A first curriculum development experience in a technical college

It started nine years ago.  I was hired as an adjunct instructor to teach a single class.  I had a small step up on any other adjunct that could have been hired; I had taken the class years previously.  During my studies, I thought that the class was poorly organized and documents were not cohesive.  I was given the start and end dates of the course, the title of the course and the course description – and that was all.  I was instructed to create the curriculum around the course title and description.  The first request was to develop a syllabus for the course, so off to the internet I went.

The first realization, some syllabi are good – the majority are not.

The basics were givens and the text book was more a reference book required for the information – not for assignments.  The major first was the objectives, competencies, goals, outcomes – each school refers to them as a different term.  I was not trained in education, rather in the technical field of architecture.  I researched the internet, reading multiple syllabi, anything I could get my hands on.

As I sorted through the data, I eventually created THE BEST objectives (or so I thought – more later).  I then started on creating the assignments, activities, jobs – again so many different terms.  The last thing that I did was write the midterm and final exams.

The second realization, limitations.  A course that is 12 weeks long can only accommodate so much work.  What to teach verses what to leave up to the students.  I laid out a course that had 58 lectures and 2 test days.  I was soon to learn that although this is not an impossible task it is certainly a lot of work on an instructor.  I soon learned that perfect or even close to perfect attendance in a course is not to be expected, as there are so many outside distractions – student government meetings, college defined projects, interviews etc.

I had designed the course to include so much work which required immediate feedback from me, which I spent more hours correcting work than actually preparing what I had set out to teach.  The result – overworked students and an overworked instructor.  I was grading the equivalent of 24 students x 12 jobs x 2 tests each, 576 items over 60 days.  Each job was a minimum of 30 minutes to assess, as all my comments were written.  The math is not pretty.

The second time I taught the course, I had so much more knowledge and I fixed the assignments to put more onus on the students, less on the instructor.  I added review dates into the curriculum, instead of taking all the work home to grade and placed a review date prior to the midterm and final exam.  Now I was teaching 46 lectures, 10 in class reviews, 2 exam review dates, 2 exam dates. There was a downfall to the review dates; I was having trouble getting through all 24 students in a single 3 hour class.

And now I was not satisfying all the objectives I had set out to teach, I lost 10 teaching days.  How to fix this?

As I taught the course, I was much more pleased with the results.  However, the students were not using the reference book as often as I would like and the projects were more general than specific.  I attributed this to the very broad goals that I had put in place this time through the course.  And I was still grading at home.  I spent many hours contemplating solutions.

I was hired on as a full time instructor, with two more classes to teach.  A solution had to be in sight – this much work for 3 classes, I couldn’t imagine enough hours in the day.

But the third time is the charm, right?  I created 10 homework assignments for the students which came directly out of the reference book- forgetting that I would now have to grade them.  I also created a “work day” following the midterm, so I could grade the midterms in class, but be available to answer any questions – instead I spent the three hours answering questions, not grading.  This was ultimately a failure.  I also split the review dates over two days in class, not one.

I also re-wrote the objectives one more time, this time having done more research on objectives verses goals I determined that I was ultimately teaching the students skills.  The word on the internet was competency.  At the end of the course, are the students competent in the skills being taught?  This was a defining moment.

Although I spent time grading their 10 homework assignments, I had created a course which had a defined set of skills to teach the students, each assignment aligned with at least one competency.  By the end of the quarter, all the competencies would be satisfied, because all the assignments were tied to the success of the students mastering a skill.  I was now teaching 31 lectures, 2 exam review dates, 22 in class reviews, 2 exams, 1 work day and 2 days set aside for “no lectures.”  I was a bit disenchanted with the concept that in a 60 day course, I was only teaching a little more than 50% of the time.  Was this really teaching?

It was, but now I was facilitating the students learning, not dictating it.  Finally 90% success.  There were a few areas that I still felt needed attention.  I was still working out the concept of weighted grades verses a point system.  I was still grading 240 homework assignments at home.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I found the solution to the 10 homework assignments.  I currently require the assignments to be completed by the start of a class and the students receive points based on the level of completeness of the assignment.  I use the first 10 minutes of the course to have the students come to my review area and show me their homework, in which they receive the equivalent of 2, 1 or 0 points- 100% complete, at least 50% complete or less than 50% complete.  We then take time from the course to discuss their answers.  They are not punished for their learning; they are allowed to make a mistake, fix it and then apply it to their project which will satisfy a competency.

Ultimately I switched from a weighted grade system to a point system.  I used 1000 points, as it has huge impact on the students when they realize that their final exam is 300 points, versus 30% of their grade.

In the end, the course included 28 lectures, 3 (10 cumulative at 1 hour) homework reviews, 22 in class review days, 2 exams, 2 exam review days (which I still grade at home), and 3 days set aside for no lectures.  I was only grading two exams at home, 48 exams total.  The feedback was immediate and given in the in class reviews.

I went back to school and received a degree in Career and Technical Education, where I learned many more concepts specific to this individualized teaching environment.

The course has undergone many changes as technology changes and as I grow as an instructor. A major change to note is that the final exam has been replaced by the students’ presentation of their project, which takes 4 total days to present.  This reduces the lectures to 26 and the number of tests that I am grading at home to 24.  In all, there are 18 competencies defined for this course, 10 labs and 10 homework assignments.  I must make sure that my lectures are equipped with the pertinent information the students require to learn their 18 skills.

In the start, I worked to serve my students.  In the middle, I worked to serve me.  In the end, I serve my students, myself, the future employers of my students and my college.  I have received two teaching awards from my college: the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Heading into my tenth year of my teaching, I have learned that it takes time to develop a course and an instructor to the level students are expecting.  I share my experiences with new instructors as often as possible, knowing that they will have to learn these lessons on their own.

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