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Make It Simpler! Advanced Course Design

Despite all my best intentions, and no matter how early I get started on course prep, I’m at the last minute and still caught basically scrambling to put my courses together. That’s ok. I know what I’m doing. I’ve got over a decade of experience teaching college courses—in particular, these first year composition courses that I’m currently teaching—so I can trust that it’ll work out one way or another. But in the past few years, I’ve realized that there is one thing that makes classes better, every time: simplicity.

stock photo of three apples on gray wood boards.
One apple might be enough. Why do we need three?

Fashion icon Coco Chanel is often attributed as saying that you should take off one accessory before you leave the house. I’m thinking that the same kind of principle applies to your course design. We’re often tempted to add stuff: if I just add this, it will improve engagement, it will finally explain this concept, or whatever we want it to do. But I’m arguing today that instead, we should focus on what we can remove from our courses and still meet the course goals. This will make things easier for students and instructors alike, and let the quality stuff that’s left shine through.

I was occasionally teaching asynchronous online pre-pandemic, and as I’m prepping this semester, I’m looking at those courses for resources and inspiration to see what worked. Summer 2019 was a pretty successful semester; the students found it well scaffolded (they didn’t use those words, but in their evaluation comments, they remarked that the assignments built on each other and seemed relevant, which is a win). Something that struck me about the design of that course is how simple it is: almost no video lectures, nearly every assignment is directly contributing to the larger projects, and the expectations are repeatedly and openly stated in bullet point lists. I love it!

As I’m working on my current course design, I’m realizing that I could just use that course design, except it was made for 10 weeks and not 15. However, that’s not a bad thing! It met the same requirements and goals! So, I’m working on making the course as minimal as possible, and there’s a part of me that wonders if I’ve gone too far. The first week looks a bit… small.

But then I remember that this is my goal: simplicity. I’m clearly stating my goals not just to myself but to my students. And what’s there seems to meet those goals, including assessment and opportunities for feedback.

We’re all overworked and overstressed and undersupported. So, take one thing off your lesson plan before you call it done. See what happens. Think simple. You might even look back on it like I’m doing now with those Summer 2019 designs and think “That worked well. I should do that again.”

3 thoughts on “Make It Simpler! Advanced Course Design

  1. Beautiful! Absolutely beautiful!!
    Keeping video lectures short (5-10 minutes tops!) and building a constructive design for courses (so that the assignments build on top of each other) is a brilliant way to support learner agency and make the courses more learner-centered – which obviously means that students will learn more!



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