How to write a university course module (quick and dirty version)

Course development is a tricky business. It’s a massive undertaking that takes a lot of hours and a lot of expertise. But if you have to do it quickly, this is an easy approach that I’ve found works quite well. I used it to write the basics of a Harry Potter-centred university course module in an afternoon!

 

  • Step 1: Learning objectives

Beginning with the learning objectives will help you know what you’re working towards. It will also help you to double-check that the course content and lessons are actually helping you achieve your goals.

Make sure that the learning objectives are actually measurable. There have been countless times when I’ve seen a set of learning objectives at the top of a course syllabus and wondered how the hell they were planning to assess them!

Consider the following outcome: Students have a deep appreciation for classics.

What is a deep appreciation? How are they supposed to demonstrate/exhibit this? What kind of self-aggrandising, pretentious, hot-air-filled assignments are you encouraging with a learning objective like this??

Also, don’t overload on the learning objectives. If you’re trying to achieve too much in the course, the students will likely have a very shallow learning experience.

Here’s a good resource.

Here’s an example:

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Now, sometimes the university will give you some objectives. Or there will be objectives that every module in the course has to include. What you’ll be working with will depend on your situation – this example is built in a Utopian vision in which you have complete creative control of your destiny.

  • Step 2: Know how many hours/teaching moments you have to work with

Because that will determine what you can achieve. For the purposes of this post, let’s say you have 12 teaching moments in a semester of three hours each.

Remember: Each class should be about 2-3 things. So keep that in mind when you’re deciding what skills/theories you want to shove into a lesson plan. As above, the more you try to achieve, the less time you have to go deep into the concepts. This will also give you the chance to build things like checking student understanding, revision, and on-the-fly extra explanations for students who are having trouble grasping concepts into the classes themselves.

  • Step 3: What’s the assignment?

You need to know what you’re assessing so that you can make sure that you address the skills/knowledge that the students will need to succeed in the actual classes.

It could be that the university has an expectation of the kinds of assignments that a course module should have. But again, this is a Utopian vision of complete autonomy. So we’re making our own. I think good courses should have two assessments. It allows the students to demonstrate their skills/knowledge in different ways, and gives the students who maybe suck at one thing the chance to bring up their grade elsewhere. Some universities have three assessments – two assignments and a participation grade. So whatever works, I guess.

So here are two assessment tasks that I’ve come up with:

Midterm (40%): Individual analytical essay (because I think it’s important for students to be able to organise and articulate an argument no matter what)

Final (60%): Freestyle individual analysis

And yes, I do usually come up with a (brief) outline of these assessments at this stage. This is a useful step so that you, the teacher, can visualise what these assessments will look like and how you can prepare your classes. Later, when you’re putting together the actual course content, you can get into the details. You just have to know what the course objectives would look like when the students demonstrate them.

  • Step 4: Three ideas per learning objective

Just as you should visualise what course objectives look like when students demonstrate them, you should also consider what they will look like when you’re teaching them.

This is where you start fleshing out what your lessons will look like. To give your students a chance at really understanding what your course is about, each objective should be addressed at least once during a teaching moment. That doesn’t mean that you have to devote equal time to each objective because some objectives are denser than others. It means that you should have at least some ideas of what these objectives look like in practice. They can be questions that you would put to the class or specific things that you want to teach them.

Here’s an example!

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  • Step 5: Decide the order that you’re teaching in

Make sure that you’re giving your students the knowledge they need in increments so that they’re not overloaded/given things that are too advanced for them. This is called lesson sequencing.

Here’s a potential order for the example course I’ve built in this post.

  1. Introduction to the course; introduce cultural impact as a concept
  2. How and why do we measure a text’s impact on culture, history, politics, etc; examples
  3. Revisit the way that we measure a text’s impact (qualitative vs. quantitative) and why that’s important
  4. Guided analysis of cultural impact
  5. What is literary/cultural criticism and why should we care?; what are types of literary criticism/critical approaches?; does the Harry Potter series generally attract a specific type of either?
  6. Go deep on a couple of lenses and critical approaches
  7. Go deep on a couple of lenses and critical approaches
  8. Guided analysis  of the text
  9. Class debates so that students can practice their analytical skills + peer feedback
  10. Go deep on a couple of lenses and critical approaches
  11. Individual analysis so that students can practice their analytical skills + peer feedback
  12. Socratic circle in which students exchange a theoretical lens + critical approach and interrogate them

 

  • Step 6: Flesh out some of the lesson ideas 

This way, you can tell whether you’ve covered all of the important points in your learning outcomes. It’s also a handy moment to plan out some of the basic lesson structures so that you’re prepared for the next step.

Here’s the thing: I’m a very active lecturer. I like my students moving, working, and engaged. That means that most of my lessons involve activities and teaching strategies that make them work. This might be different for you. You do you, mate – I’m not here to judge, I’m here to offer an example.

So if we’ve got 12 classes at three hours each, and we’re aiming for 2-3 lesson outcomes, then we can cover between 24-36 ‘lessons’ or things to learn (plus breaks, because lecturers can’t be on for three hours straight!). You can (and should) have students investigate things on their own, but there still needs to be a moment in class where you, the teacher, make sure that they get it haven’t accidentally taught themselves the wrong thing.

Notice that I’ve included some ‘homework’ things before classes. This will fit into the assessments, which are highly individual and need the students to investigate things deeply on their own. But I still need the lessons to have a theme or something that we’re going to discuss as a group. I’ve also put the parts of the lesson that I think will take the most time in green. This is a mechanic I use when I’m going to write the lesson plans in more detail later in the process. You’ll also notice that I’ve doubled up on some classes – this is because these classes are particularly dense or because I want them to practice a particular skill.

  1. (Before class: students read the syllabus and prepare questions for clarification). Introduction to the course; introduce students to the history of the Harry Potter franchise, pro/anti-Harry Potter debates, etc; general discussion of what the students know about the Harry Potter series, with the main thrust of the discussion being cultural impact
  2. How and why do we measure a text’s impact on culture, history, politics, etc; students source and discuss examples of theorists’ or cultural commentators’ discussions about Harry Potter‘s impact; How do we judge the quality of these arguments?
  3. Revisit the way that we measure a text’s impact (qualitative vs. quantitative); students develop affinity maps about Harry Potter‘s impacts on culture, literature, history, media, politics, etc.; ask them to prove Harry Potter‘s impact on one of these things
  4. Guided analysis led by the teacher; students work on a prompt that the teacher gives them; peer feedback moment
  5. What is literary/cultural criticism and why should we care?; what are types of literary criticism/critical approaches?; does the Harry Potter series generally attract a specific type of either?
  6. (Before class: students read a couple of scholarly articles about Harry Potter and bring them to class) Give the students a series of lenses through which to read the series and open a class discussion about how the series engages with these themes; discuss how the critical approaches the students use change their perspective on the stories
  7. (Before class: students read a couple of scholarly articles about Harry Potter and bring them to class) Give the students a series of lenses through which to read the series and open a class discussion about how the series engages with these themes; discuss how the critical approaches the students use change their perspective on the stories
  8. Guided analysis led by the teacher; students work on a prompt that the teacher gives them; peer feedback moment
  9. Give the students discussion prompts and split them up for an in-class debate (with time to research and plan arguments); perform the debate(s); allow students to give each other feedback on the evidence that they used in their arguments, structure, etc
  10. (Before class: students read a couple of scholarly articles about Harry Potter and bring them to class) Give the students a series of lenses through which to read the series and open a class discussion about how the series engages with these themes; discuss how the critical approaches the students use change their perspective on the stories
  11. Students pick a theoretical lens and critical approach and create an infographic/poster that explains their perspective in the simplest, easiest way possible;  allow students to give each other feedback on the evidence that they used in their arguments, structure, etc
  12. Socratic circle in which students exchange a theoretical lens + critical approach and interrogate them; final moment to ask the lecturer questions about the assessments

 

  • Step 7: Course content

What are your resources? Is your class online or off? How many hours do the students have built in for learning outside of class (that’s usually something that comes up in the course breakdown)?

These are questions you ask now. You’ll notice that I planned teaching activities for face-to-face classes. Obviously that would change in an online space.

Basically, this is the moment where we start filling in the gaps. I would go through each lesson and write a more in-depth lesson plan. If there’s a debate in the class, I’ll come up with the prompt. If there is a list of literary theories I need to introduce, I’ll come up with a list and brief notes so that I don’t accidentally teach the wrong thing.

In a course like this, where students are going to write two different analyses, I would also like to have a study guide that includes scholarly papers and discussion prompts for the students to write a response to each week. If I can, I’ll build time into the class to discuss their responses. Otherwise, I’ll make them post online for discussion and then I will respond to them later. These papers would also be the basis for our in-class discussions about literary theories and criticism. This approach means that I would have to take the time to source articles for the students to read.

This is, I think, the part of course development that takes the most work. You can put this off, of course, if you’re just submitting a module to the coordinator for approval. But if you cut corners here then you won’t be able to teach effectively later.

  • Step 8: Make it pretty

Make the syllabus sexy. Use your university’s format. You know the drill.

Go forth and trick your students into learning!

 

PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂

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