The IDEA Blog



Read the thoughts and impressions on a variety of topics written by IDEA staff as well as occasional guest bloggers.

Start Small
June 6, 2018


David Pollock, Ph.D.
Faculty Development Specialist

You know your course needs a lot of work, but you haven’t made a move.

Thinking about making changes and improvements to a course can feel so overwhelming that faculty sometimes don’t do anything at all. Like staring at a garage that is piled high with stuff, the temptation is strong to just let it be because the task seems so overwhelming. But seen as a series of small tasks, the garage project can be more easily conquered--and so can revising a course.

A whole course revision might be your goal--just like a completely clean, organized garage, top to bottom, is probably the ideal goal--but given your other responsibilities and how completely overwhelming it can be to consider redesigning a course, it is often best to start small.

Getting Started

As you think about your course, what prompted you to consider working on it in the first place? What are the most pressing issues that students have revealed through their feedback that you have determined are most in need of change based on other evidence, or that someone else--your department chair perhaps--has suggested you work on? It’s a little like focusing on the most obvious issue in the garage. You cannot walk through it at all, so perhaps clearing a path is the place to start. What is most in need of work in your course? Is it the way content is presented? Improvement in your system of assessment and feedback? Perhaps it is simply getting students more interested in the course. Though you might believe the course really should be reworked completely, consider first the most pressing issue. This may give you a smaller chunk of the course to which you can make a significant improvement in a smaller period of time. 

Finding the Small Parts

But even after you have identified the most pressing issue, that issue can also seem overwhelming. How to get students more engaged and enthusiastic about course material, for example, can be a huge and complex task. In this case, work toward improving one aspect of engagement rather than trying to reinvent the whole course. To borrow another analogy, it is like focusing on singles and doubles in a baseball game rather than trying to hit the home run. Perhaps, for example, you can rework one important course concept as a real world case study that students will find more purposeful and engaging instead of thinking you have to work case studies throughout the course.

Another approach to making small changes is to rework one specific week, or even one specific day, of your course rather than thinking of a specific pedagogical issue. So you might take two days of your course, for example, where you teach a particular topic and completely change-up how you have taught it before. Perhaps this is where you try-out active learning strategies in a significant way for the first time. The point here is that the prospect of trying this out with two class sessions--rather than thinking that you are going to do this throughout the course--is much less overwhelming. And truly, it is much easier to do, and therefore, means you are more likely to do it. It also provides you with the opportunity to revert back to your usual approach if your new way doesn’t work out. That’s much easier to do when you have made a small change than if you have reworked an entire course only to find that it is no better, or even worse, than your previous design. 

There are many other small steps you can take toward course improvement, and while they might not be as satisfying as a complete course overhaul (home runs are just exciting, aren’t they?), you are still making improvements that can result in a real change in student learning. 

Small Steps are Sometimes Better

Small steps can also be documented for tenure and promotion purposes just as well as larger course redesigns. In fact, this sort of small, experimental approach--where you tryout different changes in small ways and make adjustments based on the results--is in some ways more significant than a complete course overhaul. It shows your willingness to try different approaches and learn from them. Because you do not know for sure that a complete redesign is going to result in an actual better course, small steps are often superior because you can make such revisions more easily and quickly--reverting to the old, or another, way if things don’t go well. 

But let’s close the loop on the garage analogy. While it is indeed good that you clear path through it, that’s a long way from the completely organized garage that you might actually be able to park a car in. And while you can take small steps toward course improvement, and you should, you should not be satisfied until the entire thing is in the best shape you can get it. So this practice, then, means continuing in a series of small changes until you get the course where it needs to be. The truth is, however, that effective teaching is largely a series of small changes because our students change over time, our own interests change, curriculum changes, and there is just always room for improvement in any course. 

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