Category Archives: Education

Course design

Why are courses designed the way they are?

The average biology class starts with cells and molecules, go on to tissues and organs, moving finally onto organisms and ecology. Small to large, the way it’s always been…except, of course, that molecular biology is a product of the second half of the twentieth century. Still, it makes sense to start with the basic building blocks and work upward into more complex structures, right? Or is it just climbing the tree of life, from simple to complex? So maybe it’s an older idea? It probably wouldn’t be a difficult question to answer, but not tonight.

And what about educational theory? What about learning theory? How does that fit in? Is this constructivist? Are students going to construct their ideas of complexity from simple structures? My experience teaching undergrads doesn’t exactly make me hopeful in this regard. Students don’t learn to scale from cells to landscapes – very few people ever learn to see the world that way. Instead, they tend to compartmentalise knowledge.

When I was an undergrad in botany we went the other way – we started with diversity, worked our way up the plant kingdom, before moving on to anatomy and physiology, and then finally to ecology. If I had to guess, that was probably the way introductory botany had been taught for much of the twentieth century. Still, it had the benefit of working from something more or less familiar – the organism – and moving to less familiar things. Unfortunately, since we worked our way up the plant kingdom, starting, I suspect, in the weird and wonderful world of algal life cycles, it probably wasn’t really a matter of working from “knowns”.

This gets me to my current thought: how do I design my course for next semester? InĀ Creating Significant Learning Experiences, Dee Fink lays out a system for course design (that I need to revisit), working backward from your learning goals to your classroom activities. While very useful, this doesn’t tell me the best way to present things so that students build connections between the material – and it doesn’t tell me how to do that in the specific context of introductory biology or environmental science.

So where to you start? Students know a little bit about the world, about biomes. So should that be the starting place? In the principle of moving from knowns to unknowns, do you start big and move small? Or do you start small and move big? And does any of this even matter in an environmental science class wherein you have to teach your students about the natural world, teach them ecology, population growth, minerals and mining, pollution and waste management, energy, climate change, ethics, environmental justice, sustainability science…The volume of material you need to master in a class like that, the amount of basic knowledge you need in order to have an educated conversation – is vast. So how do you present it?