Questions, Plans & Preparation
I’ve been busy preparing for fall. I’m shifting gears from a spring sabbatical to teaching an overload. On the one hand, this might seem like poor planning or an inability to say “no.” But on the other hand, it’s because I’m skilled at organizing and planning that I agreed to this collection of courses: 2 sections of microeconomics (one regular, one honors), first-year-seminar, and two sections of financial / managerial accounting (one face-to-face evening section and the other fully online). It’s going to be very busy, but not more busy than what colleagues at community colleges or full-time adjuncts must do every term. So how am I going to pull this off?
Lots of detailed planning and as much advance preparation as possible. Hence, I have spent the better part of the past week questioning, planning and preparing.
Questioning. I believe the best way to start is to ask myself two big questions. What are the course goals? What are the specific learning objectives? How these questions are answered provides the foundation for all the other decisions in the course. From these, numerous other questions arise. How will students demonstrate learning? When I imagine a “typical” class period, what do I see? What decisions must I make and in what areas can students have input? If I’ve taught the course before I will review notes and consider, what did and did not go well previously? How large is the class? When is it offered (early morning v. once-per-week evening class v. fully online section)? What kinds of students will be in the class (first semester v. students in major v. adult learners)? Sometimes it feels like answering these questions is like dealing with Hydra of Greek mythology. Answer one question and two more replace it. But in my experience, the more thoroughly I consider, plan and respond to the questions, the more smoothly the course runs.
Planning. This is where I shift from questioner, to puzzle builder. What appears to be discrete, independent questions are actually interconnected issues that should be coordinated. Here’s an example:
- Course Goal: Develop students’ ability to “think like an economist.”
- Learning Objective: Analyze market activity and equilibrium by applying the concepts of supply and demand.
- How will this objective be assessed? Since I want students to be able to analyze market behavior by making predictions, and applying supply, demand, and equilibrium concepts graphically and in writing, students will be asked to respond in essay format in assessment.
- Will this exam be administered in class or take home?
- How much should this exam count in the course grade?
- What kinds of activities, assignments, and practice will students do in order to learn these concepts and be able to demonstrate their learning graphically and in writing?
- How many class periods will we devote to learning this material?
- At what point in the term should this content be learned?
In order to thoroughly plan the course ahead of time, these questions need to be answered. This involves setting policy (syllabus prep), preparing a course calendar (timing of exams, number of class periods), preparing classwork for the class periods, creating or selecting homework and other formative assessments (includes creating drop boxes, preparing rubrics, selecting articles, finding resources, developing activities).
How do I get from Q&A to a completely prepared course before the first class? I begin with the calendar and the syllabus. I list all the periods the class will meet. I enter any date I will miss class for conference travel. I enter the dates of fall or spring break. Then I tentatively schedule topic(s) for each period. I let the learning objective drive the timing and pace. If there will be in-class assessments, I schedule them in the calendar. I think carefully about the end of the term; in my experience, students begin “checking out” of the course after Thanksgiving. Thus, I leave interesting, lower-cognitive load content for the last few weeks of the semester. This means we don’t follow the book sequence. I don’t just cut and paste chapter 1,2,3, into the calendar. Once the calendar is mapped in Excel, I begin to dig into each class period. What will students be doing? What should they have read before class? What first-exposure assignment might I assign? What screencasts need to be watched? What class activities will we engage in? What homework will be assigned?
As these class period details are being fleshed out, numerous policy questions and issues arise regarding homework, attendance, participation, grading, missed exams, technology (screens). I find that considering policy in conjunction with assessments and classroom interaction leads to better results. I maintain two course calendars. One is extremely detailed, with classwork specifics, and my own reflective commentary. I maintain this as an Excel file for my personal use. The other is segmented by unit or content area and placed online for students. I can quickly revise as needed and students can access only the “current” version online.
Once the entire course is mapped out in the calendar, and the syllabus is very well fleshed out, I move to preparing the course in the learning management system (LMS). Below is a two-week slice of my internal course calendar:
|TUES||1-Sep||Chapter 2- Individuals & Decisions- NEW CONTENT FOR ME|
|CRA: Chapter 2 CRA Segments 1.1-1.3|
|Classwork: Opportunity Cost|
|HW: THE LAND OF MILK & HONEY|
|PPF & Social Decisions|
|Classwork: Normative & Positive Statements|
|TUES||8-Sep||Chapter 3- Demand|
|In-class Activity: COOKIE MARKET|
|Classwork: Demand Practice 1 & 2|
|THURS||10-Sep||Chapter 3- Supply|
|CRA: Chapter 3 Segments 3.1-3.2|
|Classwork: Supply Practice 1 & 2|
Below is a screenshot of the LMS Lessons page. The course is structured in four units; each relates to one of the four learning objectives in the course. Units 2-4 are only visible to me when the course opens in order to avoid overwhelming students. Navigating the Course is a narrated powerpoint to help students (especially those who miss the first class). How to submit an assignment to the dropbox is aimed at all the first-semester students in the course. (Click on the images to enlarge them)
Digging a bit more deeply, here’s a screenshot from inside the Unit 1 folder:
The calendar is always the first item. With one click, students can see what we’ll we be doing, the homework assigned, the chapter we’re reading, and the timing of the learning assessment for the unit. Separate drop boxes for the homework assignments also show the due dates. Everything is provided in chronological order.
Why do I plan so far in advance?
Confidence. Since I’ve given the course so much thought and energy before the first meeting, I walk in feeling competent and confident. I’m filled with anticipation instead of nagging concerns about the details.
Focus. Preparation in advance allows me to focus my energy on the class, instead of administrative items like drop boxes. Working ahead saves me time and stress during the semester.
Clarity. Because I start the preparation process so early, I have time to think clearly, reflect and revise to make pedagogically sound choices, instead of making hasty decisions driven by the expediency of the moment.
If you haven’t taken course planning to this degree before, there’s still time to give it a try. I recommend starting with one unit, or content area as a trial. I believe you will learn about the course and your teaching as you go through the steps of questioning, planning and preparing.