Analyze Your Course in Context

These pages were written by Anne Egger (Central Washington University) and Molly Kent (Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College), drawing on discussions and contributions from the 2014 Getting the Most Out of your Introductory Courses workshop.

Your course does not exist in isolation: it lives within the complex system of a department made up of faculty within a larger institution - not to mention the students. So the first step in being strategic about change is to analyze your course within that system. The SWOT matrix is a simple tool for beginning that analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats; strengths and weaknesses are considered internal influences while opportunities and threats are considered external. The procedure originated in the business world as a tool for organizational management (Learned et al., 1965), but has become useful in many other fields.

Important things to keep in mind for an effective SWOT analysis:

  • Involve everyone in the process. Different people have different perceptions. For example, what you consider an opportunity might be considered a threat by others. Include faculty who don't teach introductory courses, as they may have expectations about students that pass through the introductory level classes into theirs.
  • Start with a specific objective. The more specific, the better - it's hard to define threats to "improving our Introductory Geology course," for example, but it can be easier to define threats to "Implementing active learning strategies in every large lecture course."
  • Give yourself time for discussion. While the analysis tools look simple, the process involved in compiling ideas, discussing the results, and strategizing for the future takes time.

The SWOT analysis process is described in more detail below, and a SWOT analysis worksheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 64kB Jul28 14) is provided for you as a starting point.

Identify Your Objective

Identifying the objective you would like to achieve in making changes in your introductory courses is a critical first step that will allow you to be more specific in your subsequent analysis. The objective may have both internal and external components - you may want to increase active learning while enrollments are increasing, for example. Writing a specific objective will help you assess your course within your environment more easily. You may have more than one objective, in which case you might plan on conducting a separate SWOT analysis for each, even though there might be a lot of overlap.

Here are several examples of objectives from participants in the March, 2014, virtual workshop Getting the Most out of your Introductory Courses:

  • To prepare students for capstone research by helping students learn to critically evaluate hypotheses, pose their own hypotheses, and suggest methods for testing hypotheses.
  • To increase student understanding of the scientific process and current challenges in geoscience (e.g. future energy needs, climate change, natural hazard awareness)
  • To increase awareness in applicability of science to students' lives, regardless of their chosen field of study.
  • To use learning assistants in a lab/lecture introductory geology course to help general education students rarely take advantage of learning resources the college provides (i.e. tutoring, science help desk).
  • To easily share course materials, teaching methods, and course management structures from semester to semester among an ever-changing team of instructors.
  • To improve our large-lecture introductory geology class by increasingly replacing lecture with active learning exercises.
  • To increase recruitment of majors and minors out of intro courses.

Assess Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT)

Laying out your course or departments's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in the SWOT matrix will help you examine the internal and external factors that help or hinder you (or your department) in achieving your objective. To get input from as many people as you can, you might ask people to fill out the matrix on their own and then come together in a faculty meeting or workshop to discuss them, perhaps using a gallery walk. Alternatively, bring everyone together for a retreat and fill out the matrix as a group. The technique you use will depend on the nature of your department, but the key idea is to establish an environment in which everyone involved feels free to offer their point of view.

Here are some specific questions to help you and your colleagues fill in the SWOT matrix. For each question, think about adding the phrase, "and how do we know?" In other words, consider what evidence you have for your strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths

  • What is particularly effective about our introductory courses? (For students, for faculty, for graduate students, for the department.)
  • What resources do we have for our course (personnel, space, equipment, field opportunities)?
  • What other departments and programs are we serving well through our introductory courses?
  • Is our course competitive with other intro courses on campus? At other institutions?

Weaknesses

  • Where are our introductory courses ineffective?
  • What resources do we need, but lack?
  • What annoys, frustrates, or disappoints our students? What about our colleagues? The department?
  • What are other departments doing that make their introductory courses more appealing than ours?

Opportunities

  • Are we hiring new faculty?
  • Are there new strategic plans or initiatives in the institution that we can jump on?
  • Is enrollment changing (increasing, reaching a different group of students, etc.)?
  • Is the institution interested in new educational opportunities (such as MOOCs or inter-department collaborations)?

Threats

  • Is enrollment falling in our courses while increasing elsewhere?
  • Are budgets being cut?
  • What are other departments doing that we aren't?
  • Are key faculty retiring?

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Analyze the SWOT Matrix

The SWOT matrix offers an easy, structured way to gather feedback and hear from a range of perspectives. But there is more to the analysis than just filling out the matrix. Once complete, you can take your results further by ranking them, matching strengths and opportunities, assessing vulnerabilities, and then converting your threats and weaknesses into new strengths and opportunities..

Ranking

Some weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are more significant than others. A next step in SWOT analysis can involve ranking the statements in each of these areas by their significance—again, this is most effective when done as a group. In some cases, you might need to gather additional evidence to rank a particular item, so it can be useful to discuss the evidence you have.

Matching

Take a look at your strengths and opportunities and see if any of them match up. For example, if your department has a perceived strength of small classes and an opportunity in access to high quality field sites, you could consider incorporating field work as an component of the course to get intro students involved with research and data collection.

Assessing vulnerabilities

When weaknesses and threats line up, a particular vulnerability can be exposed that can be harmful to a course or program. For example, if a perceived weakness is a rigid schedule with only one course offering a year and another department is offering a course that fulfills the same requirement and is more flexible, you are vulnerable to your course being under-enrolled and cancelled. Assessing these particular vulnerabilities can be helpful in prioritizing where change needs to happen most quickly.

Converting

Actively working to convert threats or weaknesses into strengths or opportunities is more difficult than matching, but the rewards can be worth the effort. For example, if the Biology 101 course is drawing more students than Geology 101 because students regard it as more useful, turn the threat into an opportunity by proposing a team-up with the Biology department. You could end up teaching a cross-disciplinary Earth and Life Sciences class that addresses real-world problems and has broad appeal to students.

Take the Next Steps

The next steps start to make the transition from analysis to action. Consider the following questions:

  • Do you need to revise your objective based on your analysis?
  • What evidence do you need to gather to make your case for change?
  • Who are your potential allies and what can you do to bring them on board?
  • Who are your potential collaborators and what do they bring to the table?
  • Who are the key administrators you need to approach, and what are your strategies?
  • What is your timeline for implementation?
  • How will you know you've been successful?

References and Resources

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