Tailoring your course to the calendar

Tailoring your course to the calendar

This is second in a series of blog posts from the Course Design Institute, a 4-day workshop for faculty on how to design and teach a course from the ground up.  In Part 1, I discussed using a concept map as a course design tool.

Another discussion from the CDI was the challenge of mapping a sequence of topics into the 10-week academic quarter.

As you begin the process of mapping particular concepts and themes onto class sessions and weeks of the quarter, there are a host of things to keep in mind.  The level to which you are able to integrate these "rhythms of the term" into your course will depend largely on your ability to see them ahead of time.  Here are a few of the categories and questions that came up as we discussed this during the Course Design Institute.

Rhythms of your class

The academic calendar

Your academic calendar is an obvious constraint, but it can create some challenges you need to plan for.  At Stanford, in our three-quarter system, each quarter is slightly different.

In Autumn Quarter, our week-long Thanksgiving break interrupts the flow of your course, and usually leaves week 10 separated from the rest of the quarter.  Many students will leave the Friday before in anticipation of the break, and may be slow to get going when they get back.  How will you handle these, and make effective use of that last week?

In Winter Quarter, there are two Monday holidays with no class.  And Spring Quarter ends on Wednesday of week 10, with finals beginning that Friday.  You may need to plan carefully how you review so that students are prepared for an early final.

Additionally, heavy "class shopping" until the 3rd-week add/drop deadline is part of the Stanford culture. You can try to fight it (such as by requiring a difficult assignment early on) or you can just accept it.  This may have implications for project teams or lab section assignments, so it's important to keep in mind.

Sequencing and Workload

Does the chronological structure of your course make sense?  If students have lab work or assignments that depend on particular skills taught in lecture, will you cover them in time?  If students wrap up the quarter with a large project or paper, will you reduce the amount of other work to compensate?

Assessments and Feedback

The assessment/feedback cycle is critical for students to practice and develop their skills.  When will students turn in work, and when will you grade it and provide feedback?  Will students need to receive feedback on one assignment before they turn in the next?

Student motivation

As a student, it's easy to be excited about a course for a few weeks, but that often wears off in the middle as the class begins trudging through dry or technical material.  As a teacher, I've noticed that it's natural to plan engaging lectures and activities for the beginning of the course, but to settle into a monotonous routine as the quarter flies by and my time runs short.

Often, boring material is inevitable, but you can mitigate this by making your roadmap explicit to students and injecting extra shots of inspiration during the tough weeks.  If you've taught a course more than once, think about where students needed additional motivation, and work this into your course plan.

Rhythms outside your class

External connections to your course

Your course may depend on events outside your control, which need to be scheduled or planned early on.  Perhaps you're planning a field trip or a guest lecture, and need to schedule based on those dates.  Or perhaps you're teaching astronomy and care about the phases of the moon during the quarter.

Student life

It's easy to forget that students have lives outside of your classroom.  From Big Game festivities to rush week to famous speakers on campus, be aware that numerous campus activities will consume your students' energy for particular parts of the academic year.  Also, if your spring-quarter class includes graduating seniors, realize that they'll be busy thinking about jobs and graduation, and maybe not your final project.

Your own academic and personal responsibilities

This may be last on this list, but don't forget it!  Are you traveling a particular week?  Do you have a paper or proposal deadline that will consume all of your time?  Do you have family commitments to honor?

Be flexible

Finally, remember to be flexible.  Things will rarely go as planned, and you'll need to adjust to the unexpected rhythms you encounter.  In classes I've helped teach, we've canceled entire labs and rearranged lectures when we saw things weren't working as we had hoped.

The rhythms of the term also become more natural with experience.  The better you're able to predict and ride with the peaks and swells of the quarter, the smoother - and more fun - your teaching experience will be, both for you and your students.

Next up: why and how to create rubrics for feedback.

Headshot, Steven BellSteven Bell is a Ph.D. candidate in Electrical Engineering, where he helped to create and teach a popular "maker-centric" introduction to EE.