Essay on using summer to retool courses
As I’ve noted in previous columns, summer – despite popular perceptions -- is not a three month vacation for those of us teaching in higher education. Of the many tasks we devote time to over the summer, like catching up on research, many of us use the "off" months to rethink and redesign our courses, either making a few key tweaks, or perhaps even entirely reinventing some courses. This is addition to prepping new courses, if those are on tap for the upcoming academic year.
I think that it’s important, essential even, that we continually tweak our courses designs, and I think that there is an art or craft to that tweaking. Personally, I tend to charge large swaths of the courses that I teach routinely, primarily because I fear that if I don’t, I’ll grow bored or complacent as a teacher and do a poor job if I get too comfortable. The downside is that I’m routinely creating a lot of work for myself. There is a balance though between keeping a course fresh and up to date, and changing too many variables at once and throwing your own ability to prepare and teach off kilter. Personally, I err on the side of running off kilter, because the worst teachers I ever had as a student were the ones who stuck to the same course routine they always had, literally for decades in some cases.
We might begin by thinking about the timing of when to actually undertake a course redesign. On the one hand, it’s important to give yourself a little bit of space from the end of the semester, a little intellectual and emotional distance, before redesigning a course. On the other hand, waiting too long into the summer might mean forgetting what needs to be addressed and improved in a particular course, or putting the task off so long that the redesign never takes place at all.
When redesigning a course, there’s a lot to consider. For example, what can be changed and what can’t be changed? The answer will depend largely on the nature of the course you teach. You may or may not have control over the course objectives and content, depending on where the course fits in with undergraduate and graduate curricula. So, the very first thing to inventory is what is in your power to change, and what is not. Similarly, you may or may not have control over what textbooks the course uses. While such prescriptions will vary from college to college, and from department to department, you need to be entirely aware of what you do have the authority to change and what you do not, particularly since courses often fill carefully designated roles within a general studies or major course of study curriculum. Courses taught to large numbers of students and that play significant roles in “general education” or “liberal studies” or “core” courses are likely to be the courses where, as individuals, instructors have the least freedom to make dramatic changes. Be aware of the territory where your course resides.
Consider your sources of feedback when you undertake a course redesign:
Student Evaluations: Student evaluations are a tricky thing. A growing body of research shows that student evaluations of courses and instructors are often more accurate as a measure of students than of the course or instructor. Nonetheless, within the culture of higher education student evaluations carry increasing weight with administrators. I think there are two reasons. First, the dramatic economic stresses placed upon college education have had the positive effect of reminding administrators and professors that a university’s primary purpose is educational, that teaching students is our primary mission (even if research might be an equally important mission at your institution). Second, the economic stresses placed upon college education have had the negative effect of speeding along the student-as-customer model of education. In this second mode, student evaluations function more as customer satisfaction surveys than as assessments of the quality of a given course. As a result of these pressures, which tend to drive the form that student evaluations take, it can be difficult to interpret student evaluations. Almost all student evaluations have two sections, a selection of Likert-scale qualitative responses to pre-set questions that are averaged, and a section of written feedback where students can respond to any aspect of the course. You need to take student evaluations into consideration. For one, your supervisors and administration will be taking them seriously. Over the course of a career, some administrators will want to see that you are responsive to evaluations. But you don’t need to be beholden to them. Changing important items like textbooks may go over better if supported by evaluation data from students suggesting that they didn’t understand or utilize the resource. Less cynically, many students put genuine, thoughtful feedback into the evaluations they like. You will dismiss some feedback, while taking other bits to heart. Be thoughtful and judicious, and try to avoid emotional or knee-jerk reactions as you do so. Personally, I find students’ written feedback the most useful part of evaluations.
Peer Evaluations: In many states and at many universities all instructors are observed by a peer evaluator at least one annually, and the evaluator often also looks over the instructor’s course materials and assignments, in addition to conducting in-class observations. This is some of the most valuable feedback available on your teaching, as it comes from a colleague with expertise and experience. Take it seriously, and even when the feedback is positive, analyze it for elements that you can seek to improve. Stick to what ain’t broke.
Anecdotal Feedback: Did students express to you that they particularly loved or benefitted from an element of your course? Or did they express to you that they particularly hated or failed to benefit from some aspect of a course? Was there an assignment, objective, content area, or section of the course that many students didn’t grasp? Take such feedback into consideration. But, again, be circumspect about how you act on such informal feedback. Sometimes the elements of a course that students least appreciate are the elements they most need. You’re the expert, and you need to decide whether the pedagogical aspects of the things you do in a course outweigh complaints, as well as realizing that some of the things students may have enjoyed about a course are not necessarily the best use of your time and their time, pedagogically speaking.
Your Own Gut: What do you think worked especially well in your course? Or especially poorly? Such question might be posed not only toward the content and delivery of content within your course, but also toward logistical matters, such as what times in the semester you are requiring certain types of student work, like long paper or exams, and how that timing fits into the larger schema of your own semester, or students’. For example, I know that I can generally get better work out of students by staggering the due dates for work away from high-intensity periods like mid-term week. Did students achieve what you wanted them to achieve? If they all did, were your expectations high enough? If few of them did, were your expectations too high? These are tough questions to ask ourselves, but we must ask them routinely.
Over the years I’ve found that regular redesigns of my courses keep me more engaged as an instructor, and allow me to keep students more engaged by jettisoning dated material. Redesigns also allow us to focus on helping students to improve on their own work and address the weakest elements of our curricula or individual instructional practices. Regular tweaking of courses helps students, and helps us in our own careers. Summer is the time to get it done.