Consider course context to design effective classes.

As part of the backwards design process, we generate a list of learning objectives for our students. Our initial lists usually include objectives that are difficult to assess, objectives that are impossible to measure, and lofty objectives that may be out of reach for our students. These first drafts of learning objectives are often very long — too long, in fact, for the time allotted to us — and can be overwhelming.

Some of the challenges of producing learning objectives, specifically having too many objectives and objectives that are above reasonable difficulty, exist because we tend to generate learning objectives based solely on our desires as course instructors and with very little consideration of the overall course context.

Course context (also referred to as situational context or situational factors) is the reality of the system we are teaching within. To design effective courses, all decisions made during the backwards design process should be through the lens of our specific course context. I prefer to break the course context into three distinct areas: the logistics of the course, the students attending the course, and the instructor teaching the course.

Consider course logistics. The course logistics include the class size, class schedules, prerequisites, etc. Consider the time of day you’re meeting. How does it fit into your schedule? How might it fit into your students’ schedules? Will they be coming to your class hungry? The course logistics also include any external constraints, such as the budget for materials or requirements of the institution. Such logistical constraints are important and should be reflected in our finalized learning objectives.

Consider instructor characteristics. We should also review our objectives in light of our characteristics, which includes our strengths, weaknesses, and values as an instructor. Our learning objectives will be more impactful if they allow us to use the evidence-based teaching practices that we have mastered. Our learning objectives should include concepts or topics that we thoroughly enjoy teaching, whenever possible, to help us remain engaged in our classes.

Consider student characteristics. I have found that we rarely consider student populations when designing our course objectives. We may consider our students more when designing activities or plans for a specific lesson, but we should be considering them when trying to decide the overall course objectives.

What are the motivations and challenges that our students are walking into our classrooms with? Why are our students taking our course? What are they hoping to learn? Our courses will be more impactful if they directly address our students’ concerns and areas of interest. What misconceptions may they have before they enter the class? Our time with our students is an opportunity to improve their thinking, which we can reflect in our learning objectives.

Ultimately, how well our students receive our course (and how effective our courses are) is influenced by factors that are intrinsic to our student populations (and beyond our immediate control). Our course objectives, therefore, should work with our students and for our students, so that we are both meeting them where they are while challenging them to grow.

The Takeaway. The details of the same course (and its learning objectives) may change when taught to a class of five students versus a class of five hundred students, or when taught by us versus one of our peers, or when taught to students at one institution versus students of another. We should expect these two courses to differ, because the most effective courses will consider the overall context and adapt appropriately. There is no “one size fits all” in education.

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James C. Schwabacher
Ph.D. Candidate

I’m a scientist and educator currently based in Chicago, IL.