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. If you are working through the tutorial, you should have completed Part 1.3 before beginning this section.

Part 1.4 Choosing content to achieve overarching goals

So far in this tutorial, you have considered the context and the constraints for your course and set overarching and ancillary skills goals. We did not ask you to start with content items, except in a broad way that relates to the topic of the course. Does this mean that content is unimportant? Absolutely not! Content is crucially important. We have simply saved it until this point in the design process in order to use the goals to drive the selection of content, rather than to have content as the primary design focus.

Start by downloading the worksheet (Microsoft Word 61kB Jun1 05) that goes with this part, and use it as you work through the sections below.

Selecting broad content topics

In this section of the tutorial, you will consider the goals you have set for your course, as well as all of the possible content topics you could include, and answer the question, "What content topics could I use to achieve the overarching goals of my course?"

Choosing content in the context of goals can transform a course

Let's look briefly at an example of a course recently redesigned by Carol Di Filippo at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Carol teaches at RIT in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and her undergraduate course Audition and Spoken Language is designed for pre-service teachers who will teach spoken-language classes that will also have some hearing impaired students. Carol's old course was a survey of relevant topics, and she typically progressed from the range, nature, and physiology of hearing loss to how hearing loss is measured, how hearing aids work and how to trouble-shoot them, how to develop lesson plans, and so on.

In going through the redesign process, Carol realized that, rather than aiming simply to cover topics, what she really wanted to accomplish was to prepare her students better for being in the classroom. So, she set an overarching goal that students will be able to analyze pupil characteristics, classroom performance, and learning environments to design, implement, and assess lesson plans that will enhance spoken language learning.

All of the topics she had covered before were still relevant to her new goal, but she decided to chunk the content differently. She chose to organize her new course by extent of hearing loss, with roughly 1/3 of the semester devoted to the moderately hearing-impaired child, 1/3 to the severely hearing-impaired child, and 1/3 to the profoundly deaf child. The change has several significant impacts on the course:

  • Students revisit each topic several times at increasing levels of complexity. They study audiograms, for example, in each of the three sections, and, by the end of the semester, students have had significant practice in a number of different ways and have gained confidence and independence in interpretation that they had not gotten in previous versions of the course.
  • In the new scheme, students make progress toward the overarching goal at all stages of the course. Instead of a single culminating project that asks students to pull the semester topics together and develop a lesson plan, Carol can give students practice during each third of the semester in analyzing pupil characteristics, classroom performance, and learning environments and developing lesson plans. Because students have more than one opportunity to practice, she can give them increasing independence as the semester progresses and be more confident that students will be well-prepared after the semester is over.
  • You may download Carol's course plan (Microsoft Word 91kB Aug2 06), if you would like to read it.

At one of our recent online workshops, we had the following exchange that is illuminating for this tutorial.

  • A concern: I learn (and therefore teach) like a ladder. I have to put the spokes in before I can climb; i.e, I have to teach them how to ID a basalt before I can ask them how that type of lava flow moves before I can ask them why a shield volcano is flat... etc. I don't know how to have them "discover" what a basalt is (while introducing 30 other rocks and minerals too) when what I really want is for them to get to the hot spots and shield volcano part. So I have tended to put things together in a very linear fashion and done a lot of describing, which I know may neglect the higher order skill that we're discussing here. What's your take?
  • The response: I think the real key is how many steps of the ladder you have them take before you have them do something of significance. I agree that it's probably not useful to have students "discover" basalt unless developing classification schemes happens to be one of the goals of your course (which is unlikely). But what if you have them learn basalt in order to do part of an analysis, rather than just having them learn basalt for the sake of learning basalt? Maybe it's useful to re-think how tall that ladder has to be before students do something interesting and significant. If they have to climb a single ladder all the way to the top before they do something interesting at the end of the semester, they won't have something very stable holding up the platform at the top. If you have them build a lot of little short ladders holding up a bunch of intermediate platforms (the "problems" in this analogy), they'll have a more stable structure (because they will have used what they have learned repeatedly and in context) that will be more likely to be useful to them in the future.

In the context of the course described above on Audition and spoken Language:

  • The "single-ladder" approach would build all of the knowledge and analytical tools separately and sequentially over the course of a semester. At the end of the semester, students would have one opportunity to apply everything in the ladder to analyze a particular scenario.
  • In the "multiple ladder approach", students would build short ladder segments of knowledge and skills connected by platforms of problems solved in each section of the course, providing a stable foundation for a final culminating project.

Goals and content unite to drive the design of a course

Let's look at another example of how one might select content to achieve the overarching goals of a course, and how that combination of goals and content drives the design of the course.

Suppose that we wanted to design a geologic hazards course for which the overarching goal is to enable students to research and evaluate news reports of a natural disaster and to communicate their analyses to someone else. What course content might we use to achieve that goal? Suppose that we were to ask three different instructors to select broad content topics that could be used to achieve this overarching goal. We didn't make this up! We actually did choose three instructors, and they independently arrived at the following:

  • Instructor #1 chose four specific disasters as content topics
    • the 1973 Susquehanna flood
    • landsliding in coastal California
    • the eruption of Mt. St. Helens
    • the Armenia earthquake
  • Instructor #2 chose four themes as content topics
    • the impact of hurricanes on building codes and insurance
    • the perception and reality of fire damage on the environment
    • mitigating the effects of volcanic eruptions
    • the geologic and sociologic realities of earthquake prediction
  • Instructor #3 was particularly interested in having a local connection that would enable students not only to use local sources but also to interview residents. She chose to focus on historical natural disasters in Vermont. The content topics that she chose are:
    • the historical record of flooding in northwestern Vermont
    • 1983 landsliding in Vermont
    • two to three other natural disasters of different types in Vermont

Although each chose different content topics, each of the three instructors could achieve the goalof enabling students to research and evaluate news reports of a natural disaster and to communicate their analyses to someone else while at the same time having students learn about geologic processes associated with a particular group of geologic hazards.

Would the three courses be the same? No!

  • Although the overall goal is the same, the choice of specific content topics to achieve the goal would drive how the instructor would accomplish the goal and would profoundly influence the character of the course.
  • Whereas students might receive similar kinds of practice during each of the courses (namely practice in researching and evaluating news reports of natural disasters and communicating their analyses), the content topics that would be the focus of their practice would be different.
  • Each course would also be very different from a generic survey course on geologic hazards. All three courses would focus on preparing students to be good geologic decision-makers in the future, rather than simply informing them about geologic hazards.

In order to explore further how goals and content topics unite to provide the framework for a course, let's consider an introductory geologic hazards course with a different overarching goal than the one above. Suppose that the overarching goal were to enable students to evaluate and predict the influence of climate, hydrology, biology, and geology on the severity of a natural hazard.

Could we use the same content topics proposed for one of the three courses described above? Sure! How would this course differ from the previous one?

  • Although the content topics would be the same, students would practice predicting the influence of climate, hydrogeology, biology, and geology on the severity of a natural hazard, rather than researching and evaluating news reports of natural disasters and communicating their analyses.
  • Although topics are the same, assignments and activities would be different.

This is a nice example of how context, goals, and content interact. If you were designing a geological hazards course, you would want to decide:

  • What your students need and which of the two goals is more important for your students' futures.
  • Which of the possible content topics make the most sense for your students in terms of the setting of your college/university, in terms of the interests and experience of the faculty member, and in terms of the situations that your students might encounter in the future.

Below, you'll find other examples of choosing content topics to achieve the overarching goals of a course. Although the examples are course-specific, the commentary on each offers general advice applicable to other courses.

  • The course: Intro geology for pre-service teachers
  • One of the overarching goals:students will be able to help their future elementary school students identify rocks that students bring to class and help students learn how to make their own interpretations.
  • Possible content approach to achieve the goal: select three locations with different bedrock geology around which to build different rock interpretation activities that could be spread out over the course of the semester.
  • Comments:
    • A geologist faced with identifying an unknown rock will likely first ask the question, "Where did this rock come from?", in part because provenance helps narrow down the possible choices and in part because geologists are curious about more than just identifying a rock.
    • Choosing three different locations around which to build activities and assignments in a course for pre-service teachers would allow students to learn how to find out about the geology of an area where they are teaching and gain practice in identifying and interpreting rocks in a local context.
    • This would be a much more stimulating and ultimately more useful way to have pre-service teachers learn about rocks in a portion of their course, and the list of rock-related imbedded content items would be at least as large as might be covered in a standard survey course.
    • This approach provides a clear connection between the goal and the kind of practice that students will need in the assignments and activities to be developed for that portion of the course.
  • The course: Mineralogy
  • The overarching goal: students will be able to synthesize mineralogical data (visual inspection, petrographic microscopy, XRD and SEM/EDS) to address specific geological problems
  • Previous organization: The course had been previously organized around traditional, sequential coverage of typical topics in mineralogy, including crystal chemistry, Miller indices, systematic mineralogy, lattice structures, space groups, etc.
  • New organization: Mineralogic problems of 1) the core, 2) the mantle, and 3) the crust.
  • Comments:
    • The instructor's research interests lie in mantle mineralogy, and she realized that she could combine her research interests with the course goals by choosing choosing mineralogic problems that illuminated not only mineralogy but also interesting issues about the Earth's interior.
    • She decided to begin with relatively simple mineralogic systems in the core, work up through somewhat more complex systems in the mantle, to the crust, where mineralogic systems are the most complex.
    • She could revisit important topics more than once at increasing levels of complexity
    • Students could receive increasingly independent practice in the goal—synthesizing mineralogical data to address specific geological problems—as the semester proceeded.
  • The course: Tectonics
  • The overarching goals: Students will be able to 1) read and interpret the scientific literature in order to identify, list, and synthesize information relating to a specific topic and/or question; 2) collect and analyze data to address a scientific question (including formulating a data-collection plan, collecting data, graphing data, identifying patterns within the data, and quantifying results); 3) synthesize data collected from a variety of sources to test current tectonic models for the southern California region.
  • Initial thoughts on organization: The instructor's initial inclination was to have a long introductory background section on solid Earth geophysics and plate tectonics before tackling California issues. She also had originally envisioned covering tectonic geomorphology first, then measurement of crustal movements, and then seismicity.
  • Revised organization: She decided to ditch the long background section and integrate what students needed to know "just in time", as they needed to learn it. She also decided to invert the order of topics and start with seismicity, go on to crustal movement, and end with tectonic geomorphology.
  • Comments:
    • As instructors, we commonly feel that students need to be exposed to huge amounts of background information before they can do any problem-solving. The revised organization acknowledges that learning what is needed in time to solve a particular problem is a valid alternative. Using knowledge immediately to solve a problem also improves learning.
    • Revising the topical organization allows students to start with what occurs in the modern world and move to more complicated spatial and temporal problems as the semester progresses.
    • The new organization is more suited to integrating the goals of the course throughout the semester.
  • The course: Historical Geology
  • The overarching goals: 1) When faced with a new piece of geologic information, students will be able to determine how we know this information and what the assumptions are in the analysis; 2) Students will be able to cite examples from the past and make an informed prediction when asked about Earth's future; 3) Students will be able to synthesize the geologic history of a particular area by interpreting the regional geologic evidence and be able to put this information in the context of Earth history
  • First attempt at organization: The instructor's first inclination was to organize the course in traditional chronological fashion as a march through the stratigraphic sequences of North America because he was concerned that students needed a strong chronologic perspective.
  • Revised organization: Taking a systems approach and focusing on topics that address change over time, including sea level changes, mass extinctions, climate changes, and chemical cycles.
  • Comments:
    • All three goals can be threaded throughout the four topics. The goal of having students determine how we know pieces of information and what the uncertainties/limitations are is a particularly nice goal.
    • The instructor was able to incorporate a local focus into some of the topics.
    • The instructor decided to address his concern about not approaching the course chronologically by developing a timeline to put up in the classroom on which students would hang events and trends as they encountered them during the semester.
  • The course: Planetary Geology
  • One of the overarching goals: students will be able to use data from recent Mars missions (Mars Express, Mars Exploration Rovers, and MOC and THEMIS images from the past year) to re-evaluate pre-2004 hypotheses about Mars geologic processes and geologic evolution.
  • Three possible content topics to achieve the goals: 1) the origin of drainage networks on Mars, 2) the extent of intermediate to silicic rocks on Mars, and 3) the origin of layered rocks on Mars.
  • Comments:
    • These three content topics could certainly provide a good framework for addressing the goals, because all three topics are ones where older hypotheses are available and where new data shed light on the questions.
    • The array of imbedded content items in these broad topics is impressive and ranges from determining surface ages to remote sensing of rock compositions to the origin of igneous rocks to features of sedimentary rocks to climate change on Mars and more. Students would not be short-changed in terms of content if the course were organized around these three topics.
    • One could imagine ordering these topics to build on one another as well as to provide more independence in finding and analyzing relevant information as the semester progresses.
  • The course: Physical Geology
  • The overarching goals: Students will be able to integrate different types of data (e.g. topographic maps, geologic maps, cross-sections, stratigraphic columns, photographs, diagrams and/or tables and figures) to reconstruct scenarios that reflect the internal and/or surficial processes that create the widely varying landscapes that we see today and to evaluate potential hazards associated with them.
  • Previous organization: The old organization in this course was a typical sequential coverage of items in a physical geology textbook (e.g., igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks, geologic time, surface processes, hydrogeology, palte tectonics, etc.)
  • Revised organization: The new organization emphasizes a local focus and begins with what students can see operating in the world around them. The course starts with modern processes and consequences (flooding, mass movement, hydrogeology, land use, seismicity). The course then moves into the recent past, and students consider Pleistocene and Holocene processes and local landform evolution. The course ends with the rock record in the local area.
  • Comments:
    • The course starts with what is easiest for students to see around them and is most relevant in terms of processes and hazards.
    • Practice toward the goal can be threaded throughout the semester.
    • Despite the fact that the course does not proceed in standard textbook order, the course still "covers" the topics typical in a physical geology course.
  • The course: Structural Geology
  • One of the overarching goals: students will be able to make observations of rocks and thin sections and collect field data to evaluate the conditions of deformation and the deformation mechanisms responsible for structures and fabrics and, where possible, the history of deformation in a sequence of rocks.
  • Possible content topics: three case studies, including 1) brittle deformation features in rocks of Capitol Reef National Monument, 2) brittle and ductile deformation features of the Tethyan fold and thrust belt and the Gurla Mandhata metamorphic core complex in southwestern Tibet, and 3) a final, wrap-up case study with field trip in Precambrian and Lower Paleozoic deformed rocks northeast of Albany, NY.
  • Comments:
    • These three case studies could certainly provide a framework for background material in the course and for activities and assignments that would provide students with experience in interpreting deformation in rocks.
    • The list of content items imbedded in these case studies could encompass a significant proportion of the topics in a standard structural geology course, so students would not be short-changed. Building the course around these case studies, rather than around a survey of topics in structural geology keeps the focus on building student skills and abilities in the discipline and provides a clear path to developing assignments and activities that help students meet the goal.
  • The course: Physical Geology
  • One of the overarching goals:students will be able to frame a hypothesis, plan a way to test the hypothesis, collect and analyze data, and communicate the results.
  • This is a very commonly-articulated goal in science courses of all types. In one way, this goal is very useful in guiding course design. If you want your students to be good at framing and testing hypotheses, you need to build lots of practice into the course (guided at first, more independent later in the semester). The need for practice drives the nature of assignments and activities.
  • On the other hand, the goal is not topic-specific and doesn't present a clear topical path to follow from goals through content to activities.
  • One useful approach is to give some thought to the kinds of hypotheses that you might reasonably expect that students to frame and test successfully. Be realistic, and keep in mind the level of your course and who your students are. In an introductory geology course, for example, students might frame and test a hypothesis about the kind of seismicity they might expect in a particular area and why, but it would be beyond most of them to come up with an original research question to test.
  • Give some thought as well to why it is a good idea to make your students better at framing and testing hypotheses. How might they use their abilities in the future? If your students will be geology majors, how might you aim their hypothesis framing and testing experience in a direction that will be useful for their later coursework? What is it you want to emphasize and why? On the other hand, if you have students who will never take another geoscience course, how can you make their experience in hypothesis framing and testing most useful to what they might do in the future? Use the answers to these questions to choose the broad content topics in which you will have students do their hypothesis framing and testing.

Fleshing out the broad content topics

Broad content topics are fine, but what about the nitty gritty? What, in particular, will students master as they work toward achieving the goal(s)? Will the scope of content coverage be adequate if a particular set of broad content topics is chosen?

In the section on setting overarching goals, we showed that goals involving higher order thinking skills have imbedded in them lower order thinking skills goals. Similarly, broad content topics such as those above have imbedded in them many concepts and content items that would be covered in a standard survey course.

Let's look at an example from an introductory course called The Geology and Development of Modern Africa. The overarching goal for this course is to enable students to analyze the underlying influence of geology and geologic processes on human events. Two of the broad content topics that make up the early part of the course are:

  • The influence of climate change on prehistoric settlement patterns in North Africa. What content items are imbedded in this broad topic?
    • 14C dating, fossils, palynology, lacustrine sedimentation, stratigraphic columns, using sedimentary rocks to interpret paleoenvironments, the geologic time scale, marine record of climate change, monsoonal weather patterns,....
  • The influence of development of East African Rift on hominid evolution.What content items are imbedded in this broad topic?
    • Formation and evolution of continental rifts, some aspects of plate tectonics, radiometric dating, rift volcanism (including tuffs), stratigraphic columns, fossils, using sedimentary rocks to interpret paleoenvironments, the geologic time scale, fluvial and alluvial processes, faulting, geologic history of East Africa, evolution,...

This course illustrates a number of important points about options in selecting content to achieve course goals:

  • A course that is not a survey course can still be content-rich. This is not a fluffy course.
  • Courses with depth rather than breadth are a viable alternative in course design. Rather than covering a little bit about all sedimentary environments, for example, the course provides students with a deep experience in only a few environments, with the expectation that students will be able to take that deep experience and apply it to studying an unfamiliar sedimentary environment in the future.
  • Topic coverage in a course does not have to be linear or follow the table of contents of a textbook. Non-linearity is OK, and, in fact, may be desirable. Revisiting a topic in different contexts and depth improves learning and provides an opportunity to build the complexity of ideas and applications over time.
  • If broad content topics are selected carefully, it is possible to meet the content expectations of colleagues in subsequent courses even if the course is not a survey course.
    • In order to serve as the intro course prerequisite for upper level geology courses in the department in which it is offered, this Africa course must cover plate tectonics, rock forming processes, geologic time, and Earth systems.
    • The course does, in fact, cover these topics and meets departmental expectations, although not in the way that a traditional survey course would.
  • The combination of clearly-stated goals and specific content topics offers a clear pathway to providing students with practice in tasks related to the goal.
    • Students can't become proficient at the task articulated in the goal if they encounter the task for the first time in a final project or final exam.
    • Organizing the course around goals and topics that can be used to achieve the goals makes it easier to plan student practice to progressively build their abilities.

Task 1.4: Choosing content to achieve overarching goals.

Use the worksheet that you downloaded at the start of this section to record your answers to the following questions:

  • What are the broad content topics that you could use to achieve each of the overarching goals of your course? What are the content items imbedded in each of those broad topics? What order might you put the broad topics in that would allow students to build the complexity of ideas and applications over time and to revisit concepts or topics in an appropriate way?
  • Are you constrained to include particular topics in your course in order to prepare students for subsequent courses or certification exams? If so, what are they? Do the broad content items that you have chosen enable you to include those items that must be covered for subsequent courses or for certification exams? If not, how might you fit them in?

Once you have chosen the content to achieve the overarching goals for your course, Go to Part 2.1 Developing a course plan and tying it to the goals.


©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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