Ready or Not! Here it comes….

The new academic year is creeping up. Time to get ready! I usually begin preparing by thinking a bit about the BIG PICTURE of my courses for the term. Am I teaching first- year biology students? Advanced life sciences majors interested in a neuroscience or neurobiology course? A lab course?

Spend a little time thinking about the “level” of your class. What overall pedagogic goals do you have for your students? What should they leave your course knowing in December? How do your goals change with “level”- for example, how are your goals for an introductory course different from those of an advanced level course? Starting with the big picture helps me get my mind calibrated. I always do this thought exercise with pencil and paper and jot down my thoughts BEFORE I review any past renditions of the course.

Then, I go through the following sequence for a course I’ve taught before, but want to revise to reflect any change in the big picture, or in new readings.

1. Get out your old course syllabus and look it over. Do you need to change the readings you assigned? How many need changing? 10%? 50%? While I’m teaching a course, I keep a running commentary on my syllabuses of which class sessions worked and which didn’t, which readings worked and which didn’t. These margin notes are super-helpful as I begin to revise my course. Does your course plan seem to match the goals you’ve set this time around?

2. Flip through your course notes to refresh your memory of how you had organized things the last time you taught it. Note which class sessions you might want to change and which worked well. I also keep notes on my notes about how each class went. How well did the students respond? Did they participate actively? Was everyone confused? Bored? Did the format work?

3. Using the colleges’ academic calendar, sketch out a revised, revamped course schedule, changing topics or subtopics based on your review of the previous course materials. Once you’ve done this and have a bare-bones outline of your revised course plan, you’ll feel like you’ve really accomplished something.

4. Think about the assignments you had the last time you taught the course. Do these assignments help your students accomplish the goals you have for the course? This is a very important aspect of a course’s success? For example, if one of your curricular goals is “critical thinking” and all of your assignments focus on the “what” and “how” of biology, are you really helping your students develop critical thinking skills? If a curricular goal is being able to communicate effectively in the discipline, what kinds of assignments best help with this goal?

5. Collect your new readings, put them in context with the others. Think about the flow of the semester, here. I like a story to unfold as we go through the semester, so that each class session connects to the previous and the subsequent.

6. Update your course description, course goals, assignments…..Here is where I try to remember aspects of my class format that confused the class. Did the previous group of students understand my late policy (did I even have one?)? Were the large assignments too numerous? Were the assignment deadlines manageable or did the workload get too heavy at the end or at the beginning of the class? Were there too many assignments? Too few?

What do you do for a brand new course? (I hope you’ve begun your planning a bit earlier than the second week of August for this!)  Next post will give some of the strategies I’ve used with new courses.