Why redesign a course?
Course redesign and revision can be an opportunity to review the course as a whole, to rethink just one or two elements, or to try one new thing. Or maybe you need to adapt a course for a longer or shorter semester.
You may want to consider redesigning an existing course or even part of one—say, an assignment or the navigation layout. Some possible reasons:
- Lack of effectiveness of a course element, as shown by poor student performance, lower than optimal grades or passing rates, negative comments on student course evaluations, peer input on the curriculum or design, or frequent questions and confusion evidenced on the part of students.
- Program changes necessitating updates and major changes for your course. In this case, your academic director may have specific templates or features in mind.
- The discovery of new tools and resources that might be more engaging to students and stimulate your own enthusiasm or, for online courses, software changes that provide new opportunities and features.
Beginning a course revision
Whether you are trying to decide if a course revision is appropriate or have already made up your mind to redesign all or part of your course, your process should include:
- Reassessing what you already have: Can you provide a solid rationale for change?
- Checking alignment: Do the activities and content really support the learning outcomes for the course or units?
- Analyzing: What was most difficult for students to achieve or for you to assess?
- Reviewing the whole picture: How do the various component parts of the course or assignments complement and reinforce student learning?
- Clarifying your course activities: Do students know what to do and why they are doing it?
In considering a course revision, you may find it helpful to consult some of the following materials in determining what to revise and the scope of that revision:
- Your academic program director: Your director should be one of your first stops in the revision process and someone you consult frequently throughout. You can discuss your ideas with them and get feedback as well.
- Student evaluations: Though it may be painful, take note of less positive scores and comments left by students in their course evaluations to help you rethink your work. Did they think the course was disorganized? Did they find you less than communicative? Tip: You may find it useful to create anonymous discussion boards for students to leave feedback at regular points during the course.
- Peer observations: Likewise, pay attention to comments and suggestions provided in regular peer observations.
- Student grades (individual and/or final assessments): Evaluate student grades for individual assignments and for the overall course. Consider whether an assignment may have been too easy or difficult, had directions that needed clarifying, or met the standards of the course and program learning objectives.
- Program requirements and design guidelines: Ask your director about program templates and standards for course sites and content.
- Your own notes and records from your previous experience with the course: Keeping detailed notes while teaching can reap dividends; you can keep track of ideas you may want to try later, tweaks that you added to the in-progress course that you want to integrate into later versions, unexpected issues that came up, and so on. Did you get many questions about the wording of your syllabus? Did one particular assignment not go according to plan? Are there discussion questions that worked well?
Doing a course revision
In preparing to try something new, it is a good idea to “rethink” or reconceptualize the course or assignment. This is particularly necessary when you are creating an online or hybrid version of a course that was previously only offered face-to-face.
This sort of rethinking can involve asking yourself:
- How can I make the course or an assignment more engaging?
- How can I enhance the social presence and learning community factors of the class?
- How can I enrich the course content to offer more than text?
- How can I provide more options and encourage student creativity and active learning?
- How can I draw connections between the course and the real world and help students to do the same?
- How can I best share my expertise in the subject matter?
- When moving from a face-to-face to online or hybrid course, what existing activities will work well in the context of an online environment and which need to be transformed or replaced?
During the process of redesign, you also need to consider issues of coverage versus depth—are you simply adding more content or might it be a matter of taking the existing topic to a more profound level of knowledge? For example, the introduction of new resources, such as primary source documents, interviews, simulations, case studies, or multimedia resources, can provide new perspectives to a topic that serve to deepen understanding.
Whenever you make a major revision in one part of the course, it is always a good idea to look at the impact it will have on the entire course. Once you’ve decided on the revisions, map out the course in full (see Module 4 course planning tool) with the new content in order to see how it may affect the existing course. For example, is there a need to rebalance activities or otherwise refresh the course? Does the overall course design support your new additions? Make sure you don’t take on too much at once while trying to enhance your course, especially when it comes to using new technology tools; one new thing may be easier to integrate effectively than trying to introduce multiple changes simultaneously.
On a similar note, as you prepare to create new elements, list other items and areas of your course that may be affected by your changes and that will need to be reviewed or revised. For example, if you decide to add a new discussion board assignment, you will probably have to make changes to your syllabus, schedule, course grade breakdown, weekly folder, discussion board area, and the Grade Center. You may also want to make notes about how you typically title and present discussion boards, so that the new forum is consistent in its naming, look, and settings. Keeping a good, detailed list helps ensure accuracy and continuity between old and new items—it can double as a final checklist once you finish the revision.
Redesigning a course for length
You may be asked to adapt an existing course for a shorter or a longer term—for example, a fall course for the intersession or summer terms. (At SPS, courses run for a 15-week fall or spring semesters, a 7-week summer session, or a 3-week intersession period.) Instructors may assume it’s just a matter of chopping or stretching the existing course to fit the new length, but this often results in a superficial, awkwardly designed course. An actual redesign that takes into account course objectives, department motivations, and the schedule itself produces a course that’s not only functional, but also elegant.
Start with practical steps. Plot out the new term length on a weekly calendar alongside the schedule and/or syllabus used for previous versions of the existing course. Where do exams, term breaks, and holidays fall in the new schedule? How much time was previously devoted to introductory activities, wrap-up, review, small-group formation, visiting speakers, or library-related activities?
Consider your institution or department’s rationale and purpose for the new course length. Is it to provide more time to cover complex material? A result of student demand for shorter courses or more variety in course selection? Understanding the reason behind the change may help you with your redesign.
Redesigning a longer course for a shorter period
Before starting the redesign process, find out whether the new version of the course will be considered an “intensive” or “accelerated” course—that is, is the course now expected to cover more credit hours, the same number of credits, and what is the expected time on task required of students per week?
Course content: Consider being more selective about the weekly reading load, which may include textbooks, articles, online lectures, library reserved readings, external web site materials, etc. After calculating the prior weekly reading and translating that to hours per week in the new schedule, consider whether it’s still feasible in a shorter time span. Is it possible for you to trim some of the reading—perhaps based on entire topics or subtopics that are now non-essential or can be combined with others—without negatively affecting the attainment of learning objectives? If you cannot in good conscience cut any of the topics or reading, consider reducing other content such as online lectures, commentary, and additional web resource readings.
Other options: assigning selected chapters to students (individual or in pairs) to read, analyze, and present to the class; assigning longer reading materials when students aren’t busy with major projects, papers, or exams.
Again, make the core learning objectives your guide in redesign choices. Make sure that any cuts you make in one element or another do not undermine support for the learning objectives, assignments, or exam questions.
Discussion activities: If you typically used one or more discussion boards for each week of your longer course, start by reducing the number of separate fora to the new reduced number of weeks. Review past discussion questions to determine which questions to keep and which may be either consolidated or eliminated.
You may want to reduce the number of responses students are required to make each week while retaining peer-to-peer replies. If you use a rubric or other clearly stated criteria to assess the quality and quantity of postings, consult this to guide you through your discussion decisions.
Assignments: The three main choices for redesigning assignments involve reworking, consolidation, or elimination.
Reworking: It may be possible to narrow down research topics or reduce the number of word/page requirements for papers. Get started early on group projects, asking students to meet for the first time earlier in the course, and make all group projects more explicit and directed so students can engage with the work more easily without having to spend a lot of time organizing themselves.
Consolidation: You may be able to combine two assignments that address different learning objectives or skills so that both are fulfilled in a single assignment.
Elimination: Remove anything that is no longer current in your field or does not have a good time/benefit ratio for students. If an assignment did not prove effective in the past, consider whether it can be revised, eliminated, or even replaced by something better yet less time-consuming.
Feedback and interaction: Maintaining high levels of interaction and quality feedback should remain a priority; in the shorter session, you may be concerned that you will not have sufficient turnaround time to give good feedback on assignments or to engage with students in discussion. The best approach is to prioritize and rank your assignments and discussion topics. By consolidating assignments whenever possible, you will have fewer but more focused opportunities to give feedback. Detailed rubrics can help conserve your time by speaking for you and facilitating individualized feedback necessary for student improvement.
A redesign template: Below is a simple template that might prove useful for planning the redesign of a course, using a sample history course that is moving from 15 to 10 weeks. You can also adapt the course planning tool from Module 4 to map out this sort of “before and after” scenario:
Redesigning a shorter course for a longer period
Course content: Avoid the temptation to add more content and activities to a course. Determine whether more readings and activities will enhance the course or whether they are simply “filler.” Look for those readings and activities that will add a vital new dimension to the course.
Assignments and feedback: A longer course provides a great opportunity to diversify approaches to learning. You may find that you now have time for a major project or research paper, or to structure a group project over a number of weeks. Depth and relevance, rather than simply “more,” should be the goal.
You can also now offer more and earlier assessment to students on assignments, take the temperature of a class via short surveys and use that feedback to inform and shape the remainder of the course, or simply have the leisure to guide students through a more comprehensive preparation and review for a final exam.
If your revision involves working with other faculty or instructional technology staff, you may want to formulate a more detailed project plan using an instrument like this Revision Project Plan created by the Office of Faculty Development and Instructional Technology. Under the Timeline section, you will see some samples of the types of tasks and items you are likely to require. This can also be used for planning a new course. Such an instrument can help you and others working with you better manage all the complex tasks and scheduling needed for a major course development or revision project.
Some of the material in this module has been adapted from Ko, S. S., & Rossen, S. (2010). Teaching online: A practical guide (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.