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 PRIVATE FILE 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 PRIVATE FILE 91kB Aug2 06), if you would like to read it.

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.


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.


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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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