Lessons in Course Design

education research

Jilly MacKay


November 30, 2018

By some counts (i.e. the number I list on my CV) I’ve led the design of about thirty higher education courses over the last few years. And even I have to have learned something by the end of it. I asked Twitter what would be the most useful format for talking about those lessons, and Twitter was very keen on a personal blog, because they wanted the dirty truths.

This is that blog.

Broadly speaking, I have three takeaways from my work on course design. They overlap, of course, because life is messy, but these are what I’ll be taking forward in future. Respect the need for the course, accept that courses will always be co-creations, and while you must try to innovate, you must also recognise why innovation is so difficult.

Respect the Course

At the risk of turning you off this blog post immediately – this was one of my big lessons that made everything ‘click’ the moment I grasped it. On Edinburgh’s Teaching Matters blog I’ve talked about the course design process that really drove this home for me – but at all stages of course design, from the early planning to the third year review, I have found it very useful to go back to why we want the course in the first place.

There are some corollory lessons to this one. If your reason for the course is ‘we want the money’ or ‘the king on high said make it so’, it becomes much harder to find a single cohesive thread that should tie the course together. One of the earliest courses I designed very much came from an edict on high (so high it was impossible to refuse), so the team and I discussed what was missing from elsewhere in the programme. That course became a place to teach the skills that we didn’t have the time to teach elsewhere, and I was very proud of it.

Having a reason for what you’re doing helps you make the big decisions. How do you decide on an exercise if you need to compromise on timing? If you have a central motivation that drives you, you’ll find it a lot easier to distinguish between the two.

Accept Co-Creation

This one may be more personal. I hate co-creation. I mean, if anyone is listening I love it and team-work is one of my great strengths, but generally I hate it. I think this is particularly difficult when designing a course.

Have you ever given somebody else’s lecture? It’s difficult. Even giving your own lecture, a year later, can be difficult. Lectures are so much a product of you at that moment.

I am a huge defender, and a huge proponent, of the looser aspects of stagecraft that make a lecture. When you see students aren’t following and you stop and regroup – that’s good. When you get diverted away from the beaten path by a really interesting question – that’s good! Teaching adults should not be about sticking rigidly to a lesson plan that anyone could pick up and run with. It needs to be personal.

But with that, comes the difficulty of accepting the other personals in the room. As someone who prides herself on her communication, I am sometimes amazed at how explicit I must be when describing a teaching activity to another. So vice versa, I try to work hard to understand how someone else plans to teach something. This might be something we all need to work on, or just me, but there needs to be more acceptance of how courses arise out of everyone.

And by this I also mean accept the co-creation of the students. My somewhat looser philosophy of the class-plan has also been informed by the different classes I’ve seen. I am still not sure exactly why the same broad cohort, the same rough course, the same timetable slot, can all sometimes result in a wildly different group of students (there’s a study in this!).

It would churlish to express this as ‘no course plan survives first contact with the enemy’ – but recognise that the course you design in your head will not be the same course you actually teach, because your students create that with you.

What Price Innovation?

This final point may end up a blog in itself. In a QAA event this week we talked briefly about student led teaching awards. There’s often a category of innovative teaching. When recruiting staff, I have pushed away from assessing their teaching in terms of its ‘innovation’. What counts as innovation? Is it if I haven’t seen it before? Or if the whole panel hasn’t seen it before?

This year we ran a brand new teaching exercise at the vet school which I don’t think is particulalry innovative. I’ve been doing stuff like it, in other contexts, for years. But the students hadn’t seen anything like it, and they loved it. We’ll undoubtedly be talking a lot more about it in the next six months as we unpack our evaluation.

However, that evaluation will likely underplay the sick feeling I had that morning, my racing heart and the sheer amount of work it took to get us there. Innovation takes a lot work, and a lot of risk.

We ask for innovation when we teach, even though we greatly penalise those whose teaching ‘doesn’t work’. Therefore innovations must always be a sure thing. I feel very safe in my role, comparative to a lot of early career academics, and even I feel frightened when I see that sea of blank faces. Or worse, read that angry comment that the assessment was confusing, or there was no point to the teaching.

I have tried much more that hasn’t worked than has. I’m thinking particularly of an assessment this year where I tried to play about with how some things were weighted (partly due to the discussions we had in the co-creation phase – see ‘accept co-creation’ above, even when the urge arises to assign blame) and I am reverting back to tradition immediately.

I think there is often a push, particularly when you are in that early excitement of design, to do something eye-catching and startling. Think about yourself before you do this. You are the one who needs to run the course.

Sometimes innovation will be hard and painful but still needs to be done, perhaps because it’s the whole reason your course exists. That’s a battle you will need to have. So make those choices strategically.

And if you are in the position to support innovation, anything you can do to reinforce the idea that failure is not going to mean immediate unemployment would be greatly appreciated by those on short-term contracts who probably sacrificed a paper to try something new.

Respect the course. Accept co-creation. Acknowledge the hardships of innovation.