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Teaching Context--A Map for Course Design

Set the stage for discovery and success by changing course contexts.

A consideration of our teaching contexts—those components that may change over time, such as our students, institutional mandates, disciplinary emphases, and departmental initiatives—can help maximize the effect of our course content in a given teaching situation. By evaluating the components of our teaching contexts, we can adapt our roles as necessary and enhance our course designs to make them even more responsive to changing needs, satisfying for students and faculty, and effective in terms of the learning they foster.

Students as Context

The most obvious and most important part of our ever-changing teaching context is the student. Whether we’re teaching 19-year-olds, adults who are returning to the classroom, or professionals in continuing education programs, our attention to changing trends can help us to meet student needs.

For example, we know that today’s “millennial” students tend to be inquisitive, social young adults who have grown up in protected environments. They’re accustomed to lots of control: they chose their own adventures in children’s books, created the plot line in video games, and tried their hands at numerous sports and arts. They expect to engage and to be engaged.

In our classrooms, they are eager learners if we can find the way to motivate and intrigue them. Many of our students want to participate, contribute, and reframe; we just have to resist controlling or deconstructing our course content so that it loses its appeal.

Reconsidering Roles and Relationships

As we choose a textbook, assign grades, and meet the demands of our departments and our disciplines, we are obliged to control our courses. In light of changing student needs, however, we may want to reconsider the level of control which is necessary and appropriate.

If we can see our students as partners or even as apprentices, we can give them more responsibility to contribute to the learning environment, to interact with us and with their peers, to practice their new content and skills, and to demonstrate their knowledge more publicly. We can design a course to build on students’ energy and to create an environment for participation and learning, building on their desire for interaction and harnessing it to promote deep learning of course content. We can learn with and from our students as they delve into projects that require problem-solving, creativity, and hard work.

Are we catering to students or yielding control so that they’ll like us? No, we’re meeting students where they are and capitalizing on their breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm. We share control and offer choices so that their experience in the course will contribute to their long-term learning. In this way, the course will become part of their framework for living in and understanding the world.

Planning within Institutional and Departmental Contexts

Of course, the context of our courses also involves the characteristics of our institutions, departments, and disciplines. While we may have fairly predictable expectations for quality of teaching, nature of scholarship, or frequency of service, we may see shifting expectations for departmental assessment, building skills for our majors, evaluations of teaching, committee work, and reports of productivity. These expectations can influence the way we design a course in a given year.

Even the academic calendar has slight shifts across semesters that can affect our courses. As we consider ways to share control with students, we can use the calendar to predict student/faculty energy, interest, and distractions. Any of these factors can affect teaching and learning.

Although it’s tempting to use the same course design for different semesters, a week-long break in the middle of the semester can create a very different course from one with a break near the end. That feeling of getting behind the schedule or needing to “cover” one more topic can lead us to cram in a final unit after Thanksgiving. Instead, we can encourage students to spend some time reflecting on their progress and making sense of the course in terms of its connection to other classes and its relevance in students’ lives.

We know that students will typically be intrigued when they come to our classes at the beginning of the semester. Instead of capitalizing on that interest, we often start with routine basics, such as grammar rules or the history of an invention. Our goal is to get the foundations out of the way so that we can move onto the juicy material.

Instead, design your course to build community during the first class meetings. Tell amazing stories about your field; invite your students into your world; share your passion. Yes, we still have to get to the equivalent of the grammar rules, but students will tolerate them much better if they have solidified an interest in the course.

At points in the semester when energy is low, plan for student-owned course time when students are working in teams or giving presentations. They can experience the excitement of teaching and benefit from the intellectual stimulation of a varied course routine.

Can we predict every disruption? Are we even obligated to design our course around every campus event and holiday? No, but we can attend to some obvious influences and, in doing so, let students know that we have planned the course with them in mind. That’s the same courtesy we would extend to any other person with whom we work.

Designing an Experience

Armed with knowledge about our students, the semester, and our role within the classroom, we can then go to the textbook and begin to consider units of instruction and strategies for teaching and learning. We can build experiences that will stretch students and allow them to integrate new knowledge and practices into their views of the world.

Of course, the richest experiences are likely to be the most complex, requiring students to draw upon and increase their knowledge and skills. As we expect greater participation from students, we have to be sure that students are equipped for these challenges.

If an analysis of the assignment indicates that students need to develop or improve certain skills—library database searching, group work processes, reference documentation, or oral delivery strategies—we may have to shift some course content to provide time to foster those skills.

Even as we begin to see ourselves as partners with our students in the learning process, we still have to create the structure and environment to support learning. Our success depends upon a course design that responds to the teaching context and makes room for students to share control and contribution. While meeting multiple needs and expectations, we can benefit from each other’s strengths.

References & Resources

Baxter Magolda, M. B. & King, P. M. (2004). Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Cleveland-Innes, M. F. & Emes, C. (2005, Winter). “Social and academic interaction in higher education contexts and the effect on deep learning.” NASPA Journal 42(2). 241-262.

Duffy, D. K. & Jones, J. W. (1995). Teaching within the rhythms of the semester. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fallows, S. & Steven, C. (2000). Integrating key skills in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York: Random House.

Higher Education Research Institute. (2006). The American freshman: National norms for 2005. Available at

Preston, M. (2003), Color-coded course design: Educating and engaging faculty to educate and engage students. To Improve the Academy, 22, 95-109.

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