Check list process for university course planning and design

It’s the first lecture, and the bright or bleary eyed students will be turning up to hear what is in for them for the semester. But the work started long before. And I don’t mean lecture preparation. Lecture preparation is one of the last things that happen in my course design process. Here is my process for getting a semester long course up and running at the university where I work in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is skewed towards large first year courses, but I use the same process for smaller courses that I sole teach or co-teach, just a lot faster.

*10-15 months before. Course approval process. Most Australasian universities have a course approval process, so you have to design your course, including the name, learning outcomes, short blurb, sample syllabus, and make some judgements on the academic level. In Aotearoa New Zealand, there is usually a process to consider bicultural aspects to the course, including consultations with the kaiarahi Māori within your unit who are employed to work with academics on this. At my university, course approval processes are around April of the year before the course is to be run. It has to go through several stages, including approval at a number of levels within the university, and sometimes nationally (when new degrees are involved). You only do this once per course and it is another whole thing to write about another time.

*6-12 months before.Timetabling: the year before your course is scheduled, the timetable is set. At some point, you will have to submit your request for class room spaces and timetabling. At this point, you need to decide what kinds of face to face contact you will have with your class, and what kinds of spaces you need for that. You can change this once the draft timetable comes out, but it is harder to find a good time and space that doesn’t clash with the usual cohort’s programmes of study.

In large classes, you might have lectures where the whole class gets together, and tutorials or labs in streams, where smaller groups do more intense learning activities. There are norms at universities and if you are significantly changing the norms, it has budgetary implications (particularly if it requires extra tutors or lab demonstrators). I am in the College of Science, and it is generally 3 hours of lectures and 2 hours of lab-work/tutorials each week for a first year course, and upper level social sciences courses have more like 2 hours of lectures and 1 hour of tutorial. Postgraduate courses often have a 3 hour session which is like an interactive tutorial/lecture/seminar. Think carefully about both your needs and your students’ needs. I tend to think meeting more often for shorter periods is better for building a community of learners (if a student misses a class they are not missing a whole week of learning), but putting it in a block is better for staff planning or for courses with a lot of mature learners with fulltime jobs. Depending on how many classes I am teaching, I might need to prioritise my own sanity for a year. Currently, my upper level courses are in blocks, and my lower level classes in shorter periods.

If you are planning to significantly change the staffing of your course, have a chat with all involved and perhaps get your administrator to run a budget when tutors are involved. You may have to justify your decision (pedagogically) if it is going to cost more. Recently, my tutor team has been giving me feedback on the work conditions and I am striving to increase the paid prep time and the training they receive for teaching. My first year course has a very high tutor budget, but it is a large course with multiple lab streams and essay based assessments that require a high level of supervision and training for markers. However, there is no technical staff costs or field trip or lab materials costs so I continue to run it this way. On the balance, as the only first year human geography course, it is important we get it exactly right in order for our numbers to stay healthy moving forward (that’s how I justify it!).

*3 months before. Staffing and workload. This may have been important at the timetabling stage too, particularly if you team teach and some members of the team have heavy teaching loads (they cannot have clashes with their other classes timetabled in). I start the process of looking for suitable tutors, preferably postgraduate students directly in the area of the course, or who have done the course as undergrads. In our system, tutors run smaller classes called tutorials, or labs in science, and do a portion of the marking. I look for highly motivated individuals who get good grades, and keep an eye on diversity as these folks will be the first point of contact for many students. I usually aim for a mix of experienced and newbie tutors.

If am not sure what my staffing is at this point, it is important to get it sorted with my manager. In the places I have worked, the department/school head is responsible for distributing teaching loads. This has usually been done with a workload model. Even if I think the workload model is inaccurate, this is what my load is distributed on, so it is a good idea to get my work flow as close to the assumed model that I can. What this means in practice is that if I am given only 2 or 3 hours in the model to prepare a 1 hour lecture, or 30 minutes per student for marking, I actually try my best to match that up.

At 3 months before, I take a look at who is teaching in to my courses, whether I am coordinating them, and I do a dry run workload model to see how close I am to a 40% teaching load (the goal at the places I have worked is 40% teaching, 40% research, 20% service/admin). If I am significantly over, I run some scenarios and try to a) adjust my course expectations (for example, reduce the number of tutorials I teach directly, change the kind of assessment to use less time marking, change the responsibilities of tutors) b) consider what unnecessary teaching I am doing that I can pass on to others (for example, guest lectures into other courses, small modules in other courses), and finally c) approach my head if I have done all these and not managed to get within a reasonable load. It is their responsibility to make sure staffing and workload is adequate. They might, for example, ask another colleague to coordinate a course with you and take on half the admin load of that course, or they might increase your tutor budget so you have more support with things like uploading grades for large courses.

This process of cutting expectations to fit a workload may sound pretty cynical to the uninitiated (why do I not make my decisions only on student needs? Why should the workload model drive my planning? Shouldn’t pedagogy be at the centre?) I guess I have learned that if I don’t do this, I burn out. Teaching is basically about balancing student needs with our own needs, and currently my needs include time with my four children (or if not with them exactly, co-running the household that supports them).

*3 months before. Create a draft master schedule. I use a whiteboard, and start with a table with the weeks of the semester down one side, the lectures and topics next, then the lab or tutorial topics, then any assessments students will need to be thinking about. Check any public holidays coming up, semester breaks, and any medical, maternity or sabbatical leave your team members might have coming up. Think about topic flow, due dates and workload, marking time turnaround, with reference to the student experience. See Figure 1 for a first year, team taught example. Check any regulations or policies here, for example, when is the latest date people will join your course, and what would they miss? When can they pull out with no financial penalty? At first year, it is good practice to have a low risk first assessment before that date, so they can get a sense about whether the course — or university — is for them. This might be something we can change now that fees are free for first year in NZ.

Once I have thought all this through, I produce a master schedule. The idea is that this is a one page master schedule that anyone — staff or student — can print and have on their workspace so they know what they are meant to be doing. Because our semester break is at Easter, the length of the modules has to change each year to fit either a 6 week first term or a 7 week first term. I try and line up the labs with the topics, and the assessments in ways that make sense. Notify your team as to the weeks they are teaching, and go back to adjust if people are unavailable.

When I first started doing this, I tended to find a good textbook, and loosely base my course on the structure of the text book. In lower level classes, I prefer module based teaching, where students focus on a particular subject for 2 to 3 weeks, and usually have a small assessment associated with it. This fits well with the New Zealand school system. Using the whiteboard and some post-it notes, I start planning the course block by block, thinking about the learning outcomes for each block. I ask myself, “How will you know if the students have achieved the learning outcomes?” “What kinds of skills are you wanting them to pick up, apart from content (for example, writing skills)?” “How does this fit into the next year level and preparing them for that, or work?”

Fig 1: Sample Course Schedule

I work from the premise that the best learning opportunities are assessments, not lectures, so assessment design is THE most important aspect of this process. Once you have your assessment tasks and the due dates for them, reassess your content (lectures and tutorials) and massage them to better support the assessment. Think about what information is needed to succeed in the assessment, and where will it come from? WHO is going to mark the assessments, and when? What kind of feedback is needed, and what kind of time does it take to provide it? Return to the workload, and assess whether you are over-teaching and/or over-assessing. Return to any guidelines for student work and ask the same. In our system, students are expected to do about 10 hours a week for a course that is a quarter of a full load (e.g. if they are doing 4 courses as a full load), and about 20 hours a week for a course that is half a load (usually postgraduate).

*2 months before. Create a course outline, otherwise known as a syllabus. If you are doing this for the first time, ask for a template or someone else’s course to model it on. There will be a lot of text in there that is useful to you, and you can probably just base yours on it. This will have text about course expectations, plagiarism, where to find help and so on. If you have your master schedule, creating the syllabus is mainly transferring this into a written form, with more information.

At this point, I need to make decisions about how much each assessment is worth, and whether that is a fair reflection of the hours a student would put into it. Thinking about the 10 hours per week of time the student should allocate, how much is left once class is taken into account? How much time can I expect the student to put into it? In readings based courses, I aspire to have all the readings in the syllabus, but I have never yet managed to do this! Instead, I load them 2 to 3 weeks in advance on to the student learning system online. Circulate your course outline to a few people for proofing and feedback. It’s a good idea to compare it to similar courses in your discipline at the same level, and check whether your expectations are consistent. For example, do you expect students to have read everything before class, but your colleagues choose one to read in class together? You might not change, necessarily, but it is worth being aware of where students might push back. The course outline is like a legal document, with everything a student needs to know about the course. It is very poor practice to change it once is is released, so check it carefully. *note, recently my university has been asking for this document more like 4 months before the class starts. I have not yet managed to do this, because I need staffing sorted first.

*1 month before. Sort out any tutor contracts. Allocate any tasks to tutors that need to be done before the course starts.

Transfer the course outline into your learning management system. I use a week by week structure (Fig 2), with clear tasks such as *Attend or listen to 3 lectures * Read reading 1 *attend lab *Complete lab exercise *choose essay topics or *hand in assignment one here. Remember, for a variety of reasons, some students are likely to ONLY interact with your course via the web, and the basic structure needs to be usable. Enter in all the assessment dropboxes in a separate section, then link to these dropboxes in the appropriate weeks under the tasks. I don’t always get this done — but if you have the first welcome page and the basic structure for when the students enter the course site, they are encouraged to check out the course outline. I try and keep the pages about 2 weeks ahead of the students, particularly so students with learning needs that require early view can access that. Our courses are usually visible to students 2 weeks in advance of the course beginning, so if you aren’t ready by then, you will need to manually hide it.

I usually start preparing lectures about a month before for a new course, setting up a shell structure in powerpoint or writing notes in evernote to be used later. I definitely gather any material I need to read at this point, and make a plan for getting the lectures done.

*week before. Print course outline. Prepare/finalise/adjust the first week’s lectures. Allocate students to tutorials. Answer all the emails. Open new streams as your enrolments blow out…. etc etc. Check in with staff. Train tutors.

Figure 2: Sample online setup

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