Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Thoughts and musings on course design no 1

I have the very good fortune this summer of being part of a team that has been tasked by my little university to assess the educational effectiveness of the Social and Behavioraal Science program.

I won't bore anyone with the details, and they're not for public consumption anyway. [A Bottom Line: "We Aren't too Shabby -- Nor are We Too Chic"]

But as I am looking over how various courses are being designed I have been forced to reflect on some of my own courses, and the design issues that I confront with those.

The issue that I keep thinking about is the degree to which the course is a selection of topics to be covered with the hope that students will be able to demonstrate their understanding of those topics, to analyze key themes, issues, concepts and theories that have been identified by specialists working in those areas, and to bring those into critical or corrective synthesis with their own ideas or the ideas they encounter in other contexts.

On the other hand, does the course present a series of problems and ask the students to bring in empirical information and competing theories that might explain the problem, then work on solutions by reconciling both theory and evidence.

This second option is practically unheard of as one peruses the course syllabi at just about every school on the planet. This observation bugs me. Why? Because I personally do not learn about something very well by trying to catalog all of the themes and topics that relate to the problem or area that I have become interested in. I learn about things, and write about what I have learned, much more effectively when I am able to ask a question about the problem, and then systematically gather information and ideas that help me to answer those questions, share my work with others to get feedback on the adequacy of the solultions I am thinking of, and finally releasing the product for further examination and comment by others should they choose to do so. Indeed, this is the heart of the scientific endeavor, or any critical exercise for that matter. It is, frankly, the method toward enlightenment (thinking of Kant here).

So I wonder ... why do we tend to organize courses the way that we do? [i.e., As a selection of topics that we review with students. ]

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