A successful course, one in which students learn what we
educators intend them to in a meaningful manner, is the result
of many factors. In my ten years experience of advising
faculty on educational matters, I have found that the successful
or outstanding teacher is frequently the one who
carefully conceptualises his/her courses and then organises
these ideas into working plans and detailed course documents.
These plans provide a foundation and a guide for instructional
practice that is likely to lead to greater comprehensiveness,
cogency, coherency and consonance.
In this brief article I want to suggest how university teachers
can improve the conceptualisation and planning phases of instruction.
I will do this by identifying how teachers can bridge the
gaps between what I have observed as common practice when
planning instruction with what some of the instructional design
(ID) literature propose as best practice.
Why are there gaps between common practice and best practice?
Limited time and resources afforded to teachers in preparing
courses are obvious reasons. However, more subtle reasons
include problems with what is prescribed as best practice
in the literature and how faculty perceive the task of teaching.
The ID literature is becoming increasingly specialised; most
course design material (e.g. Briggs, 1977; Smith & Ragan,
1993) is directed to the professional instructional designer,
rather than the teacher/lecturer who, often with limited educational
training, does the bulk of curriculum design on any university
campus. Clearly, instructional designers (myself included)
need to work harder at helping faculty bridge the gap between
instructional design theories and everyday academic practice
by grounding these ideas in relation to the specific challenges
teachers from different disciplines face. One instructional
design text that seeks to do this is Ertmer and Quinns The ID CaseBook, which presents ID ideas in the context
of real world problems. CDTLs Professional Development
Programme (PDP) also attempts to help faculty use pedagogical
principles as a means for reflecting upon their practice.
David Kember notes another problem with the ID literature
as a source for best practice:
I have become concerned that books classified as about
instructional design generally show little cognizance of
the research into student learning and contain little help
which would help a teacher who wanted to design instruction
which facilitated deep rather than surface learning. (Kember,
This ignorance of research conducted on student learning
is a legacy of older (and possibly outdated) instructional
design models that unfortunately still shape much of what
is done in higher education (Forsyth, et al., 1999). In this
article I draw upon research that has its roots in how students
learn (Ramsden, 1992). Such research is based upon constructivist
views of the world and suggests that students learn most effectively
when encouraged to construct their own understanding rather
than be expected to simply absorb information. This research
emphasises the importance of actively engaging students, and
expecting them to be responsible for their instruction. Thankfully
these ideas are beginning to have an effect upon ID (Wilson,
et al., 1995) and are redefining what is good practice when
planning instruction (Gibbs, 1992; Evans & Honour, 1997;
Wilson & Myers, 2000).
In the remainder of the paper I specify key questions teachers
in higher education need to address when planning instruction.
What is the purpose?
In workshops and private consultations, I have asked faculty
where they start when planning a new course. Typically the
response is that they begin with organising their content
(i.e. what topics they plan to teach and the sequence in which
they will be taught). On the surface, this seems like a reasonable
place to start. However, implicit in this organisation of
content are assumptions about the purposes of the course;
and unless these assumptions about the purposes are made explicit,
the course runs the risk of failing to fit into the wider
curriculum, as well as institutional and social context.
Asking questions like those following can help the lecturer
to clarify the purpose of the course and better prepare the
teacher to deal with various expectations:
- Who are the various stakeholders of this course?
- How does this course fit into the larger picture? Why
would students be interested in this course? What function
does it play in respect to society, the degree programme,
- Where does this course fit in a degree programme sequence:
What came before? What comes after? What is the rationale
for its position? Is this course foundational (i.e. an essential
prerequisite for subsequent work), compulsory or optional?
- Who else is involved in planning and teaching? Who has
- What weight does this course actually carry in the overall
degree? How important is it perceived by staff/students?
- How is this course viewed in the institution?
- What is the prior history of this course?
Who is the learner?
The educational environment or context of learning is
created through our students experience of our curricula,
teaching and assessment procedures. (Ramsden, 1992:
Most teachers have notional views about their students. However,
I have found that when these views are questioned, lecturers
find it difficult to substantiate their claims with any reference
to research they or others have done on their students. Planning
for any course must include a credible understanding of the
learner and how they are likely to perceive and respond to
Increasingly, university teachers are accepting the need
to articulate learning objectives (i.e. statements of expected
learning outcomes). But identifying the desired change in
students implies an understanding of where the students are
at. Hence, part of planning a course must be about finding
out information about the students (i.e. before the first
class, look at entry scores, characteristics of previous cohorts,
etc., or during the first contact, get to know the students,
prior learning/understanding, motivation, preconceptions/assumptions
about the course).
The conceptions of deep and surface learning are terms that
describe how students respond to their learning activities
(Ramsden, 1992: 7885). If the aim of the course is to
foster a deep approach to learning (one that is meaningful
and rich), then teachers need to understand how students are
likely to approach various tasks, and what can be done to
make these tasks more attractive to students.
While planning is in part anticipating and articulating what
the students may be like (and what we wish them to become),
it is also about developing strategies (e.g. pre-course questionnaires,
early assessment, class discussions and interviews) to check
whether these assumptions and expectations are valid and accurate.
The information gathered allows a teacher to be better prepared
and flexible in making informed adjustments to instruction
such that it meets the students specific needs and desired
course outcomes can indeed be achieved.
Which methods of instructions are suitable?
When I question university teachers about the methods they
plan to employ in their teaching to facilitate the desired
learning, the most common response is that they will give
a lecture, run a tutorial or administer
a laboratory session. When I probe further, I find that
many lecturers believe and accept that these instructional
settings embody standard and proven methods. Unfortunately,
critiques of traditional lectures (i.e. teachers speak, students
listen) suggest that while they still are useful in achieving
certain outcomes (e.g. delivering information), they are by
themselves largely ineffective in helping students develop
the many complex skills associated with a higher education.
Lectures that incorporate methods that get students to discuss,
perform specific types of thinking, actively take notes, reflect,
etc. are generally more successful (Ramsden, 1992: Ch. 9).
Studies on innovative teaching practice show that lectures,
tutorials and laboratory sessions are merely instructional
settings that the teacher defines by incorporating various
micro-instructional methods. While the choice of any method
of instruction will be influenced by administrative and political
factors, the primary determinate should be: given the students,
what method will best facilitate the desired learning outcomes?
Although each instructional setting has certain characteristics
(e.g. number of students, size and configuration of a room),
clever faculty have shown that these barriers can be surmounted.
For instance, interactive discussions with large lecture groups
are possible with careful planning in respect to physical
and other constraints.
Various instructional methods 1 include traditional
lecture, tutor-led discussion, computer discussion forum,
buzz groups, role play, problem-solving groups, structured
exercises, case study, project work, journal writing, experiments
and demonstrations. Each method has certain accepted tenants
and attributable outcomes. But part of the planning process
is defining these activities in relation to the specific context
for which they are to be used (e.g. thinking about how to
incorporate the desired content and how students will participate
in the learning activity). It is how a method is employed
that will largely determine the types of outcomes that will
Choosing whether and how to lecture and/or give tutorials
entails more than just looking at the time allocated in a
timetable. Besides doing some research and finding out about
various instructional methods and then choosing those that
will best facilitate the desired learning outcomes, it also
requires embedding the concepts/skills that the instructor
wants students to learn within these activities and incorporating
these activities within a given instructional setting.
What assessment procedures are appropriate?
Most university teachers realise how critical assessment
is in a university course; most acknowledge issues of validity
and reliability are important (Warren Piper, et al., 1996).
But what is often lacking in their planning is an appreciation
of what measures need to be put in place to ensure validity
and reliability beyond basic issues like nominating assessment
methods, defining a task or question for students to complete,
and allocating a weighting or marks for each task.
Other important considerations when planning assessment include:
- ability to articulate a rationale for using a method of
assessment over another;
- understanding of how different assessments measure (and
help teach) the various course objectives;
- awareness of how the different methods of assessment are
likely to impact on students (the sum of the parts);
- establishment of criteria for assessing students
performance and how this criteria will be communicated to
- establishment of marking and grading procedures to minimise
the effects of individual marker bias.
What is the best way to organise content?
University faculty are very skilled at defining and conceptualising
subject content, as well as selecting relevant parts of the
discipline and chunking it into smaller segments
necessary for instruction. More challenging, at least for
some teachers, is to think and organise their content in broader
terms (i.e. what is the relevance of this material and how
does it relate to students future professional career,
or figuring out ways of helping students appreciate the course
as a whole rather than discrete parts). Another challenging
aspect when organising content is integrating with the method
of instruction (e.g. developing case studies, creating examples,
analogies). Sometimes, this requires looking at content in
ways that are different from the disciplinary orthodoxy.
Organising content also requires some anticipation as to
how students will interpret this information. When planning,
teachers should assume that just because they present some
information does not mean students will understand it as intended.
Hence, sometimes content will need to be organised into multiple
representations to ensure students that have different styles
of learning can have a better appreciation of what it is they
are meant to learn.
What should be evaluated?
Many university teachers unfortunately see evaluation as
an imposition (something the university requires of them)
rather than as a means for improving teaching practice. Hence,
instead of being considered in the planning phase of a course,
evaluation is commonly thought about and acted upon towards
the end of a course. However, those that see evaluation as
an integral part of the teaching and learning process will
identify, in their planning, any ideas they wish to try out
and evaluate. They will point out instances where data can
be collected and analysed and where results can be fed back
into the teaching cycle. In this way, an action research and
action learning approach to the improvement of instruction
can be facilitated (Zuber-Skerritt, 1993).
Why develop course documentation?
Good planning for a successful course requires continuous
reflection, not just thinking momentarily about relevant issues. To facilitate this type of reflective practice,
some institutions have encouraged faculty to develop elaborate
course outlines 2 that require teachers to address the range of issues touched
upon in this paper. An example of a detailed course outline
can be viewed at: http://www.tedi.uq.edu.au/downloads/e1267out.pdf.
Such documents offer the university and students a rich and
more detailed overview of a course, and also afford teachers
concrete platforms for building upon the hard work they have
done previously in planning the course. These documents, if
developed because of teachers interest in improving
their teaching, will remain a living and working document.
It can provide direction as teachers wade through the details
and challenges of teaching and administering a course. It
also can be the means for recording a teachers development
and maturation and stands as evidence of teaching quality.
A successful course is unlikely to be the outcome of a teacher
simply spending an hour or two writing a course outline or
carefully reading the course textbook (though both are worthwhile
planning activities). A great course is more likely the result
of a long continuous effort of thinking, researching and reflecting
upon the issues of what is the purpose of the course, who
are the learners and what constitutes learning, what methods
of instruction are suitable and how do you implement them
in a given context, what assessment procedures are appropriate,
what content should be included and how should the course
be evaluated. By recording these ideas in a document, they
can be shared with colleagues, students and other stakeholders
so that they too can contribute to further planning and development
of the course. Consequently, the gap between best practice
in planning and individual practice is not an unbreachable
chasm, but merely a journey one can take to improve the quality
of teaching and learning in any university.
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and Application. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology
Ertmer, Peggy A. & Quinn, James. (1999). The ID CaseBook:
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Evans, Barbara & Honour, Leslie. (1997). Getting
Inside Knowledge: The Application of Entwistles Model
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Canberra: Higher Education Division, Department of Employment
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1 For a more extensive
review of different methods, see: Squires, 1994; Gibbs &
Back to the article
Information Documents: see Forsyth, et al., 1999.