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Teacher-centered vs. Student-centered course design

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Traditional course design methods focus on the teacher as the primary agent of learning. Planning a course in this mindset typically starts with questions such as "What do I know about this topic?", "How do I present the content?", and "How will I test students' learning?". 

Student-centered mindsets view the learner as primary and unique agents of learning, engagement, and connection, as opposed to teacher-centered mindsets which tend to view learners as passive and uniform vessels. 

Teacher-centered course design puts student learning goals last

The design process here starts with the content and activities, then moves on to assessments, and the objectives. It is only at the end of the process that the goal of the instruction is defined. This process risks resulting in a learning experience that is ill-defined, where students don't know what they are supposed to be learning. Ultimately the course may fail to impart the real skills that students want or are expected to gain. While this kind of approach does have its merit, it runs the risk of treating learners as passive and uniform which can be demotivating.

Diagram of five phases of teacher-centered course design

Teacher-entered course design. 1.) Content - What do I know that is important in this field? 2.) Learning Activity - How can I organize all of this content? 3.) Assessment - How can I test what I taught? 4.) Learning Objective - What did I teach them in this unit? 5.) Learning Goal - What did I teach them in this class?

Student learning goals should come first

We advocate for a more student-centered process, where the learning goals come first and design questions are framed from the student's perspective. This method tends to result in learning experiences that are more cohesive, transparent, and intentional. Often called "Backward Design" this method inverts the sequence of the traditional model.

The process begins defining the course goals by asking the question "What will students be able to do at the end of the course?" The answer to that question, the learning goal, is separated into smaller student learning objectives (SLO). As a whole, the objectives should sum up to the broader course goals and be specific, demonstrable, and measurable. This is a critical step, as clear SLOs will help to inform every aspect of the design.

Next, determine the most appropriate assessment by asking "How will students know if they are meeting the learning objective?" The next two steps are informed by the assessments. Design and select learning activities that answer the question, "What do the students need to practice in order to improve?" Finally, answering the question, "What do students need from the instructor to be able to practice effectively?", will help you determine what content is critical and what may be extraneous.

Diagram of student-centered course design

Student-centered course design. 1.) Learning Goal - What will students be able to do by the end of the course? 2.) Learning Objective - What will students be able to do by the end of the lesson? 3.) Assessment - How will we know if students are progressing? 4.) Learning Activity - What do students need to practice to progress? 5.) Content - What do students need from the instructor to progress?

Any course design process is iterative. Expect to adjust your goals and objectives throughout the design process. You'll likely find that they need more definition, or perhaps new objectives will emerge. Course design is also an interdependent and holistic process. Every major course element is interconnected with the others. A significant adjustment to one unit, tool, or objective, may lead to other adjustments in the other parts of the course.

Don't hesitate to reach out to instructional design experts in the Center for Teaching and Learning for individualized support.