Choosing Course Content
For many instructors, it is tempting to plan a course by picking a textbook and readings to focus on during the course, and then to identify the topics for the course from those readings. However, the content for a course is the framework, the examples, and the narrative that help students to build the skills, understanding, and/or competencies for our courses. Therefore, the selection and organization of content should be about the learning journey that we want for our students, rather than a modified textbook table of contents. The content should be selected based on what the students need and when they will need it to complete the assignments and address the course goals and learning outcomes.
If content is considered in this way, as the examples to help our students along their learning journey, then we need to consider the arc of the course, prior to selecting readings and/or a textbook. When we think about the arc of a course, we are creating a content storyline that has a beginning, middle, and an end. This arc provides the structure that students will follow as they work through the course and towards achieving the learning outcomes.
A typical concern from instructors is that there is not enough time in a semester to cover all of the material about their subject. And that is true! No one course could ever cover all the material that pertains to a topic or a subject. Rather than focusing on the quantity of the content covered in a single semester, spend your time selecting content that helps guide students and enables them to meet their learning outcomes.
Courses as part of a broader curriculum
Oftentimes, courses are part of a broader curricular plan in a department or program. When choosing course content, there may be larger considerations to familiarize yourself with. Below is a list of possible questions you can ask yourself or your department:
- Is the course part of a larger course sequence? If the course is part of a sequence that is supposed to build a specific series of skills or knowledge in a particular order, it is important to ensure that the course continues to cover those fundamental aspects.
- As students progress in their developmental path, content will be introduced, reinforced, and emphasized through different examples, contexts and complexities. In your individual course, you may only be introducing and reinforcing your content. Or perhaps you’re reinforcing and emphasizing what another course has already introduced. For some courses, you may be introducing, reinforcing, and emphasizing content areas. Knowing where your course fits in to the larger course sequence will help you identify where to focus.
- Are there prerequisites for the course? If there are prerequisites, you may be able to confidently assume that students will already have some exposure to pieces of the course content or will have already acquired certain skills or experiences.
- Will the class be mostly majors or non-majors? If the class has lots of non-majors or first year students, it may be important to consider that the students may not even have passing familiarity with foundational content.
In most cases, despite some of these considerations, instructors still have flexibility to decide the specific course content while not affecting the larger course progression or curriculum.
Here are a few other considerations and questions you may want to ask yourself as you are thinking about course content:
- Are there General Education goals that pertain to this course?
- Does your course have prerequisites? Is it a prerequisite for a subsequent course?
- How big is your course, and what kinds of rooms are available for you to teach in?
- Does your course have a lab and/or on-line component, and do you teach it?
- Are graders, TAs, or other assistants available to assist in your teaching of this course?
- Are your students enrolled as majors (or potential majors), non-majors, or both?
- What is the demography of students in your course in terms of age, race, gender, and ethnicity?
- What percentage of students in your course have high-speed computer access outside the campus library/computing center?
There are many different ways of structuring content in courses. Some disciplines have norms or typical content progressions. For instance, in biology courses content may be presented from the smaller components and principles (such as the formation of a cell or DNA) through to the larger contexts and applications (such as understanding the various interactions within an ecosystem). In a history course, it is often most logical to proceed chronologically, following historical events and subsequent reactions to these events through time. Sometimes these disciplinary conventions for the organization of content are helpful for your students and assists students in meeting your learning objectives. However, there are also times when the conventional way of organizing information does not align with your plan for the course, the learning outcomes you have identified, and the assignment structure that you have developed.
There are a variety of ways to organize content, here are a number of common organizational systems:
- simple to complex
- concrete to abstract
- theory to applications
- disciplinary classifications
- how knowledge has been created in the field
- how relationships occur in the real world
- how students will use the information
- how students learn
If your course goals and learning outcomes require students to master certain skills or abilities, then you may also have to plan for what is known as “parallel content”. Parallel content encompasses the skills, abilities, and other content pieces that are a crucial component of our disciplinary work, but are often overlooked as content to include in our courses. That is, parallel content are the important things that often underlie the ability to do our discipline-specific work. They are the skills that need to be developed by our students to be successful and it is important to give students the opportunities to develop and practice these skills and abilities.
During the content organization process we need to look for assignments where parallel content already exists but hasn’t yet been made explicit. Sometimes a new assignment may need to be developed to facilitate this parallel content development such as a library assignment building up to a research paper or a low stakes homework using a Carmen feature before a high stakes assessment with the same tool. Occasionally parallel content needs to be added to the course learning outcomes, particularly if it relates to a broader skill we expect students to build over several courses.
Examples of parallel content:
- communication skills: writing, oral presentation, visual communication
- rhetorical skills:an ability to persuade others
- collaborative skills: an ability to work with others
- technological skills: an ability with a particular technology important to a discipline or career
- research skills: abilities to read about and understand (and maybe conduct) particular kinds of research (e.g., surveys, ethnographies, textual analysis)
- analytical skills: abilities to analyze certain kinds of documents and/or situations (e.g., medical, nutritional, psychological, etc., diagnoses; historical analyses)
- critical thinking skills: ability to think independently and maturely
- cognitive skills:meta-cognition, reflection, self-regulation, self-motivation
- creativity: inventiveness
If these skills are an important component of your course, it is advisable to make sure that they are included in the course design to ensure that students have plenty of opportunities to develop these skills and receive feedback.
Determining how much content to include
Deciding how much content to include in a course is often tricky. Instructors often want to include many topics, examples, and readings to expose their students to all the intricacies of the course material. However, trying to include too much content can make a course overwhelming to both the students (who are expected to master it) and the instructors (who have to present it). Focusing on the course goals and what is necessary to help students reach the learning outcomes of your class may help to remove some content, that while interesting, does not directly help students achieve those outcomes. There is no single right set of content for a course, as long as it facilitates the path toward your learning outcomes.
If focusing on the overall learning outcomes of the course does not help you identify which content pieces to emphasize, then the following information may provide you with more context about your students and the expectations for the use of students’ time, both in and outside of class, for a course.
The Ohio Board of Regents has a standard expectation that for every 1 semester credit a student who can be expected to spend 1 hour in class and 2 hours out of class each week on course related work to earn a C, or average grade. This includes reading, completing homework, major assignments and any out of class collaboration. While some students may need more or less time to excel, this is a good baseline to estimate how many readings or assignments will fit reasonably into a semester.
Typically, you can expect an undergraduate to be able to read or write an assignment at about 1/3 the pace you are able to complete it. For example, if you were able to read or review the readings for class in an hour, the average student would need about 3 hours to do this work adequately. More senior or experienced students who are revisiting major concepts or adding to a well-established knowledge structure relevant to your discipline may work faster, and first-year students or non-majors who are experiencing first exposure with the majority of the content may work a little slower.
Full-time for undergraduates will typically mean taking five 3-credit courses a semester.
A typical student will be in a classroom on campus every day Monday through Friday for an average of 15 hours. Many of them will be expected to put in additional hours in labs, studio practice, or service experiences that are tied to specific times during the week. Finally, the majority of Ohio State undergraduates work at least 20 hours per week. While some of them fit in work-study hours on campus, others are working during weekend and evening hours.
Why is the schedule of a typical student relevant to our content choices? While we don’t want to feel pressured to reduce the rigor of our content or compromise our expectations for students, considering the realistic time constraints our students are under may help us arrange major assignments and content in the most effective way. For example, knowing that students tend to have smaller blocks of time open throughout the week as opposed to large days devoted solely to work may help us place our readings, scaffold our assignments, and set appropriate expectations for how much processing of new information can take place between class sessions.
The choices we make in course content can have a substantial impact on student sense of belonging, motivation to succeed, learning gains and retention at the major and university levels. This is the stage of course design to look for opportunities to diversify perspectives, voices, and examples that reflect a broad and current range of scholarship. For more information about student sense of belonging, check out our page.