Getting Started in Course Development

The process of planning a course can be exciting, intellectually stimulating, and fun. It can also seem a bit intimidating and a little overwhelming. To jump-start the planning process, we offer the following questions and issues for your consideration:

  1. What major decisions have to be made in developing a course?

    There are typically three major decisions that we all face in developing and/or later enhancing a course:

    Throughout our professional lives as teaching scholars, we are likely to rethink these decisions to keep pace with developments in our content areas, to create variety for our students and ourselves, and to take advantage of new developments in our understanding of the links between teaching and learning.

    • Deciding what to teach (content and other skills);
    • Deciding how to teach it ( lecture, demonstration, case studies, role playing, etc.); and
    • Determining if students are learning what we want them to learn.
  2. What resources are available to assist me with planning?

    • Talk to faculty colleagues who have taught the course before or look at course outlines on the internet: examine any available syllabi, assignments, student projects, exams or other forms of evaluation. Ask questions about typical problems that students have with the course activities and also what activities have been effective.
    • Review textbooks and other resource materials on the topic if they are available. Comparing texts can help us see major themes and concepts, and provide ideas about the sequence of topics. Activity units often associated with newer texts can also provide ideas about presenting material in a variety of ways.
    • Draw on your own interests as well as recent changes in the field, and add them to the mix as you pull materials together.
    • Make an appointment with the Center for Teaching and Learning to talk with an instructional designer.
  3. What actual and potential constraints might limit course design and delivery?

It may be helpful to make a list of these constraints including:

  • The physical spaces in which we work: The physical facility or facilities that are available at UNC Charlotte vary significantly from classroom to classroom in the availability of technology, types of furniture (large tables, desk-chair combinations fixed to the floor), lighting control, the presence of chalk boards or white boards, and of course, the number of students who are likely to be in the classroom. It is no surprise that large classes make meaningful discussion difficult, fixed desks inhibit certain types of group activities, and lack of consideration of technology in planning classrooms creates numerous hurdles that must be overcome.
  • The role of the course in the curriculum: This set of constraints requires us to examine the course in a broader context of departmental, college, and university considerations: is the course a basic introduction to a discipline, an advanced course for majors, a graduate level course, one that meets university general degree requirements, or even a mixture of these types. Examining the role of the course within these broader contexts is useful, not only in planning the course, but in anticipating the types of students that we will be teaching (see below).
  • How much of the course is predetermined by the department and/or program: are there departmental guidelines for teaching the course (i.e., a preexisting syllabus and/or reading list that must be followed?), does the department require students to leave the course with a certain set of skills, or do we have total control over course content and set all instructional priorities?
  • The characteristics of the students who are likely to take the course: Often student characteristics are relatively unknown to newer faculty members (and some more experienced ones); initially we might have to infer some of that information until we meet the students and work with them a while, or we have to depend upon the experiences of other faculty in related courses. In either case, it may be helpful to consider the following:
  • The level of expertise that students bring with them to a course. What can we reasonably expect them to know already (content as well as other skills like math or writing), what related courses have they already completed, are they familiar with the local area?
  • The other responsibilities and constraints students have in addition to school. Do they live near campus, do they work, do they have family responsibilities? The presence of many non-traditional students at UNC Charlotte means that we cannot assume that students have the luxury of spending most of their time on campus, that those who live off campus have access to a computer (or to the Internet) at home, or that students – especially those with work or family responsibilities – can easily adjust their schedules to accommodate an unexpected overnight library assignment