Teach the Earth > Course Design > Course Design Tutorial > Table of contents > Part 2 index > Course plan

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 1.4 before beginning this section.

Part 2.1 Developing a course plan in the context of goals and content topics

Now it's time to develop a plan for your course. In this section of the tutorial, you will consider how to merge the goals that you've set for your course with the content topics to develop a course plan that makes it possible for students to achieve the goals. In order to achieve the goal(s), students must have practice throughout the course. Developing a course plan in the context of the content, both broad and specific, means thinking not only about having students learn content but also about how to give students practice in the tasks that are important in the goals.


Start by downloading the worksheet (Microsoft Word 77kB Jun10 05) that goes with this part, and use it as you work through the sections below.


A course plan includes not only the goals and the content topics, but also how the topics will be taught and what the students will do during the course. In order to achieve end-of-semester goals, students must have practice during the semester. If goals focus solely on mastery of content, then practice in reiterating and explaining what students have learned is appropriate. Many courses do this, of course, and demonstration of achievement of these content mastery goals typically involves a series of midterm and final exams focused largely on lower order thinking skills such as identifying, listing, explaining, describing, summarizing, and so on.

In this tutorial, we have asked you to set goals that go beyond mastery of content and that focus on enabling students to do higher order thinking skills tasks with that content knowledge by the end of the semester. Practice in content mastery alone will get students only part of the way to the goals. Practice in the required higher order thinking skills articulated in the goal is what's needed to get students all of the way there.

Sometimes it's easier to understand by examining bad examples rather than good ones. So, let's start with examples of two courses in which the course plan falls short of successfully merging goals and content, making it very difficult for students to achieve the goals.

Example I:A Driver Education Course

  • Overarching goal: students will be safe, competent, and confident drivers who know and use the rules of the road.
  • Content topics: making safe turns, backing up safely, driving in slippery conditions, nighttime driving, and so on.
  • Course plan: the instructor plans to divide the course into sections and to lecture and show videos to students during the course. Students will demonstrate knowledge during the course by taking written tests on what is covered in the lectures and videos. Students will take a driving test at the end of the course.
  • Will this course accomplish the goal set for the students? Everyone would agree that this is a preposterous notion. How could students who have been lectured to and watched videos about driving possibly be any good at driving without having had practice behind the wheel? At the end of the course, students will have lots of content knowledge but essentially no ability in the stated goal. What students need in order to accomplish the goal is practice in driving.

Example II:An Introductory Environmental Geology Course

  • Overarching goal: students will be able to evaluate unfamiliar areas for geologic hazards and assess the risk of future property damage.
  • Broad content topics (each with imbedded content items): volcanic hazards, seismicity, flooding, mass movement, coastal hazards.
  • Course plan: the instructor will divide the course into five sections that each introduce a topic, cover related background content items, and present detailed examples of both the hazard and related land-use decisions.
  • Will this course accomplish the goal set for the students?
    • On the one hand, the overarching goal is strong, and the content topics, while traditional and not particularly imaginative, could be used to achieve the goal.
    • On the other hand, the course plan itself is not promising. The plan suggests that the course will focus on the instructor presenting the content to the students with the assumption that, filled with a boatload of content, students will be able at the end of the semester to do their own analyses and evaluations of unfamiliar situations even though they have had no personal practice at it during the semester. This is really not very different from the driver ed course described in the previous example.
  • How might we align the course plan better with the goals? While the students might well be able to reiterate considerable content at the end of the semester, the course as planned does not make it likely that the students will be successful at the goal of independent analysis because the course has not focused on providing them practice during the semester. Changing the course plan to include more than coverage of the content topics would do the trick.
    • Suppose, instead of simply planning to cover volcanic hazards, the instructor chose to introduce the topic and present a few case studies that could illustrate not only the geology but also the process of hazard analysis and decision-making. If students not only learned about the case studies but also had a chance to practice by doing portions of the analyses themselves, they would be prepared to do a final wrap-up analysis at the end of the section on volcanic hazards. If the instructor simply asked, "What practice do my students needs, and how can I integrate that practice into the course?", the course would be transformed into one that could accomplish the stated goal.
    • If the next section of the course built on students' analytical and decision-making abilities, provided them further practice, and gave them progressively more independence in their analyses, the course would truly prepare them for independent assessment of geologic hazards in an unfamiliar setting at the end of the course.

The message here is that you can't just fill students up with content, bing them over the head at the end of the semester with a magic wand, and have them be good at something they haven't practiced. As you develop your course plan, the crucial question to ask is, "What are the opportunities in this section of the course for my students to practice something related to the goal?"



Let's consider the environmental geology course described above:

  • Overarching goal: students will be able to evaluate unfamiliar areas for geologic hazards and assess the risk of future property damage.
  • Broad content topics (each with imbedded content items): flooding, mass movement, coastal hazards, volcanic hazards, seismicity.
  • What do students need to practice during the semester in order to achieve the overarching goal?
    • Finding and extracting information from data sources such as maps of various kinds, charts, data tables, and historical records.
    • Identifying the features that provide clues to hazards and analyzing the nature of hazards in an area.
    • Evaluating the risk to property posed by the hazards in an area.
  • What opportunities might exist for students to practice the three skills listed above? Here are some possibilities:
    • You might have students extract information from data sources themselves and interpret it, rather than presenting it to them. You might decide, for example, that interpreting features on topo maps is a thread worth carrying throughout the course, increasing the complexity and open-endedness as the semester progresses. Toward the end of the course, you might even give students experience in finding their own maps and data via on-line databases, something that they would need to do on their own in the future.
    • In each of the broad topics, you might have students practice identifying features that provide clues to hazards and analyzing hazards and risk in an area, rather than presenting every example or case study as a fait accompli. You might choose to provide guided practice at the beginning of the semester and give more independence as the semester progresses.
  • Where would you go from here to develop the course plan?
    • For each broad content topic, you would arrange the content and concepts into a logical sequence.
    • You would then consider specifically where student practice can be built into the course in addition to or in lieu of presentation of material by the instructor.
    • Remember! We're trying to move away from exposing students to information, telling them about topics, and showing them concepts and moving in the direction of giving students first hand experience to improve their learning and their capabilities. Remember that Driver Ed course!
    • In addition to considering the overarching goals, you will need to review the ancillary skills goals and plan how to provide students with practice and timely feedback so that they can improve in those skills.


Task 2.1: Your course plan

In order to achieve the goal(s), students must have practice throughout the course. Developing a course plan in the context of the content, both broad and specific, means thinking not only about having students learn content but also about how to give students practice in the tasks that are important in the goals. What do your students need practice in during the semester in order to achieve the goals? What will be the order of content and concepts in each broad content topic, and how will you give students goal-related practice as they encounter content and concepts? How does the practice that you plan to include in the course build independence over time? What ancillary skills goals have you set for your students? How will you provide students with practice and timely feedback so that they can improve?

Use the worksheet that you downloaded earlier to draft your course plan.

Realize that this course draft will likely go through many iterations as you develop your course and change your mind about various aspects, particularly as you consider teaching strategies, which is the next section of the tutorial. So, view this as a draft!



Once you have developed a draft of your course plan, Go to Part 2.2: Choosing Teaching Strategies




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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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