Course and Curriculum Planning

A redesign made this course more engaging for students—and the instructor

February 04, 2020
Atiya Mahmood (gerontology) shows the course concept map she created during Rethinking Teaching, which helped her streamline her course.
By Jackie Amsden

This story originally appeared on the Teaching and Learning News blog on August 16, 2018.

Atiya Mahmood is learning how to breathe new life into old courses.

Mahmood, an associate professor in the Department of Gerontology, inherited GERO 300: Introduction to Gerontology in Fall 2014.

“GERO 300 is a Breadth course that gets an enrollment of 50 plus students each fall, most of them from disciplines outside gerontology. It was originally designed in the 1990s and hadn’t been updated since then. The student evaluations were pretty mediocre—the format of the course needed a major revamp.”


Mahmood attended the Spring 2017 Rethinking Teaching workshop, now named Rethinking Course Design, to help her figure out how to revise it. Rethinking Teaching/Course Design is a four-day, peer-led workshop offered by the Teaching and Learning Centre that supports faculty members to develop or redesign a university course.

“One of the first questions that Rethinking Teaching made me address was: What is my objective with the course? What do I want students to get out of it? This made me really think about how to make the class more palatable for the students. One part of the course that students found daunting was a module where they were exposed to 12 core theories all in the same lecture. Through Rethinking Teaching, I developed a course concept map that helped me identify three overarching and interlinked theories that became a running theme throughout the course. I could then introduce the other theories gradually in other modules.”

By adapting and streamlining the course content, Mahmood was also able to integrate an experiential activity to allow students to understand the abstract course concepts and complex information in new, more meaningful ways.

The persona project

“My colleague, Sarah Canham, and I both teach this course during different semesters and we came up with this idea of the persona project, where students work in teams over the duration of the course to develop a fictional older adult character that possesses unique physical, social and psychological traits. This persona becomes a frame through which students can engage with the curriculum. Attending Rethinking Teaching helped me work out how to structure the course so that this activity anchors the different course modules.”

The goal of the personas activity, Mahmood explains, is for students to think through how each person’s life situation interacts with the world in specific ways that then inform their life experience.

“One team decided their persona would have little rats as pets. When we got to the module on housing, this team soon realized that their persona would have major difficulty in finding placement in a supportive housing or care facility as most do not allow rodent pets. In another assignment, students had to evaluate an assigned section of downtown Vancouver through the lens of their persona with whatever mobility challenges they have designated for their persona. My students are largely able-bodied 20-year-olds, and until they do this type of assignment, the reality of older adults is often invisible to them. It gives them an awareness of the aging process that is different from what they learn through discussions or readings.”

Mahmood’s Rethinking Teaching group lead, Petra Menz (senior lecturer, Mathematics), attended one of her classes to observe how students were discussing their personas. Menz’s feedback helped Mahmood modify her assignments to ensure students were getting the most out of them. 

Hearing from the students

The impact of the course redesign on student learning, explains Mahmood, has been significant. Students are not only getting to know their classmates better, but understanding the course material in deeper ways. “We evaluated the course and found that 90% of students felt the persona project helped them learn the concepts better.”

For example, one student stated, “I really enjoyed the application of persona work. As a project, I felt like the end result of building the persona connected us personally to the work that we did. It’s a more creative way to demonstrate the knowledge we gained through the length of the course. This has been the most enjoyable group project I’ve been a part of.”

But just as important: Mahmood is enjoying the course. “Redesigning the course in this way has made the course actually fun for me to teach.”

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