Course Content & Schedule - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Plan Your Course Content and Schedule

The three primary components of a course are the learning objectives, assessments and instructional strategies. Once these three components are identified, at least provisionally, the next task is to organize them into a coherent, dynamic whole. This involves:

Deciding on a course structure

The course structure refers to the choice of topics and the organization and sequencing of course content. Remember that the choice of topics and their organization should always support the learning objectives for the course.

Topics

Woolvard and Anderson (1998) point out that although all teachers want and need their students to (1) master course content and (2) learn how to use that content in some way, a great many instructors devote their time to the first task and neglect the second. Focusing too much on coverage – i.e., including too many topics – can actually impede student learning by crowding out opportunities for students to practice applying the skills and knowledge they gain. It is important to determine a reasonable scope for your course, that includes essential content but which also provides opportunities for students to engage actively with this content so that deeper learning occurs.

To develop a reasonable set of topics, Davis (1993) recommends creating a list of all the content areas you could cover that are relevant to the subject of the course, and then “severely” paring down the topics you have listed, distinguishing what you consider absolutely essential from the rest (p. 5). Build your course around these essential topics, choosing materials (books, articles, films, speakers, etc.) that will speak to these topics and help you accomplish your learning goals.

"Coverage is the enemy."
-- Herb Simon, Carnegie Mellon University Professor and winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics

Organization and sequencing

There are many – often equally effective -- ways to organize a course to accomplish a particular set of objectives. For example, a course could be arranged in any one of the following ways: chronologically, from concrete to abstract (or vice versa), from theory to application (or vice versa), around a set of questions, around a set of practical problems or case studies, according to disciplinary classifications and categories, etc. However we choose to organize the course, the goal should be to create a structure that supports the learning objectives we have identified.

In general, courses should build towards greater complexity, starting with component pieces and working towards synthesis and integration. As Fink (2003) puts it: “The goal is to sequence the topics so that they build on one another in a way that allows students to integrate each new idea, topic, or theme with the preceding ones as the course proceeds" (p. 128). Another way to think about it is that the course should tell a story and thus have a beginning (that introduces the key issues, tensions, and players), a middle (that develops and explores these issues), and an end (in which the various threads come together or relevant new questions are introduced).

Selecting a teaching strategy

Fink distinguishes overall teaching strategies from particular instructional strategies or techniques. A teaching strategy involves combining and sequencing a number of different instructional activities to help students accomplish the learning goals of the class. To determine an effective teaching strategy, think about what you want students to be able to do when they leave the course (e.g., apply certain formulas? create an interactive animation? debate the merits of particular policies? create a stage design that reflects a critical reading of an historical play?).

Having identified the broad learning objectives, work backwards, asking yourself: What particular skills and knowledge will students need in order to accomplish these objectives? Then address the following questions:

  • What kinds of activities will students need to engage in to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge?
  • How can you organize these activities to provide sufficient practice?
  • How can you sequence them so that skills build upon one another?

For example, if one of your course objectives is for students to be able to identify the key theoretical positions in a topic area, discuss them critically, and apply them to particular issues, the teaching strategy might combine lecture (to introduce the theories and their proponents), discussion (to critique the theories and discuss their applications), and a writing assignment (to apply them to a specific problem or topic.) If one of the course objectives is for students to compare different approaches to theatrical costume design, then a teaching strategy might combine mini-lectures to identify key issues in costume design, student observations of different theatrical productions, group discussion, and an individual written assessment.

Creating a Schedule

After determining the main topics to be covered, the organizational scheme, and an appropriate teaching strategy for accomplishing our objectives, we must create a schedule for the course.  Here it is important to gauge the amount of time necessary for the activities we have in mind, both in and outside of class time, and to map this structure onto the academic calendar.

While there is no easy formula for devising the course schedule, here are some things to think about:

  • Consider the time constraints of your particular course: obviously, a 3-hour class that meets once a week will pose different challenges than a 50-minute class that meets three times a week.
  • Spread assignments out to help students manage the workload and to avoid an unrealistic grading burden for yourself.
  • Provide sufficient time between assignments to give students feedback and allow them opportunities to incorporate it.
  • Take into account religious holidays and special events on campus that may affect student work.
  • Think about how interruptions (weekends, holidays, etc.) will affect the flow of your course (for example, you might not want to schedule a film for one class day and a discussion of it the next, if the viewing and discussion are separated by a week.)
  • Leave some unscheduled time in your course in case exciting, unanticipated opportunities present themselves or certain topics or activities take longer than expected.

Some strategies that instructors use to plan their course schedule include these:

  • Write all the dates of class meetings on a flipchart. Then write different assessments (homework, papers, presentations, etc.) you are considering on different colored post-its. Stick the post-its on the flipchart calendar and move them around until you find a good balance and distribution, taking into account the time students need to do the work, the time you need to mark and return it, and situational constraints like holidays.
  • Count the number of class days and create a grid with a box for each class day. Fill in each box with the activities you tentatively have in mind for that class day, taking into account the issues outlined above. Plot your assessments and due-dates so that are supported by your instructional strategies, reinforce your learning objectives, and fit reasonably within the rhythm and time constraints of the semester.
  • Create a grid with three columns. Write your topics in the first column, the instructional strategies and assessments (homework, discussions, group work, etc.) you are considering in the second, and the materials or resources (readings, films, slides, equipment, etc.) you will need for these instructional strategies and assessments in the third column. See where there are too few or too many activities and add/subtract/reassess as you go.

You’ll notice that the instructors who employ these strategies revise and tweak their schedules as they plan until the schedule reflects their objectives for the course, supports the course structure and teaching strategy, sequences work logically, and distributes it realistically across the semester. Creating a good schedule can be time-consuming, but the thought and effort invested at this stage will both help you write your syllabus and prevent problems (e.g., time conflicts, student panic, grading bottle-necks) by helping the course run more smoothly and effectively.

References

Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L. B. (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

Woolvard, B. E., & Anderson, V. J. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.