A New Paradigm for a New Look at Your Semester

It is late August and I am having my thoughts flooded with the freshness of a new semester. But one thought that nags me is “Is this the most effective way to set up my courses? Am I giving my students what they are going to need in these 15 or so weeks to become intentional self-learners? What will my students take away from my class years after it is over?”

Photo courtesy of nuttakit on Freedigitalphotos.net
Photo courtesy of nuttakit on Freedigitalphotos.net

As I have mentioned before, we as teachers need to be people of scholarship. We must be reading what the research has stated and incorporate that into our own pedagogy in order to stay fresh and forward-thinking.

I did a three-part post earlier this year but thought it would be good to once again bring it out – but in a more brief format. And the concept I am talking about is Backward Design. I found this little gem in a text by L. Dee Fink titled Creating Significant Learning Experiences. Though the book has many valuable concepts, one idea on one page arrested my attention and has totally changed the way I look at my courses.

In looking at a semester, it is easy to fall into the “instant semester” mentality. We all have done it – you have 15 or so weeks in a semester, you have “x” chapters of a text to get through. You plug the chapters into the weeks, sprinkle in some quizzes, tests, and a good ‘ole project, and “Voila!” – you have a course. Like a package of Quaker Oatmeal for which you “just add water.”

But the concept of Backward Design is much more intentional than that. In thoughtfully thinking through your course, the first question that must be asked is “what is it I hope that students will have learned, that will still be there and have value, several years after the course is over?” This question drives the three to five high-level, big-picture ideas. We call these our learning goals and they answer the most important question we can answer for our students: why. Why is this course worth taking?

From there a second question is pondered: “what would the students have to do to convince me that they had achieved those learning goals?” In other words, what will you have your students do to show you to what extent they have mastered those high-level goals? These are called the feedback and assessment activities and are those milestones during a semester such as projects, tests, presentations, interviews, etc. These activities are the “how” for how your learning goals get accomplished.

And finally, a third question must be posed to yourself as the teacher: “what would the students need to do during the course to be able to do well on these assessment activities?” If there are important milestones/assessments that each student must conquer, then it should make sense that every day in class is concentrated on helping students work toward success in each of those assessed areas. We call these the teaching and learning activities. And these activities are the “what” that help you prepare for the “how.”

And there it is: three simple questions that will force you to be more intentional about your course and get rid of fluff that could very well be just extraneous material. This process has done wonders for my courses: each day is focused on activities that ready my students for my milestones that will tell me to what extent they get the “why” of the class. 

Community Input: What are you intentionally doing in your class to ensure they get the “why” of your course?


2 thoughts on “A New Paradigm for a New Look at Your Semester

    • Thanks for reading my post and commenting, Paul. I think we could more readily move away from this mentality as we adopt something of the mindset of Maryellen Weimer and realize that my emphasis should be on engaging my student to get to preset goals rather than a focus on just the content. Their success should drive my planning. Ugh…teaching is in too many ruts!

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