Teach the Earth > Course Design > Course Design Tutorial > Table of contents > Part 1 index > Articulating context

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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?

  • If your course does not serve as a prerequisite for another course or as preparation for an exam, you will have much more latitude in what you cover in your course. You can choose to abandon a traditional survey approach, to make your course topical, and to emphasize depth over breadth.
  • If your course does serve as a prerequisite for another course or as preparation for an exam, your design efforts will be constrained at least somewhat by others' expectations. This by no means constrains you to a traditional survey course. You do, however, need to have a good idea about what others' expectations are.
    • Take the time to ask colleagues what specifically they expect students coming from your course to have mastered. Don't ask for a laundry list of items; ask for the drop-dead, must-have, do-or-die items and skills that students will need in a subsequent course. From experience in doing this, we can virtually guarantee that this list is far shorter than you might imagine it to be. Once you have that short list, you know what you have to integrate and are free beyond that to include or omit whatever you like.
    • The issue of designing a course that leads to a standardized test (e.g., a teacher certification test or the exam given by the National Association of State Boards of Geology) is a potentially more difficult one. Find out as much about the test as you can. Armed with a list of content items and skills, you at least know what must be included in one way or another in your course.

Does the course have prerequisites?

  • If your course does have prerequisites, find out from your colleagues what students have done in those previous courses, and build appropriately on the background that they already have. Students compartmentalize their education and can benefit from stronger connections to what they have done in other courses. And, a surprising number of faculty members know virtually nothing about what students do in their colleagues' courses!
  • Even if your course doesn't have prerequisites, remember that your students will come into your course with many preconceptions and misconceptions about principles and concepts in both geology and physical science. Students are never blank slates!

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

  • Course size constrains, in part, the choices you can make in terms of teaching strategies. If you have a large class, many types of small group work, for example, or time-intensive grading, become difficult, if not impossible.
  • The set-up of your classroom can be either a help or a hindrance. Choosing a classroom with movable chairs and tables, for example, can make it easier for students to work in groups.

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

  • If your course does have a lab or on-line component, and someone else is responsible for teaching it, you will need to consider whether you will design your portion of the course independently, involve the other person (people) in designing both simultaneously, or design both and plan components to teach the others how to teach their section effectively so that the course is well-integrated.
  • If your course does not have a lab component, you should give some thought to whether you want to develop in-class lab-type experiences for your students.

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

  • So many science courses meet for three hours of lecture and three hours of lab that it is easy to overlook the opportunity to organize class meeting times in different ways.
  • If your campus permits a number of different time slots for courses, think broadly about the time blocks that you could use for your course.
    • If you plan to do group work in class, for example, a 75- or 90-minute time block twice a week provides more uninterrupted time in class, plus a longer time for student preparation between classes, than more frequent, shorter blocks do.
    • If you want to blur the distinction between lecture and lab, for example, meeting students for a two hour time block, three times per week, provides the same number of contact hours as the traditional schedule but permits the flexibility of doing longer lab-type activities during any class meeting.

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.

  • Does your course serve as a prerequisite for a subsequent course or does it prepare students for a standardized exam? If so, what?
  • Does your course have prerequisites? If so, what are they?
  • How big is your course, and what kinds of rooms are available for you to teach in?
  • Does your course have a lab and/or on-line component, and do you teach it?
  • What are your options for frequency and duration of class/lab meeting times?


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:

  • The students in a physical geology course for pre-service K-6 teachers will ultimately need to be able to translate what they have learned in the course into exciting, interesting, and age-appropriate geoscience activities for children in grade school. Students in a physical geology course for engineering majors, on the other hand, may ultimately need to be able to apply engineering principles to analyze natural materials and structures. While both groups would benefit from the same survey course in physical geology, each group would benefit more from a course that addresses their own needs.
  • At a residential college, students might be able to meet in groups outside of class time. Planning course assignments and activities involving outside group work or perhaps even field trips may be unrealistic, however, if your students commute to campus and hold down part-time or full-time jobs in addition to going to school.
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.

  • Are your students majors (or potential majors), non-majors, or both?
  • Will the students in your course go on to be professionals in your discipline or (in the case of a course for majors) your subdiscipline?
  • In what way might your students use what they have learned in your course in the future?
  • What is the demography of students in your course in terms of age, race, gender, and ethnicity?
  • Are most students in residence at the school or do they commute?
  • What percentage of students in your course have high-speed computer access outside the campus library/computing center?


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.

  • Are graders, TAs, or other assistants available?
  • Are you 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 your course?
  • Does your campus have writing, quantitative literacy, or oral communications skills centers that can provide supplemental help/instruction for students?
  • Are there professionals on your campus who can help faculty members with assessment?


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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