Designing a Course Unit: the Basics
What are points to consider for Ghent University lecturers when designing and/or fine-tuning your course unit? What are elements to ensure a well-structured course unit, and to a powerful learning environment for students? This Education Tip outlines the basics of any type of high-quality education. (If you are looking for a step-by-step plan for (re)designing your course unit in the context of more online education, and want to use these components, consult the following Education Tips.)
The Basics At a Glance
This figure offers you an overview of the basic components and characteristics to be taken into account when designing a course unit:
- components of a course unit, specifically final competencies/learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities and assessments (cf. blue spheres). If properly aligned, these components form the basic principle for designing and providing high-quality teaching, i.e. constructive alignment.
- basic characteristics (basics in short) for the goals, the teaching and learning activities and the assessments activities (cf. yellow spheres).
- the position of a course unit in the whole of the programme, the faculty, Ghent University and wider society (cf. circles around the course unit).
The Basic Principle of Constructive Alignment
Constructive alignment means aligning
- predetermined final competencies/learning outcomes,
- teaching and learning activities,
This is one of the most essential principles to design high-quality education:
- teaching and learning activities are used because they well-suited to attain the final competencies/learning outcomes;
- teaching activities are all the activities lecturers undertake to organize their classes or lecture series, e.g. an (online) lecture;
- learning activities are all the activities carried out by the students, either individually or together, and with or without supervision, e.g. group work.
These activities can take place either online or on campus, with or without supervision, synchronously or asynchronously (depending on whether students participate simultaneously or not).
- Assessments exactly assess those specific final competencies/learning outcomes that you are aiming for with the teaching and learning activities. Students focus in their learning on what is expected in the assessment.
- Read more about constructive alignment here.
Basic Principle 1 - Define Challenging & Clear-Cut Final Competencies
WHAT ARE final competencies?
When designing your course unit, always ask yourself these questions:
- what do I want my students to know and be able to do at the end of the course unit?
- how does my course unit fit into the broader whole of the study programme?
In response to these questions, formulate clear-cut goals, so-called final competencies. These final competencies are what you aim for with your course unit.
- take a look at your course unit’s course sheets. The course sheet contains the final competencies. Do they sufficiently cover the content? Are they clearly defined?
- in case of a newly designed course unit, define your own final competencies in consultation with the study programme committee.
- Please note that you can only change your course sheet for the next academic year every spring (April-May). This means that you cannot change the course sheet at any random time. Curriculum revisions may cause a course unit’s content and place in the curriculum to change. This also implies a thorough adjustment of the course sheet. Clearly communicate the final competencies to students, for example at the beginning, in between or at the end of a class lesson. Make sure your goals are as specific as possible by means of exercises or examples. Be aware of the fact that you are a role model here. For example, if one of the final competencies states that students can critically analyse certain contents, then it is best to illustrate what ‘critical analysis’ means for your field.
WHAT IS THE RELATION BETWEEN COURSE-SPECIFIC final competencies AND STUDY PROGRAMME competencies?
Course-specific final competencies/learning outcomes indicate a course unit’s finality, and are refinements of the study programme competencies or broader goals at study programme level. Study programme competencies reflect the level of attainment for students obtaining their Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in a particular field of study. For the specific wording, study programmes usually start from the Ghent University Competency Model, which in turn contains the goals defined by the Flemish Government (see Codex Higher Education) and international goals of academic education (see European Qualification Framework for Lifelong Learning).
Tip: if you want to find out your study programme’s competencies/learning outcomes, look up your study programme in the Ghent University Study Guide and click ‘study programme competencies’ in the left column.
In its competency-based approach, assessment policy and 17 assessment principles, Ghent University has chosen challenging goals, both at the level of the study programme and the level of the course unit. After all, Ghent University wants to provide its students with broad and high-quality education, and does not limit itself to pursuing and assessing easily attainable and measurable goals.
Teaching and Learning Activities
Basic Principle 2 – Make for a Well-Considered Mix of (Online and/or On-campus) Teaching and Learning Activities
Pursuing competencies is inextricably linked to the teaching and learning activities you set up. Always start from the question ‘What do I want the students to achieve?’ before choosing your (online) teaching and learning activities (cf. constructive alignment) and carefully think about:
- the didactic method (for example: lecture or group work?),
- the modality (online and/or on campus?),
- the time,
- the order (for example, what comes before and after certain face-to-face activities and how are the different activities related?)
- the method: synchronous and/or asynchronous teaching,
- synchronous learning refers to the learning activities in which students participate at a designated moment in time. During these activities, students can therefore interact simultaneously, with the lecturer and with each other.
- asynchronous learning means that students go through learning activities at a time of their own choosing and at their own pace. In that case, they do not interact simultaneously with each other or with the lecturer.
With the specific aim to design high-quality blended education (= a mix of both online and on-campus education), Ghent University posits 8 principles in its vision text.
Basic Principle 3 - Activate and Motivate Your Students
One of the basic characteristics of high-quality education is active teaching. In order to attain the pre-determined competencies/learning outcomes, students participate actively throughout the lecture series (either online or offline), and interact with the learning contents, learning materials, fellow-students and lecturers. This requires a mix of traditional and innovative teaching activities (e.g. voting, the one-minute paper) with corresponding assessment methods (e.g. presentation, paper, interim test). Active teaching offers powerful learning opportunities that promote competency development and study success, and enables students to acquire the learning content in a more autonomous way. This thus contributes to the commitment, involvement and motivation of students.
- Find inspiration by looking at the different active teaching methods.
- Read more about the ACTIVO project and the university-wide implementation of active teaching.
- Motivational Lecturing: Where to Begin?
Basic Principle 4 Offer High-Quality Learning Contents
It goes without saying that students must be offered high-quality learning contents at all times. High-quality learning contents:
- are topical and integrate recent evolutions in the discipline;
- are socially relevant and pay critical attention to trends and challenges in society;
- are based on academic research. Academic education is always evidence-based. Always integrate relevant scholarly literature into your learning contents.
- are international in the sense that they integrate international elements and insights.
Basic Principle 5 - Provide Clear and Accessible Teaching and Learning Material
In order to optimally support the students’ learning process, any learning contents that you want to assess must be translated into clear and accessible (digital) learning materials. Have those materials ready before the lecture series starts. Post all information and support initiatives about the learning materials on the digital learning environment Ufora.
Clear and accessible learning materials:
- have a clear structure, both in the (online) class and in the syllabus. A clear structure serves as a guideline for students to optimally acquire the learning objectives. In addition, it allows you to set a good example to students when they have to write or present something themselves within an academic context;
- support students wherever possible. For example, start every (online) class with an overview to indicate and explain exactly where the class is situated in terms of learning content. Or visualize concepts by integrating diagrams, tables, etc. into your learning materials;
- have room for new vocabulary and its consolidation. Write down new terms during your (online) class, or only include terms in your PowerPoint presentation, instead of full sentences. This is a way to emphasize their importance to students. Have students apply the new terminology by means of active teaching methods;
- are unambiguously worded. Understandable language use in classes and syllabi is essential to encourage students’ learning;
- do not contain spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes;
- appeal to a diverse student group, e.g. by using of meaningful and authentic tasks that match the prior knowledge and background of students; by using examples, audio-visual material, cases, applications or research with which students with different profiles can identify;
- are (digitally) accessible to every student, e.g. by providing videos and lecture recordings with subtitles; by making handbooks available digitally;
- are made available to the students on time. This way, students can optimally prepare for new learning contents and terminology.
Basic Principle 6 - Create a Safe Learning Environment and Pay Attention to Group Dynamics
Students who feel welcome, engaged and respected will deliver better learning performances. Creating a safe learning environment is crucial:
- at the start of your lecture (series), make time for a word of welcome. Introduce yourself and/or the team of lecturers.
- be inviting and encourage students to actively participate in the teaching activities;
- indicate that it is ok to make mistakes, and they offer learning opportunities;
- pay attention to the students’ various profiles and backgrounds;
- encourage students to share their own ideas, opinions, beliefs as long as they can do this in a context of mutual respect. For example, specify the rules for (online) discussions, group discussions, peer feedback, etc.
A sense of connection among students will increase their involvement and stimulate the learning process.
- during the first teaching activities, allow for some time to let students get to know each other;
- stimulate the interaction among students by choosing specific teaching methods;
- make room for targeted and gradual collaboration.
Basic Principle 7 - Use (Interim) Assessment as Evidence of and Key to Learning
When assessing, you may initially think of ways to determine the extent to which students master your subject matter and the predetermined competencies and of assigning grades (‘assessment of learning’). However, assessment can also serve another purpose: making students’ learning visible, so that it can be used as the key to learning (‘assessment for learning’). Students and lecturers gain insight into the learning progress made by students, they can learn from it, and make targeted adjustments.
Sufficient interim assessments at key moments throughout your course unit, allow you to make strong interventions in the students’ learning process. In the course of the teaching and learning process, there are certain moments at which it is crucial to gain insight into the students’ learning progress and into topics that they have (not) mastered well. These are key moments, because they determine the further course the teaching and learning process will take.
Basic Principle 8 - Provide Valid, Reliable and Transparent Assessments
Good assessments are:
- valid. They measure what you want to measure and what you have pursued with the students;
- reliable. They provide fair results that are not subject to chance or measurement errors. They therefore provide an accurate picture of what the students master;
- transparent. The method of assessment is clear to the students in advance (for example through rubrics or sample questions).
Validity, reliability and transparency are the basic characteristics of sound assessments in Ghent University’s assessment policy.
Find out here how to ensure valid, reliable and transparent assessments. Would you like to know more about the do’s and don’ts are of Ghent University’s Assessment Practice?
Basic 9 Give Constructive Feedback
Giving feedback is a crucial element in students’ learning process. It allows them to gain insight into their progress and to learn to critically consider their own achievements. Avoid giving feedback only at the end of an assignment or after the exams. It is considered a good practice to give interim feedback wherever possible. Interim information gives students more insight into the assignment goals and gives them the opportunity to make adjustments in order to perform better.
Emphasize positive as well as negative elements, and make sure that your feedback always refers back to the predetermined goals. The lecturer can provide feedback, but students can also give feedback to each other (peer feedback) or to themselves (self-feedback). The latter are particularly useful for encouraging students to think about their own learning process and that of fellow-students. Information gathered from interim assessment and feedback gives students a chance to regulate their learning process. Find out (almost) everything there is to know about giving feedback here.
Your Course Unit as Part of a Larger Whole
Your course unit does not stand alone. It is part of the larger whole of the study programme. The final competencies in your course unit are part of the broader programme competencies and occupy a certain place in the curriculum: before and/or after other course units in a specific (standard study track) year in the programme. The Programme Committee monitors the alignment with other course units: whether it builds on previous course units, and prepares for subsequent course units. In other words, the Programme Committee monitors both the horizontal alignment (or the relationship between course units within one and the same year) as well as the vertical alignment (or the structure of a curriculum in its entirety). This gives lecturers the opportunity to connect with other course units and to refer to them during your class.
Would you like to know more about the study programme? Take a look at the Education Tips on ‘Designing a study programme’. This information targets Programme Committee Chairs, lecturers and education support staff who jointly shape the programme.
Keep in Mind the Central Ghent University Policy Choices for Education
Ghent University made certain policy choices to implement education changes on a large scale, for example:
- the six strategic objectives,
- the Ghent University credo ‘Dare to think’,
- the general Ghent University philosophy ‘multiperspectivism’.
These policy choices at the institutional level determine the DNA of Ghent University and thus trickle down to the level of the faculty, the study programme (namely the study programme vision), and the course units.
Based on these policy choices, the study programme works on the integration of specific education policy themes. Depending on its own needs and priorities, the programme can choose its own emphasis. The Ghent University education policy themes are:
As an individual lecturer you can emphasize some of these themes in your teaching.
Want to Know More?
Take a look at Ghent University’s Education Support Services for Lecturers.
Take a look at the Education Tip ‘Designing a Study Programme: the ‘Basics’.