Rethinking Teaching Workshop: Reflections on Course Redesign

I took part in a four-day Rethinking Teaching workshop (April 26, 27, 30 and May 1) offered by Cheryl Amundsen and the SFU Teaching and Learning Center. It was the first time in six years that this workshop has been offered at SFU. The workshop comprised 21 participants and 9 facilitators.  This post will convey my general impressions of the workshop that uses backwards design principles to approach course design.

Prior to the workshop, participants completed a needs assessment to describe the course they wish to develop. The course could be new, or well established and in need of refreshment.  I selected HSCI 212 – Perspectives on Infectious and Immunological Diseases. Although students generally appreciate the course content, guest lecturers deliver half of the material and 60 % of the assessment strategy is based on examination. This creates frustrated students who find it challenging to study for the class, and impacts the classroom environment since students want to know ‘what will be on the test’ rather than focusing on the broader issues. My goal for the workshop was to streamline the course, reduce the number of guest lecturers, and create a framework that would facilitate a deeper appreciation of the role of interdisciplinary interactions in fighting infectious diseases.

Workshop Structure

The workshop started at 9:30 am and ended at 3:30 pm. Large group sessions were held in the morning, after which we broke-out into smaller groups to actively work on our courses. Within the small groups, we developed and presented ideas so as to elicit peer feedback. We returned to a large group session in the afternoon to prepare for the following day. Each evening, we were expected to complete a homework activity and read an article.

Day 1: Concept mapping

The purpose of building a concept map is to create a graphical representation of the core material in a course. It can help define ways to merge topics, identify gaps or uncover unnecessary content. There isn’t a specific structure or a correct way to build a map and different instructors used linear representations, trees, or graphical metaphors to describe their courses (e.g., one instructor described her mathematics course as a driving car). An instructor may choose to share their maps with their students or use them to inform their course design.

After a three false starts and a discussion with a facilitator, I identified a concept map that reflected the interdisciplinary narrative that I would like to incorporate into HSCI 212. I developed Disease Busters, a super hero theme in which different disciplines represent distinct ‘super powers’, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  Disciplines have to work together to combat the ‘evil foe’ of infectious disease. Albeit a bit campy, Disease Busters enhanced my vision for the course and revealed what students could achieve in the course.  This exercise was the most challenging of the workshop and was a key step in making progress in the remainder of the workshop.

Some good resources and software suggestions for building concept maps can be found at: http://www.vcu.edu/cte/resources/OTLRG/02_04_ConceptMapping.html

Day 2: Developing Learning Outcomes

The focus of day two was to translate the core principles that were identified during concept mapping into specific learning outcomes for students. Learning outcomes can refer knowledge, or skills that are gained by a student as a result of engagement in a particular set of educational experiences. Development of learning outcomes used taxonomies of learning (such as Fink’s, see below) to define attributes that would be gained by a student at the end of a course.  Ideally, these attributes would be categorized at higher learning levels (application, evaluation) and access more than one cognitive domain (cognitive-knowing, affective-feeling, psychomotor-doing).

As a result of the concept mapping exercise, I had a clear picture of what my students could achieve by the end of the course. From that point, I worked backwards and developed four broad learning outcomes that integrated multiple levels of learning. The course will start with a general lower-level review of core concepts and terms that are used by different disciplines, and culminate with an opportunity in which students could integrate and apply what they learned.

Resource: Fink – A taxonomy of significant learning

Day 3: Aligning Assessment with Learning Outcomes

The focus of day three was to develop assessment strategies that aligned closely to our learning outcomes. In the large group session, we were introduced to different types of assessment strategies (traditional and alternative methods) and discussed the importance of including both formative (low stakes, for practice) and summative (high stakes, for grades) assessments. We then worked in small groups to outline the major assessment strategies in our courses in connection to our learning outcomes.

The alignment of assessment to the learning outcomes should resolve many of the tensions I have experienced in HSCI 212.  Rather than two large exams, at the middle and end of the course, 3-5 shorter exams throughout the term will test students on the lower level learning outcomes. To assess higher level learning outcomes, I designed a Disease Busters team project that will be due at the end of the course. The project will allow students to integrate and apply their knowledge, and think creatively about solving an infectious disease problem. The design of this project will be a challenging, but I think students will embrace this opportunity. To facilitate the transition from lower level summative assessments to higher-level assessments, I will incorporate formative case study assignments during lecture.

Day 4: Instructional Strategies and Developing a Course outline

The final day of the workshop was used to identify specific instructional strategies and learning activities, and to start drafting a course outline. The workshop ended with a poster-type session at which people displayed their concept maps, learning outcomes, and assessment strategies that they had created throughout the workshop. People circulated through the room and left sticky notes for feedback. It was a positive way to cap the experience.

This is an intense and worthwhile workshop; it helped me develop a solid and feasible plan for my class. One of the most valuable aspects of the workshop is that it provides a facilitated opportunity to deeply reflect on your course design. It is also a valuable occasion to interact with other SFU instructors in different departments and faculties. For example, I gained interesting and relevant perspectives on instructional design by interacting with people from: mathematics, fine arts, philosophy, education, chemistry and english.  One change that could make the workshop more accessible is to schedule it to take place one day a week on four consecutive weeks.

A summary of my course redesign on day 4 of the workshop. On the left is a 'graphic novel' version of my concept map, all the sticky notes show feedback from other instructors.