David Pollock, Ph.D.
Faculty Development Specialist
Looking at beautifully crafted furniture in a museum recently, I was reminded of the quote from William Morris, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”1 As I started thinking of all the things I have collected over the years that are clearly not beautiful nor particularly useful, I quickly saw the parallel for instruction. So let me steal Morris’s idea for instructors: Have nothing in your course that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
When designing a course from scratch, we are hopefully doing that naturally. When you backward design a course, you fill it only with those things--assessments and learning experiences--that directly meet the learning outcomes you have carefully set for a course. You ideally, then, end up with a course that has only useful things. But for someone who originally put together a course years ago, it can become cluttered with all sorts of things that are not really useful anymore. An assignment gets added because you heard about it at a conference and thought it sounded fun. A reading is added because at the time it was the latest idea on the topic. Or an activity is added just because that section of the course seemed thin to you at the time, and you needed to fill a hole. Over time, the course becomes the house equivalent of a hoarder's nest. And like someone buried in a house full of stuff, students can become lost and confused in a cluttered course and even give up.
So somewhat like the recommendations for hoarders go, it may be time to look through everything in your course and decide what is useful or not. “Learn to organize and categorize possessions to help you decide which ones to discard,” as one such recommendation goes.2 But that’s a lot harder to do than it first seems. If you have ever tried to down-size, you know this. I recently got rid of some old audio-visual equipment that I have had for many years. It cost me a lot of money when I bought it and once was something I highly valued. But it has been sitting on a shelf collecting dust for more years than I want to admit. Why? Because I was just holding onto the idea that I might use it one day even though the technology is completely out of date, and it is very unlikely that I would ever want or need to use it. It was only when I really took stock of it, thought about it, considered its value to me in my current life--and that is taking up valuable space--that I realized I needed to let it go. This is very similar to the idea of minimalism3 that is worth considering.
What is like that in the course you have been teaching for years? Consider every assignment; every activity; every reading; every assessment. Does it serve the purpose of learning that you want for students or is that piece of your course superfluous, out-of-date, or there for a reason you don’t even remember any longer?! Clearing the clutter can make for a more enjoyable and focused experience for your students, and the process of cleaning out, can help you not only get rid of things but also, realize there are some things missing in your course you need to add.
But what about those things you “believe to be beautiful” you ask? Like that sculpture in the corner of your living room, some things do not serve a purpose other than they are beautiful and make you happy. Is there room in a course for things that serve no clear, or significant, learning purpose? At first, you might say “no” since the very purpose of course design is to ensure that everything has a useful purpose toward your end goals. But they can serve a purpose of creating an inviting place students want to be even if they do not lead to specific learning outcomes--just like beautiful things in your home serve no utilitarian purpose. They cannot, however, be in the way of more important things--just like you have that sculpture in the corner--not the middle of your living room.
For instance, in online courses, at times I have embedded short, funny videos that have only a little to do with the content of the topic in a week simply because I thought they were really entertaining. I wanted students to enjoy them and laugh along with me and engage more with the topic that week. It worked. I have also engaged students in classrooms in discussions about topics that were not directly in my learning outcomes because the issue was interesting to students and helped make the course more relevant to them.
But the caveat here is that you cannot do too much of this. If you do too much, it becomes burdensome to students and gets in the way of the learning. Like a home, there is a balance. A home that William Morris would approve of meets your daily living needs while contributing to a sense of harmony and peace. Such a course would appeal to students through whatever way is appropriate--humor, surprising ideas, interacting with other students in new ways, and plain fun--but does not destroy primary purpose with unnecessary clutter. If you find yourself filling a course with too much fluff, then you need to reconsider your learning outcomes and teaching methods. Your job is to make your course content come alive.
Cleaning out the clutter could seem overwhelming, but you don’t have to completely redesign a course or even sort through every piece of it to make progress. Like the homeowner with a cluttered house who can start with one room, even one closet at a time, you can consider one unit, one week, or one day’s lesson at a time until you have gone through the whole course even if that takes months to do. So I challenge you to think through your tried and true courses until you have nothing in your course that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
1. William Morris on Art and Socialism
2. Mayo Clinic: Hoarding Disorder
3. The Minimalists
Cluttered room photo by Jeff Werner via Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Sculpture photo via Pixabay and released under Creative Commons CC