One part of holding a PhD is teaching, and part of teaching is developing a new course. Now, I use the word “new” loosely here; It could be a new section of a common course (such as the online Introduction to Psychology course I am developing this semester) or an entirely new course related to an emerging topic or your own research. It might be for a room of 300 freshman, an unknown number of online students or 8 graduate students in a seminar. Regardless, there are some processes that you will need to go through and decisions to be made. This post is going to hit on some of the most important steps.
From a pedagogical/andragogical perspective, your course must have some learning objectives. These may be provided if the course is a standard offering, or you may need to determine what they are. Regardless, your first step should always be to define what you want your students to come away from the course knowing and.or able to do. From there you can begin to ask yourself some key questions that will define what the rest of the course will look like. Questions like:
- How many students are you going to have in this class? You can spend a lot more time grading assignments from a class of 10 than from a class of 100. Discussions flow differently in larger classrooms and you might need to incorporate technology like clickers or Poll Everywhere to make the class interactive.
- Will the course have a lab or discussion sections? Large courses often use discussion sections for more interactivity, while labs are designed to be hands on. Even if you don’t have a separate time, you may find integrating those types of structures into a course useful, assuming it supports your learning objectives.
- How many courses are you teaching? Multiple sections of the same courses or all different courses? Teaching multiple sections of the same course can be easier, in that you will have less to prepare. However I’ve found my own thinking enhanced by teaching different courses at the same time, resulting in better descriptions and examples for both. Regardless, you need to plan your time accordingly.
- Will you have teaching assistants? TAs are NOT slave labor. It is part of your job to teach them how to teach. So while you can ask them to do a lot of the “drudge” work of teaching, such as grading papers and tests, you will need to teach them what to look for and spot check their work throughout the semester. Plan to spend quite a bit of time overseeing their work and helping them do a good job.
- Are there materials already created that you can use or will everything need to be created from scratch? For example most textbooks will come with a slide pack, but the slides are often ugly and don’t explain the material well. I found for both of my classes that I had to create my own materials that included more multimedia, more visuals and more interactive examples. Don’t be afraid to search the internet for good ideas on exercises you can use with your students. (Don’t forget to give the original author credit.)
- Is there a single book that meets most of your learning objectives? If not, can you meet the objectives with a couple of less-expensive books? What about using e-reserves from your library to either supplement or, in the case of grad seminars, replace a textbook? (Keep in mind what constitutes fair use if you use this approach. You are usually safe if you are using a single chapter from a particular book for teaching purposes, but you should check with your department and library on whether there are any limitations in place at your institution.) If you are teaching at a community college, are there open source textbooks that can be used to save the students some money?
- How may tests do you plan to give? Undergraduate students prefer more assessment opportunities covering smaller chunks of material, while graduate students prefer a few bigger (deeper) assignments. How heavily weighted in the course grade will those tests be? Are they the primary means of assessment or just one of many? I give 5 tests in my stats class. I give them on paper and grade them by hand because I am better able to provide feedback to the students that way. But those tests are worth only 40% of the total class grade. I have other assignments that make up the rest of the course grade.
- How many assignments (homework, papers, lab activities) do you plan to give and how will you manage reviewing them? I have been actively working to reduce this part of my work load. Homework is done using an online system, and lab answers will be typed into web-forms rather than handed in on paper. This lets the computer grade some of the questions and I only have to worry about the short answer questions. Papers are still manual, but I am working on implementing an electronic feedback process that I’ll detail later this summer.
- How much lecturing do you plan to do? How are you going to organize that time, keep the students’ attention and ensure that they are understanding what you said? I do a lot of lecture in my stats class because the students find the book confusing, but I do it with lots of breaks for questions, partial problem exercises, and bad jokes to find out who is still listening. I use Powerpoint as a projector operating system by which I put up videos, animations and visual aids to help the students understand the words coming out of my mouth. Lecturing isn’t necessarily bad, but you do need to plan for it and make it more interactive (see note on clickers and such above).
- What can you do for yourself in advance that will make your semester easier? The better you plan out your course, the less stressful your semester will be. My goal is to have both of my courses completely ready to go by the first day of classes so that I just need to execute during the semester. So I am organizing all my notes now, testing my iPad with a projector, and otherwise attempting to make sure that there will be no surprises.
In the back of your mind you should always be balancing the techniques used with the amount of time you have available to work on the course. If you have no TAs and 300 students, you shouldn’t assign multiple papers and may be better off with multiple choice tests*. If, on the other hand, you have a small graduate seminar you may NEVER give an actual in-class test. (I’ve actually been asked about one of my assignments because the person doing the syllabus review thought it might take up an awful lot of my time. It does, but the student learning that comes out of the assignment is sufficient to make it worthwhile. I compensate by using computer graded homework for much of the day-to-day work.)
One last thing: remember that it gets easier. The first semester is always the hardest, as you change, adapt, tweak and otherwise fix up your course. You will find places you need to add material, other places you need to subtract it. You will find assignments that just don’t work, and others that work so well you want to further build on them. This is normal. Just as your students are learning, so are you. Take it all in stride and keep your sense of humor.
*A multiple choice test doesn’t HAVE to be a cakewalk. How easy or hard it is depends on the questions asked. The worst grade I got in graduate school was in a statistics class with 4 tests, 10 multiple choice questions each. Each question required solving a problem and choosing a response that explained the outcome you got from the problem. They were by no means trivial problems, and frankly I am a REALLY good test-taker. However the grade I got (B+, so not actually bad) reflected what I knew and understood quite accurately. It takes longer to write these kinds of questions, but they can be just as rigorous if well done.