Ask the grumpies: Curriculum development

Leah asks:

Also, are there primers out there on curriculum development? That’s always a challenge for me. I have a hard time seeing the year as a whole when I try to plan individual days.

There must be, right?  As college professors we’ve only had to plan one subject for one semester at a time.  We could give general tips but there must be books out there, right?

The stuff for college professors tends to focus on activities, or the first day of class, or how to get students involved with creating the course.

Teach Like a Champion, which you should get if you’re teaching just because it’s great and full of tips, only has one short chapter on the big picture (Chapter 2).  What it says on the topic is good, but it doesn’t say very much.  Obviously there are entire classes on how to make lesson plans in teaching colleges, so there’s got to be more out there.  But we don’t know what is wheat and what is chaff.

Grumpy readers, help us out!  Any suggestions on books for Leah?

17 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Curriculum development”

  1. Leah Says:

    I took lesson plan classes for my teaching license, and we spent about 2.3 minutes on whole year planning. I can rock a lesson plan. But I always struggle to make sure I fit in all the necessary topics. So thanks for asking!

  2. Bardiac Says:

    The “Ed guru” folks would talk about “outcomes” and such, but without the edspeak, it’s something instructors at all levels have worked at forever probably. Make a list of days or weeks you have to work with, and then start by thinking about big picture stuff. Do you want students to do a big project? What is it? How long will they need? What in class preparation do you need? What assignments can you give that will help them build to the big project?

    If you avoid the edspeak madness, but plan so you can “see” the whole semester as a sort of argument or conversation you want to have about whatever, that helps. For advanced classes, thinking about the conversation I want to have is way better than trying to think of what I know they’ll learn, since I’m probably still trying to learn that, too. But for intro stuff, say Chem 101, you probably know what they need to learn by the time you set out to teach the course.

  3. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Yeah, I would start with an outline of the key concepts you want the students to exit the course having mastered. That then forms the backbone of the entire syllabus.

  4. xykademiqz Says:

    Yeah, I plan on maybe 3-5 big things that they have to know and remember for all eternity, and several other ones that i would like them to know and remember. I plan so as to cover everything, but as the semester progresses I adjust the pace depending on the class preparation level. Sometimes have to drop stuff or cover it in less detail than originally envisioned, but that’s only the Tier 2 stuff; Tier 1 material gets covered in as much depth and as much detail as necessary for that particular class to grasp it. My syllabi are very rough, basically topical weekly coverage, and I don’t stress over that either.

    I am not sure what field Leah is in, but in the sciences and engineering, the first time you teach a class, you should pick a book and stick to it very closely. Then the next time around you can take stuff out, substitute with other materials, etc. I think this is very good advice, especially for new teachers.

    • Leah Says:

      I teach high school. I do biology, AP Bio, and ecology. I only have a textbook for AP Bio. We use a specially-done curriculum for biology (written by a former teacher, and we still finesse and edit each year — includes a special book — it’s actually pretty awesome).

      AP Bio is my biggest struggle. I’ve got to fit a lot in before the AP test! I can rush, but I don’t think students learn material, so I take my time, and then I short change the last subjects I get to.

      I wish we had a book for ecology. I’m debating what direction to go in with that class. It’s a one-term elective (but three terms worth of electives, each with a different topic), so it’s hard to ask a kid to buy an expensive book for one term. While I do teach HS, our students buy all their own books.

      I love the idea of thinking of tiers of material. Now to decide what’s most important in each subject :-) I’m pretty sure I am a good teacher, but I am strongly reflective and critical, and I am always working to be better. The advice here is quite helpful in helping me see that I’m doing well but have spots where I can improve (and ideas of how to do so!).

  5. kt Says:

    I have at least looked at the book Understanding by Design, discussed at http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/understanding-by-design/. I think it gives a nice process (which I don’t always use). It echoes the Comrade’s suggestion but fleshes it out a lot more.

    • Contingent Cassandra Says:

      There’s more on Understanding by Design/Backward Design here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/planning-a-class-with-backward-design/33625 , with more suggestions in the comment stream. While I haven’t read extensively in this literature, mostly because planning this way just strikes me as common sense, I do think it’s pretty solid stuff (and also has the advantage of being a buzzword itself, and meshing well with other buzzwords you need to be able to use to satisfy the assessment gods, while also linking them to something tangible and practical for actual pedaogical purposes: e.g. student learning outcomes).

      Another keyword that you might search on is the idea of “scaffolding” — at least in my field (writing), it refers (I think) both to breaking larger assignments into smaller pieces, and to designing activities and exercises that make sure students have the skills they need to accomplish each smaller step.

      Because I teach very skills/process-oriented classes, my syllabus is built almost entirely around the steps that make up the scaffolding, combined with my own feedback process: what kind of feedback I will offer, how long it takes me to produce it (while still living something of a normal life — at this point in my teaching career, I’m very aware that I’m running an ultramarathon, not a series of sprints), etc. When you’re looking at the semester as a whole, don’t forget to look at your own calendar, including both other professional and personal obligations, as well.

      If you’re feeling at sea, I second the idea of choosing a textbook, or at least reviewing some that are widely adopted (either among your own faculty, or at comparable institutions). Just looking at what they have in common and what’s different, and what you think about those choices, then, within the ones you like, thinking about which chapters you consider essential and which you might skip or pass over more lightly, and doing the same for the exercises and activities, while keeping in mind that time limitations with which you’re working, might help clarify your thinking.

  6. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Sorry this one is out of my league!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      (ours too! we can do college stuff but we thought maybe Leah wasn’t; we’re not sure though)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Pretty sure Leah works at a boarding high school teaching science.

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        In that case, I wonder whether outlines for AP or IB classes might help (even if she’s not teaching AP/IB, there’d still be the sense of the arc of a semester).

      • Leah Says:

        yes, boarding school with biological sciences (tho I can teach other sciences too, but I prefer bio and am lucky to have three different preps of that). I do AP, and I end up cobbling together bits of other folks’ curriculum. I’m starting to think that I’m a perfectionist here in what I’m asking for, as I do quite a bit of what’s suggested here.

        Perhaps this is just a thing where each year of experience will continue to help me improve.

        Also, for the record, I did teach four years of college, but I never did curriculum on my own. I was a Grad Student Instructor/TA, but I did help write lots of lessons when I was a GSI. So, great at writing lessons, but I am still learning about curriculum arcs and sequencing. Biology has lots of different ways to sequence, with most equally valid.

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        I think experience does play a role. In another decade or so, you may well have a strong opinion about which method of sequencing works best for your student population (and you), even though you continue to acknowledge that other approaches are equally valid in other circumstances.

  7. Random passerby Says:

    We did a book club on Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses by L. Dee Fink. All backwards design and very useful!


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