04 August, 2010


By Barbara Gross Davis, University of California, Berkeley.

From Tools for Teaching, copyright by Jossey-Bass. For purchase or reprint information,
contact Jossey-Bass. Reprinted here with permission, September 1, 1999.


In designing or revising a course, faculty are faced with at least three crucial decisions: what to teach, how to teach it, and how to ensure that students are learning what is being taught. Often, the most difficult step in preparing or revising a course is deciding which topics must be excluded if the whole is to be manageable. Many teachers, hoping to impart to students everything they know about a subject, attempt to include too much material by half. The following suggestions below are designed to help you limit the content of your course, structure and sequence the activities and assignments, set policies, and handle administrative tasks.

General Strategies

If the course is new to you but has been offered before, talk with faculty who have taught it previously. Ask your colleagues for their syllabus, list of assignments and papers, and old exams. Find out about the typical problems students have with the material and the difficulties the instructor encountered. If appropriate, look at past student evaluations of the course to help you identify its strengths and weaknesses.

If the course is new to you and has never been offered before, review textbooks on the topic of the course. Reviewing textbooks will give you a sense of the main themes and issues that your course might address, which is especially useful if you are preparing a course outside your areas of specialization. (Source: Brown, 1978)

If you have previously taught the course, begin by assembling everything associated with the course. Gather a copy of the syllabus, textbooks and readings, handouts, exams, your notes for each class session, and the past evaluations by students. Read the evaluations to get a sense of the course's strengths and weaknesses. Then take a look at the various course materials in light of students' comments, changes in the field, and your own changing interests. (Source: "Course Materials Review," 1987)

Identify the constraints in teaching the course. As you begin to design the course, ask yourself, How many hours are available for instruction? How many students will be enrolled? Are the students primarily majors or nonmajors? At what level? What material can I safely assume that students will know? What courses have they already completed? What courses might they be taking while enrolled in mine? Will readers or graduate student instructors be available? What sorts of technological resources will be in the classroom? (Sources: Brown, 1978; Ory, 1990)

Think about how your course relates to other courses in your department's curriculum. Does your course serve as the introduction for more advanced classes? Is it a general education course that may provide the only exposure nonmajors will have to the content area? Is it an advanced course for majors?

Deciding What You Want to Accomplish

Establish goals. What do you expect your students to do or to produce as a result of taking the course?Writing down goals is important for at least four reasons (Erickson, n.d.):
(1) the process forces you to clarify what you want your students to accomplish;
 (2) your list of goals will help you select appropriate teaching methods, materials, and assignments;
 (3) you can use your list of goals to communicate your expectations to students, to let them know what they are expected to accomplish;
(4) your list of goals will be useful to colleagues who teach courses that rely on yours as a prerequisite. McKeachie (1986), however, warns faculty against becoming obsessed with writing detailed behavioral objectives. The chief purpose of writing goals is to help you plan your course and specify what you want to do.

Identify both content and noncontent goals. Fuhrmann and Grasha (1983) recommend identifying both content goals (for example, "understand the key forces affecting the rise of Japan as an economic power") and noncontent goals (for example, "become a good team member and work collaboratively with other students" or "learn to tolerate opposing points of view"). They advise faculty to start with a general list and then refine the goals to make them more specific. What do you expect from students? How will students demonstrate that they have mastered the goal? What will constitute acceptable performance? For example, if the general content goal is for students to understand the rise of Japan as an economic factor, a specific content goal might be that students will analyze in depth how technology has affected Japan's economic dominance. A specific noncontent goal might be that students will work in groups of three on an out-of-class project and prepare a joint report.

To get started in writing course goals, think about "the big picture." For example, imagine yourself overhearing a group of graduating seniors who have taken your course and are discussing why it was among the most valuable courses they have ever taken. What would they be saying about the course? Or imagine that several of your students will become local or national power brokers, or that half of them will have to drop out of school and work full-time. Would you change the way you are teaching your course? Why? Is there anything different you would like these students to learn? (Source: Bergquist and Phillips, 1977)

Scale down your goals to a realistic list. Adjust your ideal goals by taking into consideration the different abilities, interests, and expectations of your students and the amount of time available for class instruction. How many goals can your students accomplish in the time available? (Source: Lowman, 1984)

Defining and Limiting Course Content

After you have "packed" all your topics into a preliminary list, toss out the excess baggage. Designing a course is somewhat like planning a transcontinental trip. First, list everything that you feel might be important for students to know, just as you might stuff several large suitcases with everything that you think you might need on a trip. Then severely pare down the topics you have listed, just as you might limit yourself to one or two pieces of luggage. Research shows that too much detail and too many topics work against students' learning the material (Beard and Hartley, 1984).

Distinguish between essential and optional material. Divide the concepts or topics you want to cover into three groups: basic material should be mastered by every student, recommended material should be mastered by every student seeking a good knowledge of the subject, and optional material should be mastered by those students with special interests and aptitudes. Lectures and exams should focus on the basic elements of the course. Recommended and optional topics, labeled as such for students, can be included in lectures, supplementary materials, and readings.

Emphasize the core concepts. For example, in engineering, as one professor points out, there are thousands of formulas, but all of these are variations on a very limited number of basic ideas or theories. In a single course, students might encounter a thousand equations. Rote memorization is futile because no one can remember that many equations. Instead, the instructor repeatedly emphasizes the fundamentals by showing students how the thousand equations are embedded in a dozen basic ones.

Stress the classic issues, or the most enduring values or truths. Often the most interesting issues and themes for undergraduates turn out to be those that originally attracted you to the discipline.

Cut to the chase. Go for the most critical skills or ideas and drop the rest. For example, in solving mathematical problems, the most important task is setting up the problem -- the rest is the mechanics. Not every problem needs to be worked through to completion. (Source: Svinicki, 1990-1991)

Give students a conceptual framework on which to hang major ideas and factual information. To the uninitiated, your field may look like an unruly mass of facts devoid of logic or unifying principles. To understand the relationship among concepts rather than simply memorize dozens of discrete points, students need a framework -- a basic theory, a theme, a typology, or a controversial issue. Make this framework apparent to the students through repeated references to it.

Prepare a detailed syllabus. Share the conceptual framework, logic, and organization of your course with students by distributing a syllabus. See "The Course Syllabus."

Structuring the Course

Devise a logical arrangement for the course content. Material can be arranged chronologically, by topic or category, from concrete to abstract or vice versa, from theory to application or vice versa, by increasing level of skill or complexity, or by other schemes. Some courses -- in history or literature -- almost demand a chronological sequence. Here are some other strategies for organizing material (Bergquist and Phillips, 1977, pp. 146-149):

Micro/macro: Begin by describing a large complex phenomenon (macro perspective) or offer a detailed analysis of one aspect of the phenomenon (micro perspective). Establish a broad general base of knowledge and information (macro) or focus on a specific event or concern (micro).

Distal/proximal: Begin by presenting an immediate and pressing problem related to the field of study (proximal perspective) or by describing the origins, heritage or context (distal perspective). Begin with the relevance of the subject matter (proximal) or with historical or theoretical perspectives (distal).

Phenomenon/structure: Emphasize description and analysis of unique and significant events, people, or ideas (phenomenon) or emphasize description and analysis of theories, themes, and universal applications (structure). Focus on specific works, events, or people in their unique setting or focus on general patterns and concepts that are commonly shared by or expressed through different works, events, and people.

Stark and others (1990) offer additional sequencing patterns, suggesting that topics may be ordered according to the following:

  •  How relationships occur in the real world
  • How students will use the information in social, personal, or career settings
  • How major concepts and relationships are organized in the discipline
  • How students learn
  •  How knowledge has been created in the field
List all class meetings. On your preliminary schedule mark university holidays, major religious holidays, breaks, and, if appropriate, college events that may preempt classes. Fill in this schedule with tentative topics and dates for exams. Keep in mind the rhythm of the term, including "down" times. Leave open at least part of the class before each exam to allow for catch-up or review. Leave extra time for complex or difficult topics. Schedule time during the middle of the semester for getting feedback from students on how well the course is going (see "Fast Feedback"). Also give special consideration to the first day of class (see "The First Day of Class"), the meetings right before exams, and the last two or three classes, which can be used to integrate and pull together the themes of the course (see "The Last Days of Class").

Select appropriate instructional methods for each class meeting. Instead of asking, What am I going to do in each class session? focus on What are students going to do? (Bligh, 1971). Identify which topics lend themselves to which types of classroom activities, and select one or more activities for each class session: lectures; small group discussions; independent work; simulations, debates, case studies, and role playing; demonstrations; experiential learning activities; instructional technologies; collaborative learning work, and so on. (See other tools for descriptions of these methods.) For each topic, decide how you will prepare the class for instruction (through reviews or previews), present the new concepts (through lectures, demonstrations, discussion), have students apply what they have learned (through discussion, in-class writing activities, collaborative work), and assess whether students can put into practice what they have learned (through testing, discussion, problem solving, and so on).

Design in-class and homework assignments. See "Designing Effective Writing Assignments," "Homework: Problem Sets," "Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams," and "Supplements and Alternatives to Lecturing: Encouraging Student Participation."

Selecting Textbooks and Readings

Choose textbooks and reading assignments that reflect your goals. The textbook exerts a greater influence on what students learn than the teaching method (McKeachie, 1986). Explain to your students how the readings relate to the course goals and classroom activities. Some faculty assign texts that repeat material covered in class-or vice versa -in order to reinforce the content. Some readings may be assigned to elaborate on the lectures by providing applications and examples. Some readings may be intended to convey additional material or to give contrasting points of view. (Source: "Selecting a Textbook," 1987)

Consider a range of criteria in selecting readings. If several textbooks, reports, or articles are appropriate to your course goals, select among them by judging the following (adapted from Lowman, 1984; "Selecting a Textbook," 1987; Wright, 1987):

  • Accuracy and currency of content
  • Coherence and clarity of content
  • Level of difficulty and interest for students (challenging but not inappropriately difficult)
  • Cost: 
  •        a) Choose the less expensive work if it is of comparable quality.
  •        b) Choose paperbacks rather than hardbacksd.
  •        c) Limit the total cost of books for your course by placing some works on reserve in the library
  • Size (heavy large texts are hard to carry)
  •  Format and layout (ease of reading)

McKeachie (1986) recommends selecting textbooks that match your own point of view because students may be annoyed or confused if you express disagreement with the text. To complement the principal textbook, however, and expose students to a range of perspectives, you could select articles and shorter texts that espouse points of view different from your own.

Assign a mix of texts and articles, including some current pieces. Advanced courses typically include journal articles, essays, research reports, or photocopied course readers. But even in lowerdivision courses, students should have an opportunity to read at least a few recent publications or journal articles. One faculty member in economics assigns the Tuesday editorial page of the Wall Street Journal each week. She uses these editorials as a basis for discussions and for exam questions that ask students to compare the editorials with textbook presentations on related topics.

Foster a habit of reading throughout college. Encourage students to explore beyond the reading material you assign. Eble (1988) recommends setting up in your office a shelf of books and articles selected for brevity, relevance, and interest. Invite students to browse through the materials and borrow items.

Follow the copyright laws. If you are compiling a photocopied reader, be sure to observe the copyright laws, available from your library or from photocopying vendors. Services have sprung up to handle faculty requests for permission to reproduce copyrighted material. For example, the Anthology Permissions Service in Salem, Massachusetts, authorizes copying of copyrighted material through blanket agreements with publishers. PUBNET Permissions, a project of the trade association Association of American Publishers, processes permissions requests by electronic mail to help faculty members reproduce copyrighted materials quickly and easily. (Source: Blum, 1991)

Take advantage of the new technologies in publishing. At least one national publisher lets professors order customized versions of its publications. The publisher will produce bound copies of chapters in its textbooks and supplementary articles, in any order the instructor requests. In some cases, if a professor orders only selected chapters of a textbook, the price is less than the cost of the entire text. Some publishers have gone a step farther and developed data bases of individual chapters from different texts, journal articles, case studies, and other material from which a faculty member can create a custom textbook. The materials are compiled, indexed, paginated, and bound within forty-eight hours. Other publishers offer low-cost versions of textbooks stripped of such frills as study questions and multicolor art and graphics. It may also be possible to make the content of scholarly print journals available electronically so that students need only have access to a computer and the campus network to complete the assigned reading. (Sources: Miller, 1990; "Stalled Economy Leads to 'No-Frills' Textbooks," 1992; Watkins, 1991)

Be conscious of workload. At most colleges, students are expected to spend two to three hours on outside work for each hour in class. For simple texts, you might estimate that students can read about twenty pages an hour -- though, obviously, the rate will depend on your students' abilities and the nature of the reading material.

Setting Course Policies
"Extra credit" assignments. If you are offering extra credit assignments, announce them in class so that all students will be aware of the option. Some faculty allow only students who are doing satisfactory (C or higher) work on the regular assignments to undertake extra credit tasks. Here are some examples of extra credit options ("Extra Credit -- Taking Sides and Offering Advice," 1991, pp. 5-6):

  • One or two weeks before an exam, give students worksheets on the topics being studied in that unit. To receive extra credit, a student must complete the worksheet and bring it to the instructor's office for discussion and scoring.
  • Offer a fixed number of extra credit points for a specified activity: attendance at a professional conference, submission of a book review in the topic area, and so on.
  • Offer extra credit for completing problems in the textbook that were not assigned as homework.
  •  Offer students extra credit for keeping a journal account of all the relevant newspaper or magazine articles, books, or monographs they read in addition to the assigned readings. journal entries should include the title, author, date, and source as well as some personal commentary. journals are checked weekly on the spot and turned in at the end of the term.
Attendance. Let students know in the syllabus and on the first day of class that you expect them to come to class regularly. Do your best to make class time worthwhile -- a time when real work takes place. Students are also more likely to attend if they know that exams will include items that have been discussed in class only. In most cases, however, attendance should not be mandatory or a factor in your grading Policy. Grades should be based on students' mastery of the course content and not on such nonacademic factors as attendance. See "Grading Practices." If you must require attendance, let students know how you will determine whether they come to class. Give bonus points for perfect or near perfect attendance rather than subtracting points for absences (Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education, 1989). The numerical result is the same but students will feel better having their attendance rewarded rather than their absences penalized. In addition to students' attendance, you should pay attention to your own patterns. Some observers recommend that instructors come early to class (to let students know you are interested and available), start on time (to reward the prompt), end on time (to enable students to leave for their next class), and stay late (to answer questions from students) (Heine and others, 1981).

Makeup exams. For advice on offering makeup tests -- and ways to avoid having to do so -- see "Quizzes, Tests, and Exams."

Late work. Be clear on whether you will accept late work and the penalties for missing deadlines. Some faculty members deduct an increasing number of points for each day an assignment is late. Others give a sufficient number of assignments so that a student is allowed to drop one or two without penalty (due to low grades or missing work). Still other faculty members give students two days of grace that they can apply to missed deadlines: a single assignment can be two days late or two assignments can each be a day late (Marincovich and Rusk, 1987). Grading. See "Grading Practices."

Handling Administrative Tasks

Order books early and anticipate foul-ups. Double-check on the progress of your order with the bookstore a month or so before the term begins. Once the books have arrived, check back with the bookstore to see how many copies there are. No matter what precautions you take, there is always a chance that the books won't arrive before classes begin. You can make it easier on yourself and your class by not relying on books being available during the first two weeks of class. Instead, assign readings that you distribute, that are readily available on reserve in the library, or that students purchase from a photocopy vendor.

Place materials on reserve before the term begins or package reserve materials for students to purchase. Consult with campus librarians about the procedures for putting materials on reserve. Let your students know in which library the readings are located, the length of time they are available for use, and the number of copies on reserve. Because as many as 85 percent of the students check out reserve material to make their own photocopies rather than read it in the library ("Two Groups Tackle Reserve Book Problems," 1992), consider offering students the chance to purchase the reserve readings. (Sources: Janes and Hauer, 1988; "Two Groups Tackle Reserve Book Problems, 1992)

Make logistical arrangements in advance. Before the term begins, order audiovisual equipment, videos, or films, contact guest speakers, and arrange for field trips.


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Bligh, D. A. What's the Use of Lecturing? Devon, England: Teaching Services Centre, University of Exeter, 1971.

Blum, D. E. "Use of Photocopied Anthologies for Courses Snarled by Delays and Costs of Copyright Permission Process." Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 11, 1991, A-19-A-20.

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Stark, J. S., and others. Planning Introductory College Courses: Influences of Faculty. Ann Arbor: National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan, 1990.

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Watkins, B. T "San Diego Campus and McGraw-Hill Create Custom Texts." Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 6, 1991, p. A25.

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