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Principles of Effective Course Design: What I Wish I Had Known About Learning-Centered Teaching 30 Years Ago

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Ten years ago, after 20 years as a university professor, I was asked to direct the teaching and learning support center at my university. I quickly realized I had almost no knowledge of the published scholarship on this subject. From my reading of this literature, I found the research on the predictors of student learning particularly informative. In particular, I gained an appreciation for the impact of course design. In this article, I summarize a framework for designing “significant learning experiences.” In discussing the three key components of course design (learning outcomes, learning activities, and learning assessments), I offer tips and give examples relevant for the field of management. My intent is to share the most important information I have learned from a decade of conversations with experts on student learning—the things I wish someone had taught me 30 years ago.
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PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COURSE
DESIGN: WHAT I WISH I HAD KNOWN
ABOUT LEARNING-CENTERED
TEACHING 30 YEARS AGO
David A. Whetten
Brigham Young University
Ten years ago, after 20 years as a university professor, I was asked to direct
the teaching and learning support center at my university. I quickly realized
I had almost no knowledge of the published scholarship on this subject. From
my reading of this literature, I found the research on the predictors of student
learning particularly informative. In particular, I gained an appreciation
for the impact of course design. In this article, I summarize a framework
for designing “significant learning experiences.” In discussing the three key
components of course design (learning outcomes, learning activities, and
learning assessments), I offer tips and give examples relevant for the field of
management. My intent is to share the most important information I have
learned from a decade of conversations with experts on student learning—the
things I wish someone had taught me 30 years ago.
Keywords: course design; learning-centered teaching; student learning;
learning objectives; learning activities; learning assessment
Early in my career, following a discouraging semester of teaching, one
of my mentors, Lou Pondy, advised me, “You’ll warrant the title of profes-
sor, David, when you discover what you’re willing to profess.” Initially, I
interpreted his counsel too literally—obsessing over what I would say at the
end of each section of the course, for example, that would constitute my
distinctive professorial stamp. Over time, I’ve come to understand that the
most important professing I do as a teacher involves my thoughtful choice
of reading material, assignments, activities, and, most of all, learning objec-
tives. After all, our actions really do speak louder than our words.
339
JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT EDUCATION, Vol. 31 No. 3, June 2007 339-357
DOI: 10.1177/1052562906298445
© 2007 Organizational Behavior Teaching Society
To understand the importance I attach to my message, you need to know
something of my journey. After being a professor at the University of Illinois
for 20 years, I joined the Brigham Young University (BYU) Marriott School
of Management faculty. Two years later, I was asked to serve as the director of
the BYU Faculty Center, a faculty development campus-support unit with a
specific charge to foster learning-centered teaching. I've now served for over a
decade. This is not what I expected to be doing for roughly a third of my
career, but it has been a worthwhile experience, in part because of what I’ve
learned about being a better teacher—things that I wish someone had told me
30 years ago.
Reflecting on my decade of working with colleagues steeped in the
scholarship of teaching and learning, I’m reminded of the following expe-
rience: Several years ago, I overheard a neighbor who was serving as a mid-
dle manager in a large company comment that he saw no reason to enroll
in a management training workshop offered by a business school colleague
because “it’s not clear to me what a professor of management has to say
that will help me be a better manager.A few years into my work at the
Faculty Center, I realized that for most of my career I had held a similar
view of professors of education: I was a successful teacher, so what could
I learn from those who merely studied what I did for a living?
What I have, in fact, learned from these experts is that, broadly speaking,
we are in the midst of an unfolding paradigm shift in higher education, from
focusing on teaching to focusing on learning (Barr & Tagg, 1995; Campbell
& Smith, 1997; Davis, 1993; Diamond, 1998; Halpern, 1994; Svinicki, 1999).
Although good teaching fosters good learning, the point of the teaching–
learning distinction is that teaching does not automatically translate into learn-
ing. As one wise mentor put it, “If your students aren’t learning, you’re not
teaching.” Furthermore, research shows that the time professors invest in
improving their teaching often does not translate into greater student learning
(Boice, 1991). In fact, as suggested by the comparison between the teaching
and learning paradigms in Table 1, efforts focused on what we as teachers do
in the classroom can, as likely as not, inhibit student learning.
This sobering observation reminds me of a conversation I had with my
college golf instructor. One day at the driving range, I was demonstrat-
ing my swing while remarking, “Practice makes perfect.” His disarming
response was, “Only if you begin with a good swing. My advice to you is
to either stop practicing or change your swing.” In teaching, as in golf,
repeating poor teaching mechanics can actually move us away from, not
closer to, our performance objective of effective student learning.
So what changes in my swing as a teacher am I trying to make that I wish
someone had corrected earlier in my career? Let me set the stage for my
extended response with the following story: Before I came to BYU, a partic-
ipant in a junior faculty workshop asked my advice. He had recently accepted
340 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT EDUCATION / June 2007
a job at a top-tier private business school whose MBAs had a reputation for
running off all but the very best teachers, and this young assistant professor
had not yet taught an MBA course. My recommendation at the time was to
find the highest-rated MBA teacher and attend every class for a semester, tak-
ing copious notes. Today, I’d offer a different suggestion: Find the MBA
course that consistently receives the highest marks for student learning and
carefully examine how the course is designed. It’s not that we can’t learn any-
thing of value about student learning by observing great teachers; it’s that
emphasizing classroom observation perpetuates the myth that the key to
learning is a talented instructor.
For example, I remember spending hours scripting how I was going to lead
class discussions. The only educational model I had been exposed to as a
student presumed that learning entailed listening to the learned—the prover-
bial sage-on-the-stage model. Hence, as I crafted provocative discussion ques-
tions, I did so with the expectation that my answers needed to be significantly
more profound than those offered by the students—otherwise, I reasoned, I
wasn’t adding value as a teacher. In contrast, I have come to understand that
the most important things I can do to influence student learning involve care-
fully planning what my students—not their teacher—will do before, during,
and after each class. In sum, I have learned that the most effective teachers
focus their attention on course design.
Here is a sampler of the evidence supporting this proposition: First, at the
conclusion of an extensive study of student learning, known as the Harvard
Whetten / PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COURSE DESIGN 341
TABLE 1
Recent Paradigm Shift in Higher Education
Teaching Focus Learning Focus
Orienting questions What do I want to teach? What do students need
to learn?
How can I cover the designated How can we accomplish
course material? specific learning objectives?
Teacher’s role Provide/deliver instruction Produce learning
Transfer knowledge to students Elicit student discovery and
construction of knowledge
Classify and sort students Develop each student’s
competencies and talents
Success criteria Teacher’s performance Students’ performance
Inputs, resources Learning, student-success
outcomes
Assumption about Any expert can teach Teaching is complex and
teachers requires considerable training
SOURCE: Adapted from Barr and Tagg (1995, pp. 6-7).
Assessment Project, encompassing 1,600 student interviews and 65 faculty
interviews at 25 colleges and universities, Richard Light (2001), the study
director, offered the following summary comment: “The best part of these
examples [of exceptional teaching] is that they rarely depend on inborn or
immutable personality traits of any given faculty member. Rather, students
identify certain planned efforts these special professors made” (p. 105).
Second, regarding these “planned efforts,” listen to what the immediate
past president of the U.S.-based professional association for faculty devel-
opment professionals, Dee Fink (2005), had to say:
When we teach we engage in two closely related, but distinct activities: We
design the course and we engage in teacher-student interactions. In order to
teach well, one must be competent in both course design and teacher-student
interactions. However, of these two activities, our ability to design courses well
is usually the most limiting factor. Most of us have had little or no training in
how to design courses. In addition, during the last two decades, research on col-
lege teaching and learning has generated new ideas about course design that
have, in essence, “raised the bar” in terms of what’s possible.
Third, in the mid-1980s, a task force assembled from the leading authori-
ties on the predictors of student learning produced a report titled “Seven
Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (Chickering &
Gamson, 1987, 1991). A list of these principles is reproduced as Table 2.
When scanning this list, first note what is not included, namely, any evidence
of individual-differences explanations of effective teaching. None of these
predictors of student learning are dependent on a certain personality profile
or teaching style. One does not have to be perky or witty to provide prompt
feedback or to allow students opportunities to learn from their mistakes.
Generally speaking, these predictors of student learning reflect choices made
during the course design process. For example, active learning, student coop-
eration, diverse learning approaches, time on task, and high expectations are
all tied to course activities and assignments. Even the amount of student–
faculty contact and the promptness of our feedback on assignments often
reflect the number of professional commitments we accepted or declined
prior to the beginning of the semester. The feeling one gets from this charac-
terization of significant learning experiences is of a self-confident teacher
who is willing to challenge students to do their best in exchange for his or her
commitment to do the same.
I can relate to Dee Fink’s (2005) observation that professors don’t, as a
general rule, receive training in course design. To make matters worse, the
only time I can remember anyone in my department expressing an interest
in my course syllabus was when I missed a submission deadline. The notion
that the keys to effective student learning were to be found in a course syl-
labus was never a topic of conversation. Putting together my course syllabus
342 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT EDUCATION / June 2007
has largely been a perfunctory exercise. It was like a time-and-space jigsaw
puzzle, in which I had to fit the table of contents of the selected textbook,
supplemental readings, two exams, six group presentations, and my favorite
set of exercises, movie clips, and so forth, into 28 class periods. When I was
satisfied I had a nice mix of individual and group assignments, lecture and
small group discussions, written reports, and tests and that I was allocating
the appropriate amount of time to the topics I planned to cover in this course,
I added a paragraph or two about the relevance of the course material for
current and future managers and headed off to the copy center.
Learning-Centered Course Design
What I’ve learned was missing from this haphazard design process was
careful consideration of what students needed to learn and how I could best
facilitate the learning process (Diamond, 1998). Figure 1 shows a framework
we use at BYU to teach workshops on learning-centered course design. It is
adapted from Fink’s book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2003).
In our workshops, we discuss the three course design elements in this figure
twice. The first time through the model, we focus on the characteristics of
course objectives, activities, and assessments that have been shown to foster
learning. We then discuss the importance of aligning our objectives, activities,
and assessments to produce a coherent, holistic learning experience. In what
follows, I’ll highlight some of the more important things I’ve learned from
contemporary literature on course design.
BEGIN WITH EXPLICIT, HIGH-LEVEL LEARNING OBJECTIVES
Looking back, I was not a great fan of “behavioral objectives” when I first
heard about them in the 1980s. I was put off by the endless debates over what
is a goal versus an objective and, reflecting my “teaching focus,” I saw no
Whetten / PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COURSE DESIGN 343
TABLE 2
Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education
Effective learning...
1. Encourages teacher–student contact
2. Encourages cooperation among students
3. Encourages active learning
4. Gives prompt feedback
5. Emphasizes time on task
6. Communicates high expectations
7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning
SOURCE: Summary of Chickering and Gamson (1987).
point in announcing on the first day of class that the purpose of the course was
for students to learn what I planned to teach. I now understand that the care-
ful specification of learning objectives is the most important step in the course
design process because it informs all other design choices. Specifically, if they
are used as intended, learning objectives constitute the teacher’s distinctive
imprint or signature on a course, reflected in carefully selected topics, assign-
ments, readings, activities, and assessments.
Authors writing on this subject speak of “learning goals,” “learning
objectives,” or “learning outcomes.” The intended message is that teachers
should specify what they expect their students to learn in a course or, more
specifically, how they expect their students will be changed by this learning
experience and what they should be able to do upon completion. Learning-
expectation statements typically follow the convention of specifying an
object (students), a subject (content matter), and an action verb (type of
learning). For example, “Students will be able to recognize the three differ-
ent types of interpersonal conflict and apply the type-appropriate conflict
resolution practices.” The contemporary scholarship on this subject primar-
ily focuses on the action verb component and emphasizes the value of
“higher levels” of learning. In Table 3, these are the ones broadly classified
under the “Application” heading. Readers familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy
344 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT EDUCATION / June 2007
Figure 1: Effective Selection and Alignment of Course Design Components
SOURCE: Adapted from Fink (2003, p. 62).
of learning objectives will recognize this table as a revised version of his
model (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).
To help you identify suitable learning objectives for a particular course,
ask yourself questions like these: What are the three or four most important
things I hope students will master during this course? What do students in
this course need to learn to prepare them for subsequent courses? What
would I like my students to be doing consistently 5 years from now? How
can I engender a love of this subject matter that will foster my students’
commitment to lifelong learning? Assuming that students will master the
content of this course, how might they use this information to accomplish
something important in an organizational setting?
Regarding higher level learning objectives, a common concern raised
by teachers, especially those teaching particularly difficult subjects, is that
students can’t apply something they don’t understand. Although this is true,
it is also true that students achieve a deeper level of understanding when they
are required to apply what they are learning. Thus, comprehension should be
viewed as a means to the end of deeper student learning, rather than as an end
in itself. Viewed in this way, comprehension is something to be achieved as
quickly and efficiently as possible preparing students for higher (deeper)
learning opportunities. Thus, as noted in Table 3, learning objectives should
focus on what students will be able to apply, analyze, evaluate, or create, with
the understanding that remembering and understanding the relevant course
content is a critical prerequisite.
Realistically, the material most management professors teach is not
particularly difficult to understand. In fact, I often begin my introductory
courses citing Will Rogers’s folksy observation, “Common sense ain’t nec-
essarily common practice.” I tell students I’m willing to grant them that
everything they’ll learn in this course can be classified as common sense.
But then I present research showing wide variance in the performance of
practicing managers on the subjects covered in the course. (For more infor-
mation, see Whetten & Cameron, in press, “Introduction.”) Students are
thus primed for a course noted for its heavy use of practice exercises and
application assignments.
Anecdotal support for the use of higher level learning objectives comes
from the Harvard Assessment Project: “Faculty members who had an espe-
cially big impact are those who helped students make connections between a
serious curriculum, on the one hand, and the students’ personal lives, values,
and experiences on the other” (Light, 2001, p. 110). “As they begin each new
course, what do students hope to get out of it? Details vary, but the most
common hope students express is that each class, by its end, will help them
to become a slightly different person in some way” (Light, 2001, p. 47).
In summary, students learn best when they have clear learning goals and
when comprehension is viewed as a means to the end of personally relevant
Whetten / PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COURSE DESIGN 345
346
TABLE 3
A Taxonomy of Learning Objectives (Verbs)
Comprehension Application
Level 1: Remember Level 2: Understand Level 3: Apply Level 4: Analyze Level 5: Evaluate Level 6: Create
Recognize Interpret Execute Differentiate Checking Generating
Recall Classify Implement Organize Critiquing Planning
Summarize Attribute Producing
Compare
Explain
Retrieve relevant Construct meaning from Carry out or use a Break material into Make judgments Put elements together
knowledge from instructional messages, procedure in a parts and relate to based on criteria to form a coherent,
long-term memory including oral, written, given situation one another and to and standards functional whole;
and graphic larger structure/ reorganize into new
purpose patterns
SOURCE: Adapted from Anderson and Krathwohl (2001, pp. 67-68).
learning applications. Said differently, it is through meaningful application
that lasting comprehension takes place.
USE VALID DEVELOPMENTAL ASSESSMENTS OF STUDENT LEARNING
Until recently, I assumed that the biggest obstacle to student learning in
my courses was my students’ singular focus on grades. After all, I opined,
if their interest in the course material is limited to, “Is this going to be on
the test?” how could any significant learning occur? Although I still yearn
for an introductory course filled with students whose motivation for learn-
ing extends beyond their course grade, I now understand that this is not a
requirement for them to learn what I consider to be the most beneficial
aspects of the course. In fact, the literature on course design has helped me
see students’ preoccupation with grades as an asset rather than a liability for
learning. In brief, as the teacher of one of the highest rated courses at BYU
astutely observes, “There is nothing wrong with ‘teaching to the test’ if the
test accurately reflects the course’s learning objectives.
Management professors who teach reinforcement theory should not be
surprised to learn that the first thing students look for in a course syllabus is
the section on course requirements. This is the litmus test students use to
determine what we as teachers believe are the most important parts of the
course. In the minds of our students, what we test and how we test says more
about our educational goals, values, and philosophy than anything else we do
or say during the term. Understanding this, I now begin with the end of learn-
ing assessments in mind—meaning, I think about how I’m going to assess
what students have learned about a subject before introducing it, and I focus
the in-class and out-of-class learning activities on preparing students to do
well on the assessments.
To help you select effective, course-appropriate learning-assessment
tools, consider questions like the following:
Given the stated learning outcomes for this course, how can I best assess
student learning?
How can I effectively assess higher level learning outcomes?
How can I assess learning in ways that enhance and extend, rather than cul-
minate, students’ involvement with the subject matter?
If, during an upcoming reaccreditation process, I were asked to provide evidence
of learning for this course, what would be the best evidence I could provide?
In reporting the results of the Harvard Assessment Project, Richard
Light (2001) highlighted several surprising findings. One of these had to do
with assessment:
I expected students to prefer courses in which they work at their own pace,
courses with relatively few quizzes, exams, and papers until the end of the
Whetten / PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COURSE DESIGN 347
term. Wrong again. A large majority of students say they learn significantly
more in courses that are highly structured, with relatively many quizzes and
short assignments. Crucial to this preference is getting quick feedback from
professors—ideally with an opportunity to revise and make changes before
receiving a final grade. In contrast, students are frustrated and disappointed
with classes that require only a final paper. How can we ever improve our work,
they ask, when the only feedback comes after a course is over, and when no
revision is invited? (p. 8)
Although the notion that learning assessments should strive to stimulate
further learning seems self-evident, research and experience show that it
is the hardest element of learning-centered course design to implement
effectively and consistently (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998; Wiggins, 1998).
Looking back, I now recognize that I’ve been as preoccupied with grading
as my students were with grades. Specifically, for too many years, my over-
riding concerns as I laid out my course requirements were to produce a cer-
tain grade distribution at the end of the semester, to minimize students’
complaints about their grades, and to limit the amount of time I spent grad-
ing assignments and tests.
Inspired by a different view of learning assessment by the writings of
scholars such as Weimer (2002) and Angelo and Cross (1993), I’ve experi-
mented with having students take quizzes alone and then in test groups
(Michaelson, Fink, & Watson, 1994); allowing students to resubmit graded
papers; having a panel of practicing managers listen to and give feedback on
the top three student projects; using cumulative tests, as well as problem-
solving tests; and, for part-time MBA students, emphasizing on-the-job appli-
cation assignments. I’ve also come to understand that not all assessments of
learning need to be graded. It is both appropriate and useful for students to
gauge their learning progress through formative self-assessments, feedback
from peers, performance on practice tests, and so forth. I also ask students to
rate themselves on course objectives that are difficult to grade, such as things
pertaining to character development, including moral judgment and integrity.
Speaking of grading, I once heard a colleague say that he loved research
and teaching so much he would do both for free. Therefore, he figured that
his entire salary compensated him for attending faculty meetings and grad-
ing exams. With regard to grading written exams and term papers, educa-
tional scholarship has made great strides in making this a less onerous part
of teaching. (I haven’t found anything yet on how to make faculty meetings
more interesting, but I’m still looking!) We all know that written assign-
ments place the grader in double jeopardy: They take forever to grade, and
students are more likely to challenge their grades. Fortunately, authorities
on this subject have identified ways to reduce both grading time and student
complaints (Davis, 1993; McBeath, 1992; Walvoord & Anderson, 1998).
Here are two ideas that I have found particularly useful:
348 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT EDUCATION / June 2007
Use a grading rubric. If there are 15 points available for a particular short
essay question, they might be broken down into three sets of 5 points, each
associated with a specific learning-objective-related evaluation standard
(e.g., effectively applies course material in problem analysis and recommen-
dations). The value of the rubric is enhanced as a learning tool if it is dis-
tributed and discussed before the test. Even better, it can be used to guide
formative learning activities leading up to the exam.
Give selective, developmental feedback. Not every student will benefit from
the same comment, and no one benefits from general comments like “good
job” or “dig deeper.” Experienced graders are able to identify the most
common mistakes that students make on a particular assignment and formu-
late one or two helpful suggestions for each. Working with a repertoire of
these comments accumulated over time, they are able to efficiently give
students useful, detailed, developmental feedback.
Regarding the assessment workhorse—multiple choice tests—I’ve learned
that following a few basic rules significantly increases the quality of my test
questions (Davis, 1993; Haladynn & Downing, 1989; McBeath, 1992). I’ve
also learned how to use this test format to assess higher level learning
through the use of scenario options in conjunction with alternative inter-
vention strategies or problem statements linked to alternative solutions
(McBeath, 1992; Walvoord & Anderson, 1998).
In summary, possibly the greatest impact we have as teachers on student
learning involves our choice of assessments. What we assess signals what
we believe is most important for students to learn and how we assess sets the
high-water mark for student learning. It follows that the short-sighted deci-
sion to focus primarily on the assessment of student comprehension consti-
tutes a significant opportunity cost from the perspective of student learning.
SELECT COURSE ACTIVITIES THAT FOSTER ACTIVE, ENGAGED LEARNING
It is important to point out that the order in which I am discussing the three
components of course design reflects what is referred to as “backwards
design” (Wiggins, 1998), signifying that decisions about how to assess student
learning should precede decisions about how to help students learn. Thinking
of course readings, activities, and projects as opportunities for students to pre-
pare for tests and graded assignments helps us stay focused on our learning
goals as we sift through stacks of possibilities for filling course time. Stated
differently, having asked the questions, “What is our intended destination?”
and “How will we know if we arrive?” one is now ready to address the all-
important question of “How are we going to get there?”
Regarding the design of effective learning activities, educational schol-
ars have been telling us for decades that passive learning is an oxymoron.
The more our students are uncovering the topics in our course, rather than
listening to us cover them, the more likely they are to master the course
Whetten / PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COURSE DESIGN 349
material and own what they have learned. As a rule of thumb, if most of
what students are doing during a class period is listening, they aren’t
engaged in active learning. And if most of our preparation time before a
class period is focused on what we as teachers are going to be doing for 50
minutes, then active learning is not our top priority.
Although I’ve always valued having students discover knowledge over
my revealing it to them, I still find it challenging to design effective learn-
ing activities that go beyond introducing a subject and/or motivating
students to learn the subject to actually engaging students in the learning
process. I’ve come to recognize that student involvement is not the same as
student learning: Learning is enhanced by involvement, but not all involve-
ment produces learning. As I’ve tried to dispassionately evaluate the learn-
ing potential of my favorite learning activities, I have found that in many
cases what I’ve changed is not the activity itself but how it is used. For
example, instead of asking a general question (such as, “What did you learn
from this exercise/role-play/case/video clip?”), I introduce the activity by
tying it to a specific learning objective and assigned reading and then focus
the postactivity discussion on reinforcing these critical connecting links.
For example, in a module on motivation, I might ask, “What did you learn
from this activity about how to effectively diagnose the cause(s) of poor
performance, as introduced in the reading?”
In my ongoing search for better learning activities, I have discovered
several excellent resources in the teaching and learning literature, includ-
ing Davis (1993), McKeachie et al. (1999), Bonwell and Eison (1991),
Wilkerson and Gijselaers (1996), and Sutherland and Bonwell (1996). Here
are some particularly useful suggestions I have distilled from these sources:
Use problem-based learning to entrain the metaskills of effective diagnosis,
principled analysis, and systematic comparisons.
Encourage direct application of the course material in on-the-job settings,
and report the results to the class.
Require groups of students to diagnose the skill-development needs of a
practicing manager and use this information to design and teach a course-
based workshop to the manager.
Assign time for reflection, including minute papers at the end of a class
period and/or the ongoing use of learning portfolios or journals.
Facilitate student interaction with the teacher and with classmates through
provocative class discussions, team projects, small group work, presenta-
tions, and peer feedback.
During the years I supervised the required undergraduate management
course at the University of Illinois, the most important initiative we took to
enhance student learning was requiring students to read the assigned material
prior to class. To reinforce this stated expectation, we gave random pop
quizzes at the beginning of class. But more important, we began using class
350 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT EDUCATION / June 2007
time in such a way that students who hadn’t read the material felt left out of a
highly interactive, engaging learning process. For example, during a role-play
exercise or a case discussion, students were given bonus points for linking
their comments, observations, and suggestions to specific points in the read-
ing assignment. More than anything else, how we used our class time sent a
clear signal that informed application was our primary learning objective.
Returning to the results of the Harvard Assessment Study (Light, 2001),
the contribution of carefully considered course assignments to student
learning came through in the interviews Light had with college students.
Here are three particularly illuminating observations:
We asked some graduating seniors this question: “Which courses had the
biggest impact on your learning, why was this impact so big, and exactly how
were these courses structured?” The results were eye-opening. We learned
that how students study and do their homework assignments outside of class
is a far stronger predictor of engagement and learning than particular details
of their instructor’s teaching style. The design of homework really matters.
Specifically, those students who study outside of class in small groups of four
to six, even just once a week, benefit enormously. (pp. 51-52)
Students identify the courses that had the most profound impact on them as
courses in which they were required to write papers, not just for the profes-
sor, as usual, but for their fellow students as well. (p. 64)
The relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students’
level of engagement—whether engagement is measured by time spent on the
course, or the intellectual challenge it presents, or students’ interest in it—is
stronger than any other course characteristic. (p. 55)
As illustrated by these research results, the best source of information
about the effectiveness of learning activities in our courses is student feed-
back. Consistent with the learning–predicting principle of Time on Task,
introduced in Table 2, you might ask your students at the end of a semester
to report how much time they spent on specific assignments, on preparing
for each test, and so forth. It is particularly important to ask them how much
they believe various activities and assignments contributed to their mastery
of the course learning goals. Along these lines, a particularly well-designed
course at BYU has a section in the syllabus reporting how previous students
who have demonstrated the greatest mastery of the course objectives used
their time before, during, and after each class.
In summary, given a choice between two learning outcomes—(a) My
students will be able to pass the final exam in my course and (b) My
students will actually use the material in this course 5 years from now in
their work—we’d all prefer option (b). However, in line with Steve Kerr’s
(1975) timeless observation regarding the folly of “rewarding A while hop-
ing for B,” for too long I acted as if (a) would do just fine. I now understand
Whetten / PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COURSE DESIGN 351
that the more my students are actively engaged in the learning process, the
more likely they are to achieve my hopes and aspirations for them as for-
mer students.
SYSTEMATICALLY AND CONTINUOUSLY ALIGN
COURSE DESIGN ELEMENTS
The importance of aligning course learning objectives, activities, and
assessments has been noted several times already. However, because it is an
integral part of learning-centered course design, it warrants further atten-
tion. Soon after joining the Faculty Center, I learned of a recent survey of
BYU’s graduating seniors asking them to evaluate their educational experi-
ence. The result that caught my attention was this: The number one com-
plaint from our graduates was that in too many cases what they were tested
on did not reflect the course description, including the stated objectives or
what the teacher had led them to believe was important to learn. I remem-
ber thinking, “I’m contributing to this problem.
Sobered by this realization, I turned to my Faculty Center colleagues for
help. Regarding the frequency and consequences of the misalignment of
course objectives, activities, and assessments, here’s what I learned:
Lack of excellence in American schools is not caused by ineffective teaching,
but mostly by misaligning what teachers teach, what they intend to teach, and
what they assess as having been taught....Presently, we find no other con-
struct that consistently generates such large effects [on student learning],
which is probably why the idea of instructional alignment is so well-entrenched
in the conventional wisdom of instructional designers, even if not in the
programs currently found in most classrooms. (Cohen, 1987, p. 19)
In terms of solutions, the single most effective and practical tool I’ve
found for aligning course elements is the consistent use of action verbs,
introduced earlier in conjunction with Table 3. Suppose one of your course
objectives is to help students apply certain principles of effective interper-
sonal relations to their daily activities. To achieve alignment between this
stated objective and the course activities and assessments, use the word
apply to introduce test questions and assignments as well as in grading
rubrics for written or oral reports. The point, of course, is that by consis-
tently using the same verb (or verbs from the same category in Table 3) in
our learning objectives, activities, and assessments, students can see how
related parts of a course reinforce each other.
I’ve also found it helpful to visualize learning activities as the spokes of
a wheel, connecting the learning-objective hub with the learning-assessment
rim. Used in this manner, learning activities help students understand what we
mean by a particular learning objective. In addition, when course activities
352 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT EDUCATION / June 2007
prepare students for graded assessments, students appreciate not being sur-
prised by the content or format of a test, and they are motivated to take
the pretest learning experiences seriously. For example, if the best way to
assess a course objective involving the action verb evaluate is through case
analysis, then the learning activities leading up to a case-based assessment
should demonstrate effective ways to analyze a case and provide opportu-
nities for students to receive feedback on their ability to incorporate key
course concepts in their analysis.
Here’s another simple but effective way to check alignment. When BYU
Faculty Center staff consult with professors on course design, they often
construct an alignment matrix, like those shown in Table 4. Here, I’m illus-
trating how the fit between course objectives and course activities, as well
as between course objectives and individual test items, can be assessed.
Obviously, a more complete assessment would include both subjects and
verbs (e.g., integrate motivation theories, critique leadership theories). My
intent here is to illustrate how a stated commitment to a particular level of
learning should be reflected in subsequent course design choices. With
regard to the cells in the matrix, the number of course elements that should
support a given learning objective depends on how much emphasis you
think each warrants. The purpose of this alignment check is to ensure that
what the students are experiencing during a course reflects your carefully
considered intentions. In a well-designed (aligned) course, students at the
end of the semester should be able to fill in a blank alignment matrix with
a high degree of reliability.
As a way of tying together what I’ve learned about course design, let me
direct your attention to Table 5. Kim Cameron and I recently sent to our
Whetten / PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COURSE DESIGN 353
TABLE 4
Course Alignment Diagnostic Test
Course Objectives
Understand Apply Create
Course assignments
Attendance X
Group project X X
Term paper X X X
Exams X X
Journal X X
Test questions
Question 1 X
Question 2 X X
Question 3 X
Question 4 X X
Question 5 X X
publisher, Prentice Hall, the seventh edition of our textbook, Developing
Management Skills (Whetten & Cameron, 2007). We are both delightfully
surprised that what began as our personal quest to develop an application-
focused management course is now used in a wide range of undergraduate
and MBA courses and is being taught in several countries and languages. I
believe the success of this educational venture is largely because, quite by
accident, we utilized key learning-centered course design principles. (For
an expanded discussion, see Whetten & Cameron, in press, “Introduction”; see
also Whetten & Campbell Clark, 1996.)
As summarized in this table, the overall objective of the Developing
Management Skills book and course is to translate proven knowledge into
consistent sound practice through the medium of behavioral skill develop-
ment (Whetten & Cameron, 2007). In the initial Skill Assessment/step,
students engage in a systematic needs assessment, linked to their current
understanding and expertise. Then, in skill learning, students are exposed
to pertinent scholarship on the subject, summarized as a set of behavioral
guidelines. These guidelines are then used to inform students’ critiques of
case studies—what we call Skill Analysis. The behavioral guidelines also
serve as a standard for Skill Practice activities, including in-class role-plays
and other exercises. Finally, to complete the learning cycle, students are
encouraged to formulate specific Skill Application plans, identifying how
they intend to embed what they have learned into everyday practice. These
plans might focus on their work within student project teams in this or other
classes; their relationships with roommates, close friends, or possibly a land-
lord; their responsibilities as a fraternity or sorority officer; or some aspect
of their part-time or full-time work activities. We ask each student to
report on the outcome of at least one of their Skill Application plans, either
by giving a brief in-class report or by submitting it to the course Web site.
This assignment enriches the learning experience for other students and rein-
forces the course’s emphasis on higher order learning outcomes.
We have also attempted to incorporate effective learning principles and
practices into our teaching support material. For example, in the “Instructor’s
354 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT EDUCATION / June 2007
TABLE 5
Developing Management Skills Learning Model
Skill assessment Diagnostic surveys and experience logs (What do I need to improve?)
Skill learning Subject matter: Translation of research into behavioral guidelines
(What are the best bets for handling difficult management
responsibilities?)
Skill analysis Cases (According to the behavioral guidelines, what happened and why?)
Skill practice Role-plays and exercises (How am I doing in my efforts to improve?)
Skill application Transfer of learning into everyday practice (How am I going to
apply what I’ve learned?)
SOURCE: Adapted from Whetten and Cameron (2007).
Manual,” we present a learning matrix for each chapter, showing how specific
learning objectives are linked to specific elements in each of the five sections
of the chapter (Whetten & Cameron, in press). In addition, we have worked
with education specialists to develop assessments of higher level student
learning. Some of the assessment options we provide include role-play tests,
individual tests followed by group tests, integrated case-based tests, and
scenario-based multiple choice questions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Before wrapping up, let me address three frequently asked questions
about learning-centered course design.
First, given that this looks like a lot of extra time and effort, is it worth it?
From my experience, a well-designed course is like a well-written exam: It
takes longer to prepare, but the additional time is more than made up later via
faster grading and fewer student complaints. When my father was teaching
me some basic carpentry skills, I remember his encouragement to “measure
twice and cut once.” Over the years of working on various home-improvement
projects, the wisdom of avoiding wasted time and materials by spending more
time than I’d prefer planning a project and repeatedly measuring my cuts has
been demonstrated many times over. My experience with course design is
similar. What I like about contemporary thinking on this subject is that it
focuses on the design components that are likely to have the greatest impact
on student learning and, therefore, help professors avoid wasting their time
chasing educational fads or discovering on their own, through trial and error,
effective educational principles and practices.
Second, doesn’t this rule out individuality and spontaneity? That depends
on one’s meaning. By definition, the value of a thoughtful plan is that it inten-
tionally rules out options that have been shown not to produce the desired
results. However, course plans should not be so rigid that they preclude the
exploration of interesting emergent topics and questions or responding to the
needs of an unexpected mix of students. The benefit of a clear, coherent
course plan is that it helps students and teacher alike recognize when adjust-
ments are needed and what these adjustments should entail. Stated dif-
ferently, the purpose of a course plan is to provide clear direction, not to
eliminate thoughtful adaptation. As Igor Stravinsky said with regard to his
unique style as a composer, “It is within the greatest limitations that I found
the greatest freedom.
Third, how can this approach to teaching be used in multisection intro-
ductory courses involving several teachers? Anyone who has taught in this
setting has struggled with the question of how much of the course should
be common to all sections. On one hand, students have the right to expect
that all sections of a course will cover the advertised core content. On the
Whetten / PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COURSE DESIGN 355
other hand, no one is well served by courses that are designed by one
person and taught by another, so to speak. The course design process out-
lined in this article provides a systematic, principled, coherent approach for
multisection course design. The chief benefit of a common focus on student
learning is that it provides a much-needed standard for deciding whose
favorite activity, assignment, or assessment to include.
Conclusion
These are the highlights of what I’ve learned from my fortuitous,
decade-long association with teaching and learning experts. I went into this
experience expecting to pick up some useful teaching tips for polishing my
performance as a teacher; I will leave this experience with a very different
view of teaching—focused on student learning outcomes and framed as
teacher-as-course-designer.
Now comes the hard part: reducing the gap between what I now consider
to be common sense and my years of ill-informed common practice. If I had
understood the impact that course design has on student learning 30 years
ago, I wouldn’t have so many bad habits to overcome!
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Whetten / PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE COURSE DESIGN 357
Reproducedwithpermissionofthecopyrightowner.Furtherreproductionprohibitedwithoutpermission.
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