Themed Teaching: A Creative Strategy for Course Redesign

blessingby Elizabeth A. Gockel-Blessing, Associate Dean for Student and Academic Affairs, Associate Professor, Department of Clinical Health Sciences

Do you ever get tired of teaching your courses the same way year after year?  If so, join the club.  I am writing this post to share one example of how I redesigned what I consider to be my “flagship” (pun-intended) course, Medical Parasitology.

Circa 1998- I had been teaching this course for seven years.  The thought of teaching Medical Parasitology in a traditional way another time was just plain “yuk!” The time was right for a course redesign using out-of-the-box thinking.  All kinds of thoughts were racing through my head until I came upon this one: ‘What if I tied the content concepts to one idea (theme)? The course would then be taught interweaving this theme throughout.’  Hmmm, I thought, I might be on to something.

I wondered if this innovative approach has a name/definition.  I was pleased to learn that indeed it does.  Also known as themed teaching,

“thematic learning (often synonymous with thematic instruction) is an instructional method of teaching in which emphasis is given on choosing a specific theme for teaching one or many concepts.”  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thematic_learning, Accessed 07/16/18).

So fittingly the next question to ponder was “what theme would work well with the course content?” During the “incubation phase” of my creative process, it occurred to me that since parasites are often contracted during worldwide travel, perhaps travel could be the theme.  The more I “incubated” (that is, thought) about it, the more ideas around the travel theme came to mind.  I settled on a personal favorite travel means- a cruise.   I started out small, incorporating just a few travel-themed components the first year.  Each year that followed, with the help of the students as noted below, I added new and adjusted existing ones.  Examples of some of the successful components incorporated into the course are as follows:

  • I inserted this phrase on the title page of the course syllabus as a teaser:

Royal Tapeworm Cruises “Voyage to the Intestines and Beyond!” 

  • Each cruiser (a.k.a., student) received a specially designed boarding pass to gain access into the course on the first day.
  • The ports of call corresponded to key areas in the world where the category of parasites being covered are known to exist.
  • Each cruiser selected the name of a parasite via lottery draw.  The cruiser then assumed the role of the selected parasite to complete select course assignments (see menus and captain’s cocktail party entries).
  • Daily menus were created that correspond to the ports of call and category of parasites being covered each day.  The menus were designed to provide cruisers with an opportunity to learn and review corresponding terminology.
  • The cruisers were responsible for creating a voyage newsletter written from the perspective of the parasites selected via lottery draw.  This activity was designed to serve as a review of parasite life cycles.
  • “At-sea” days were built into the schedule as days when cruisers learn about parasite specimen types, collection, processing, and examination.  Cruisers spent most of this time in the student laboratory.
  • Towards the end of the voyage, cruisers attended the Captain’s Parasite Cocktail Party dressed as the parasite they lottery drew (this activity served as review of morphologic structures and functions required for parasite identification).
  • Along the way cruisers created and participated in a plethora of parasite-designated category and course review games (Protozoa Twister, Ameba Jenga, and Parasite Pictionary, just to name few) and a plethora of other memory tools.  Each cohort of cruisers not only played already established games and memory tools designed by former cruisers, but also created new ones for themselves and future cruisers.

In all the years I theme-taught this course, no two years were the same. I found that by taking a themed-learning approach and building it over time, the redesigning of the course was not overwhelming but rather a great opportunity to redesign the course making “baby-step” adjustments.  My goal was to empower the cruisers to contribute to the evolving course.

Feedback from past cruisers has been very positive.  They loved the variety of activities and how they all connected to travel. By design, I did not put every activity in the course schedule.  This turned out to be a great, successful strategy. Numerous students over the years specifically commented that they were eager to attend each course session to see what “was next”.   By design, they never really knew the details of each activity. These cruisers liked the element of “surprise.”

Numerous remarks have been made about how cruisers were able to use memory tools learned via the theme-taught course to correctly answer quiz and exam questions and to adequately perform parasite testing in the clinical laboratory.

While I no longer teach this course, I have been able to channel the creativity used to create the parasitology themed-based learning environment into the design of other assigned courses with notable success.  It is a fresh and fun approach that can be tailored to course content, teaching style, and your comfort level. So, the next time you feel like your course is stagnant and wish to explore creative course redesign options, get creative and consider themed teaching. Bon voyage!

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