Millesgarden. Stockholm, Sweden

Designing a Course

part of Teaching by Philip Greenspun

Gerry Sussman at 545 Technology Square Gerry Sussman, one of the great teachers at MIT, says that a student should walk out of a lecture with a new capability. I.e., the student should be able to do something that he or she could not do before. The student should also be able to state clearly what that new capability is.

If we accept Sussman's premise, the design of a course must proceed from an overall statement of capabilities we hope to instill and a detailed statement of capabilities for each particular lecture or unit.

Given the statement of objectives for new student capabilities, we should design a set of handouts, lectures, problem sets, and projects that will teach the students what we've decided they need to learn.

Given the handouts, lectures, problem sets, and projects, we identify the personnel and physical facilities needed to hold the course.

Other needed items:

Reader's Comments

Bravo for doing course design right. I have sat through far too many courses where I had no idea what I was supposed to actually be learning. Even worse, neither did the instructor.

One thing I think deserves special emphasis is that the metrics you collect have to be used for something. Far too often very good courses get developed - with a lot of careful thought and hard work - and then frozen. They go through the motions of collecting metrics but the feedback loop is never closed and the course stays static. Eventually someone decides that the course is completely outdated and a new one is built from scratch, probably without even looking at the data from the old course.

-- Chris Curtis, July 2, 1999

As someone who's taught Unix and HTML for over 5 years at NYU, I think the most important part of teaching is leaving the students inspired and wanting more. As an IT professional, it's hard not to be inspired by the possibilites of todays technology, but conveying those possibilities to your students and seeing the light go on in their eye when the penny drops on how they can improve 'their' lot in life with this knowledge is the most rewarding part of teaching. All that said, the course needs to be designed to the level of the student and sometimes that's a hard target to hit.

The class should also be FUN, most people remember and learn most when they're laughing....

-- Ann McDermott, April 3, 2000

Thanks all for the valuable comments. I'm a student putting together a basic program of course design at my college and would love to have some input on my developing theology and the pages which are being created from it.

Further, I would like to propose that Phil and his crew consider putting together some classes, meetings or whatever targeted toward educators developing coursework online as well as the nerds that are helping them with the technology options. The 'companies' providing such services are getting so rich that my school, for one, can't afford to have them come in with their fancy progams. So, a friend and I capable in ASP and such are just going to dive into it with a few ideas. I would love to be able to advance those Ideas and avoid pitfalls that others have gone through already by beginning a forum or attending a meeting or something. Some development of some open-source stuff for education would be awsome. thanks


-- Neil Cowley, May 12, 2000
Thank you for the insight on education. It reminded me of a passage from the introduction to Confucius' Analect by Chu-tzu :

If you are the same person before reading the book and after reading the book, you haven't read it.

-- June Kim, February 14, 2001

To explain the "Analects of Confucious" passage; In Judo and Karate the highest level possible ( which has never been awarded) is a white belt-A white belt is what a beginner wears-the ultimate white belt is twice the width of the beginner's belt- This signifies "Original innocence"- in other words you are just as innocent of what you have learned, as a beginner. I other words: you know what you are capable of, so you have no need to prove this to anyone- others can tell what you know by your output, without being informed.

-- Kenneth William Caleno, August 7, 2005
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