Tip 19: How to make a good course great

You need to build a good repertoire of information throughout your course.

Obviously having a course that was perfect would be preferred. But I’m not sure most of us are up to that yet. However, if you are teaching a course, hopefully you already think it is good. So how do you make it better? You build it up, piece by piece.

If you try to focus on improving the whole course at one time, you will be overwhelmed. Even dedicated multitaskers can’t do that.

So start at the very beginning. (Yes, yes, I know. It’s a very good place to start.)

Work on a few key lessons.

Don’t literally start at the beginning necessarily. (If you need to start at the beginning, the University at Honolulu has some good ideas. And you can look through my available tips on the first day.)

Pick two or three lessons that need upgrading or could use upgrading. Think of them, if you need to, as a grad school project. If you had to turn them in as is, would you get a good grade? If not, go back and revamp them.

There are good ways to choose which lessons to upgrade.

If you are confused about where to start, go over your notes from your last syllabus. Look for places where the students were confused or the plan didn’t work.

If you haven’t taken notes on your syllabus, look at your last semester’s grade book. What grades were the lowest across your classes? If you find that students got consistently lower grades on a project, it will be an indicator of what you need to work on.

6 ways to improve your key lessons.

Once you have decided which lessons need the most revamping, and work on those.

How do you work on them?

One of the things I do is look through Google. If I’m talking about women in Beowulf-era England, I would google “women in Old English” and “Women Beowulf” and “status of women throughout British history.” Then I look through multiple pages, searching for something good or several good somethings.

Sometimes I will find a lecture on the topic I am searching for. Sometimes I find artwork or music. In this day of multiple literacies, this can add value to my class. Sometimes I find an activity or an exercise that is useful.

It will, of course, depend on how common your topic is and how much other people have done on it what you find. But that is a good place to start.

Another thing to do is go to your school library. You can go to the physical library for books or to the virtual one for journal databases.

Look through those resources for ideas, kernels of lessons, and other useful information.

Sometimes I find things that look interesting, but I am not sure what to do with them. When that happens, I copy whatever it is and stick it in a folder (either a physical one or one on my computer). Often it will only be a few weeks before other ideas which are related come through my orbit and I can use all of them to flesh out this tidbit.

Make your lectures more memorable. MIT has a good article on how to make your lectures better. They have both a developed essay and a shortened “quick and easy ideas list.”

Developing more usable lectures can improve your course, even when you don’t add any new material. Sometimes just a new way of presenting the same material makes it better.

Come up with new/different exercises. Sometimes a new way of presenting information makes it more memorable.

How many people loved studying grammar in school? Probably not very many people. But one teacher I work with has come up with a great way to make grammar more fun. She has created a Jeopardy-type game where the questions are related to grammar. The class plays it in groups of two or three, with each person in the group answering a question. She says the students really enjoy it.

If you’ve always had a writing assignment for a particular unit, maybe a change of venue would be good. Perhaps a blog post on the topic could be created and posted to the class website.

Or maybe you could change the type of assignment you give. Instead of having a small research project and a paper, maybe you could assign a small research project and an oral report.

Solicit suggestions from your students. If you are trying to come up with new ways to teach a particular subject, you might ask your students for ideas. They are the ones in your class and they’re the ones who know it best.

One way to do this would be after a unit, pass out index cards and ask the students to write the best part of the unit and the least enjoyable. It won’t take them two minutes and it might be of great benefit to you.

Another way is to ask them for ways to make the unit better. Give this as an extra credit assignment. Tell them you will take any suggestions, but that useful ones will be given more credit. Is there a song that’s perfect for this topic? Maybe they know one and you’ve never heard of it. Is there a piece of art that could be the visual introduction? Do they want to create something for the unit?

Getting your students involved helps them to own the course. It’s not just a class they’re taking, but it’s one they are creating.

Solicit other teachers’ ideas.

Chances are you are not the only one teaching your course. Take a colleague to lunch and solicit their suggestions.

Or approach them on campus and make an appointment to meet with them at their office. Ask them what they have found to work best in their class. THEN take them to lunch.

While great minds may think alike, new approaches can often come from this solicitation.

Continue to improve your course over time.

You’ve chosen a few key lessons to upgrade and you’ve done that. Now what? Don’t stop there. Every time you teach the course, choose two or three lessons to improve.

Within a few years, or semesters if you teach the course each semester, you will have a course that is head and shoulders above the one you are teaching now. The satisfaction that comes from doing your best will show in your attitude towards the class, too, thus improving it in another way.

Always be getting ready to update your course.

Keep a source of ideas, a blog, a notebook, a doc. Whenever you have a relevant idea, write it down. Then get it into your main resource as soon as possible.

This gives you a stash of good ideas for working on your courses. It also can help jumpstart your improvement when you hit a mental road block.

Keep your mind active.

Taking a course yourself or taking your research in a new direction, reading a new book on a topic or getting involved with faculty development helps keep your mind from atrophying.

If you are learning, your information will be fresh.

One way I found was useful when I first started out was taking teaching journals, reading them and copying any good ideas into a notebook. I still have and read through that notebook. I have probably 500 ideas from other people that I may have used and forgotten or never had the opportunity to use. It’s been a benefit to me throughout my teaching career.

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