Synopsis of the Cutting Edge Course Design Approach

Developed by Barbara J. Tewksbury (Hamilton College) and R. Heather Macdonald (College of William and Mary)

Students running aeromagnetic survey
Our face-to-face Course Design Workshops have helped hundreds of faculty members design effective and innovative courses over the past decade. We now have an Online Course Design Tutorial that guides faculty independently through the same practical and intellectually interesting process that our workshop participants experience. The tutorial also provides faculty developers with the full details and examples of our approach to course design.

This web page provides a short synopsis of the key elements in our course design process. We hope that you are intrigued enough to explore and use our approach.

Overall philosophy

We believe that a course should do more than provide students with a strong background of knowledge in a field.

  • We believe that a course should enable students to use their strong backgrounds to solve problems.
  • A truly valuable course should focus beyond the final exam to add to students' future lives, abilities and skill sets and prepare students to think for themselves in the discipline after the course is over.
  • Designing such a course is a challenge and involves providing not only opportunities for students to master content but also opportunities for students to practice thinking for themselves in the discipline so that they will be prepared to do so after the course is over.

Our Tutorial provides a process to help faculty design just such a course.

The design process

Course context. Teaching a course involves making choices about what an instructor will ask students to do and why. External factors such as course size, context, student demography, and support structure are significant and should influence the choices that need to be made during course design. We begin the design process by having faculty articulate who their students are, what they need during the course, and what they might need in the future.

Setting overarching goals. The heart of our course design approach involves having faculty set student-focused goals that enable students, at an appropriate level, to think for themselves in the discipline, not just expose them to what professionals know. Faculty set goals that focus the course on developing students' abilities to think for themselves and solve problems in the discipline while still addressing mastery of content.

At the end of the course, I want by students to be able to...
  • analyze the modern geologic processes in an unfamiliar area and assess potential hazards to humans (which is different from recalling those covered in class).
  • analyze how a culture's ideas about music determine/influence the musical activities, repertoires, and material objects (instruments, documents, media) of a music-culture and to interpret their own music-culture in light of knowledge about music-cultures from other "worlds".
  • evaluate the historical context of an unfamiliar event.
  • formulate the definition of a hero based upon examination of heroes from pre-1500 C.E. literature and history ad to apply and test that definition to representations of heroes from various cultures and societies.
  • analyze aspects of the Information Age from a sociological perspective and apply sociological theory within the context of the Information Age.
  • access and analyze climate and paleoclimate data sets in various formats (tabulated, graphical, simple strat. column, satellite photo, etc.) and make logical inferences about climate and environmental change from the data.
  • analyze an unfamiliar epidemic.
  • develop and test age-appropriate lesson plans.
  • analyze pupil characteristics, classroom performance, and learning environments and be able to design, implement, and assess lesson plans that would enhance spoken language learning in hearing-impaired children.
  • use data from recent Mars missions to re-evaluate pre-2004 hypotheses about Mars geologic processes and history/evolution
  • predict the outcome of ____
  • synthesize past and present events in deaf heritage to formulate a personal understanding of their experiences as deaf or hard of hearing individuals; analyze a current event in Deaf Heritage that may generate ethical or personal issues for the future.
  • research and evaluate news reports of a natural disaster and communicate analyses to someone else
  • find and evaluate information/data on ____

Setting ancillary skills goals. Before proceeding to content and course plan, faculty will set one or two ancillary skills goals for their students (e.g., improving writing, teamwork, oral presentation).

Choosing content to achieve overarching goals. Every field is awash in more than a semester's worth of content, and every one of us faces decisions about what content to include and what content to omit. We ask faculty to make decisions about content by considering what general content topics could be used to achieve the overarching goals they have set for their students, rather than by making a laundry list of content that students should be exposed to.

Developing a course plan. A course plan includes not only the goals and the content topics, but also the order of content and concepts in each broad content topic, and how students will receive goal-related practice with increasing independence as they encounter content and concepts. We ask faculty to choose appropriate classroom, assignment, and assessment strategies that both help students learn effectively and allow the instructor to evaluate whether students have met the goals.

Go back to main developers page :: Take me to the Course Design Tutorial

This material is part of On the Cutting Edge, a professional development program for current and future geoscience faculty. On the Cutting Edge is sponsored by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers with funding provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation-Division of Undergraduate Education . On the Cutting Edge is part of the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE).


©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.

New TTE Logo Small

Course Design resources from across Teach the Earth »

Key Resources:

Join the Community:

or Search