on campus who can help faculty members with assessment?

On-campus teaching and learning centers with assessment professionals can be invaluable sources of creative ways to assess student learning, to monitor what's happening in your course, and to evaluate your course at the end. Don't re-invent the wheel if you don't have to.


Task 1.1c: What is the support structure like for your course?

Use the worksheet that you downloaded earlier to record your answers to the questions below. In addition to the facts, comment both on the challenges to designing your course posed by each factor and on the opportunities presented by each factor that you could take advantage of in designing your course.



Once you have articulated the context and constraints on your course, Go to Part 1.2: Setting overarching goals


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©2005 On-line Course Design Tutorial developed by Dr. Barbara J. Tewksbury (Hamilton College) and Dr. R. Heather Macdonald (College of William and Mary) as part of the program On the Cutting Edge, funded by NSF grant DUE-0127310.


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