Starting at the top of the Pyramid:

Course design begins with two essential questions: what will the students gain from this class and how does the course design support this. This strategy of course design (often referred to as backwards design) helps instructors develop courses that have a clear and directed purpose and plan. I have designed and created many biology courses at the Community College level and have found that the most difficult courses to design are those that have the goal of developing critical thinking and analysis skills. Designing courses with this end in mind often requires creative and innovative strategies.

One such innovative strategy is to begin with highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy (“create”) as a means to help students develop deeper understanding of the content. There are a number of different course design approaches that make use of this strategy. One design approach is using the act of developing and writing a textbook as the mechanism for learning. I began thinking about this approach to course design when I was involved in writing my first Open Educational Resource (OER).

I was part of a group of instructors from across the country who used Google docs to collaboratively write a textbook. This resulted in many fascinating discussions about what content is truly essential and how best to explain and connect topics. I realized that these types of questions arise organically from the writing process and are an excellent way to help students learn the material. The process of developing and designing an introductory text will require students to synthesize material from various sources and think about how best to present this material.

I suggest maintaining traditional testing methodologies for this course. This will allow the measurement of student learning before and after the new course design in a format that is both consistent and understandable to a variety of faculty. Based on preliminary data this learning strategy results in similar test grades but a significant increase in student engagement. This is important because it is the appreciation for the topic and desire to continue learning about it that is key for General Education students.

Learning through Creation

In this course design we will move students from being consumers of information to being producers of informational content. Rather than simply read a textbook (or watching a video, or doing an activity) to gain information, students will learn the same content by analyzing how information is presented. They will then, as a series of classes, create educational content which will put online and become available to anyone.

Specifically, I will present how I developed this course design in an Honors Biology class. Over the course of a few years, the Butte College Honors Biology Class will develop a textbook. This textbook will be an OER (open educational resource) and could (eventually) be used to replace the textbooks used in our other GE classes.

Feedback on this course design has been highly favorable. Students appreciate the opportunity to add to the educational community. Knowing that their work in the class has true and lasting value past a single semester adds a level of dedication to their projects. Discussing how and why to add information to the text is also an excellent mechanism to get students engaged with the material. This active participation in learning is one that students find much more engaging than more passive learning mechanisms.

This is a unique course strategy that may be best suited for majors introductory courses, honors courses, and other more advanced course types. One of the limitations is that this course requires high contact between students and is, therefore, most suited to relatively small groups (below 35). However, parts of this course strategy can be used independently and are beneficial for students in all courses. Each step in the overall course design will also discuss methods for using the individual strategy independently.

Review of online learning aids. This course design benefits from the use of a variety of free online tools for students. Although there are many wonderful tools, I have not found a good place for instructors to discuss the efficacy of these tools. To begin this discussion I have created a website that links to a variety of tools and has a place for reviews.

This site presents the steps for designing a course where students collaboratively write a textbook.

The site also presents strategies for using steps independently or in sequence to simplify course design. Each individual page also discusses educational research related to each individual strategy.

Students collaborate on this project using google docs. The documents from previous semesters are archived in a single folder, as are the plans for future semesters.

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