Easy Steps to Revitalize Courses

It’s the beginning of another academic year, and that means lots and lots of last-minute course preparation. Perhaps it’s not the best time to propose course redesign projects, but how many course assignments, problem sets, exam formats, or paper topics haven’t been changed for some time? The last time the syllabus was significantly revised was . . . when, exactly?

Faculty workloads are unquestionably heavy. However, in a blog post several years ago, I proposed that busyness should not be a perennial excuse for avoiding course redesign projects, because there are ways to make those projects manageable. Here’s some ideas.

  • Take on one redesign project in one course per semester. Start with a list of everything within that course (or several courses, if you’re feeling ambitious) that needs some updating or a new look. That’s your master plan. Start with whatever is most motivating at the moment.
  • Take any redesign project (a syllabus refresh with a more positive tone and different format, for example) and break the task into pieces—doable chunks that can be accomplished in modest time windows.
  • Use what’s redesigned for one course in other courses. If it’s a new approach to quizzing, see if it or some iteration of it works in a second course.
  • Don’t just focus on changing parts of the course that aren’t working well. Look at what is working well and consider ways of doing that more in the course.
  • Don’t quest for “perfect” designs for exams, group projects, rubrics, online discussions, or any other aspect of instruction—they don’t exist. The goal is creating learning experiences that promote content acquisition and skill development for the majority of students.
  • Engage students in the process. Talk about what’s being redesigned. Solicit their input and their feedback. Most will be impressed that they’ve been asked and happy to help.
  • Doing some course redesign is better than doing none. There’s always more that probably should be done, yes, but credit is deserved for what is being accomplished.
  • For needed motivation, recognize that working on redesign projects—a new assignment or different activity format—is an energizing process. It can add life to a course that may have become all too familiar.

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