Composing a Course for Significant Learning

Course design is to teaching and learning what sheet music is to performing a symphony. Both require careful composition, indeed, but to deliver the best outcome, the most satisfying result, all parts must work together harmoniously. A well integrated course provides structure and is characterized by a reciprocal alignment among the essential course components: goals, assessments, and teaching and learning activities.

At the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC), Dr. Dee Fink’s work (concisely represented in A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning) provides the foundation for many of our programs and initiatives. We always design our own programs with his model of integrated course design in mind, and we encourage colleagues to do the same. Lessons on integrated course design are a key component in our most robust faculty development programs, such as the annual summer Provost’s Teaching Academy and the Teaching in Higher Education Certificate program.

The Model

Fink’s model (pictured below) challenges educators to not only articulate intended course goals but to ensure that assignments, activities, and assessments all lead to the achievement of those goals. He also highlights the presence of situational factors, which are contextual issues in any given course environment that could affect the learning. These could include but are not limited to: the age of students, their prior knowledge of the subject matter, and the size of the room.

As illustrated in the diagram, Fink stresses that all components of a course are interdependent and impacted by situational factors. A course designed with Fink’s framework in mind results in a more student-centered and intentional pedagogy.

Fundamental Features

The core course components discussed in Fink’s work are: goals, activities, and assessments, defined below:

  • Goals are the final learning results of a semester-long experience. Teachers should ask themselves: “What will students learn or be able to do once they complete my course?” A Primer on Writing Effective Learning-Centered Course Goals offers excellent guidance for articulating clear, measurable goals.

  • Activities are the teaching strategies and learning experiences that comprise the day-to-day of the course. In the best courses, each element is used to prepare students to successfully complete the assessments. What do the students need to read, hear, see, practice, do if they are to meet the goals measured by the assessments? Fink recommends that activities directly link to the overarching course goal(s) and stimulate active learning. Examples of classroom activities that Fink provides include debates, simulations, guided discussion, small group problem solving, and case studies.

  • Assessments give students the opportunity to demonstrate where they are in relation to achieving the course learning goals, and you an opportunity to evaluate the students’ performance and give feedback.

The goals must be determined first; once they have been articulated an educator can begin the work of thoughtfully integrating each component with the others. So, as an example, if a professor’s course goal is for students to be able to evaluate the quality of an argument, an aligned teaching activity might be for students to read a successfully argued article, then hear a brief lecture where the teacher identifies the components of the good argument such as a clear thesis and evidence. A professor might then ask students to read a sample article and engage in a think-pair-share learning activity, using a rubric to evaluate those same components together. An aligned learning activity might look very similar to the assessment; after all, it is not fair to ask students to demonstrate mastery without having had some practice first. In this scenario, students might be asked to put their evaluations of a sample article’s argument into writing.

Payoff Potential

Integrated course design requires that instructors are intentional about how each individual component is significant to the final outcome. This method fosters a more coordinated experience, Fink writes, so that at any given moment in the semester, students can understand the importance of assignments and activities as well as which goal(s) they are working toward.

If intentional about design, educators can maximize the potential for a course that is stable in its structure, steady in its pacing, purposeful in its direction, and meaningful in its instruction. Integrated course design, Fink posits, enables students to better retain knowledge and extend their involvement in the material beyond a single course. Fink encourages each teacher to “increase [his or her] power and effectiveness as someone responsible for the quality of other peoples’ learning experience” (original emphasis).

Let’s Exchange EDvice…

As you reflect on courses you have taught or taken, can you share an instance where the key components were not fully aligned? or were? How do you plan to better align the goals, activities, and assessments in your course?

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This post was co-written by our communications extern, Alexa Mantell, and Assistant Director Carl S. Moore, and edited by Alexa and Pamela Barnett, Associate Vice Provost and Director.

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