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Part Six: Articulating the Role of Course Content

Objective: This part of the seminar will briefly consider the role of content in the process of designing courses for learning. Afterward, you should be able to describe how content will inform your course design processes.

So, Where Is Course Content?

As we discussed in Part 3: Designing Courses for Learning, principles of course design that focus on learning, rather than coverage, begin with what you want students to learn and be able to do upon leaving your course. This may be different than the way many of us first designed courses, where we started with a list of readings or concepts we wanted to cover and diligently plugged those into a semester calendar. After all this focus on course goals and learning objectives - and particularly, the frequent emphasis on skills - you may be wondering, "Where does all of this leave content??" In fact, it's a good question.

Barr and Tagg's discussion of the shift from the Instruction Paradigm to the Learning Paradigm, and the shift from teaching to learning that they recommend, can leave many of us feeling as though we're watering down what we do - leaving behind the teaching of ideas and concepts and sensibilities for the sake of "mere skills." However, it is important that you not mistake the work of clarifying learning goals for the erasure of content.

Shifting the Question

The shift from a coverage model of education to a learning model does not require the abandonment of content or ideas. Rather, it demands that we ask a different question, as Jacobson & Wulff (2003) explain: "This emphasis on what students will be able to do does not replace the disciplinary content of the course, but asks [you] to make explicit what [you] expect students to be able to do with that content" (emphasis added).

This is important: it isn't that content no longer matters. It's that we have an opportunity - and an obligation - to ask students to think about their relationship to content. For many of us, this has been the struggle all along. We don't want students merely to consume content; we want them to be able to do interesting, complex, responsible things with the content.

What do you want students to be able to do with the content in your course?

For many instructors (particularly those trained on coverage models and/or those who seek to become experts in fields where content grows at an exponential rate), this can be a liberating mindset. Rather than being obligated to cover everything ever written or produced, we have permission to be selective and to make decisions based on what students need for learning. Rather than checking texts, concepts, formulae, etc. off a master list of "things students must know" - which often becomes translated into what things should students "remember" - we can put our energy toward more complex ways of knowing, which often is what our course goals are really about in the first place.

What Role Do You Play in Your Class?

One way to identify the role content might play in your courses is to better understand the role you want to play, as a teacher. Grasha's work on Teaching Styles may be of interest as you attempt to articulate this for yourself.

In his book, Teaching with Style, Grasha describes five core teaching styles or personae:

Gresha Wheel image

Each of these "styles" represents a different mode of classroom performance and relationship to students and, in many ways, to course content. (To see a brief overview of each style, along with some of their potential advantages and disadvantages, see this chart.)

As Grasha makes clear, many teachers move in and out of these different roles; they don't necessarily inhabit one all the time. However, you can see that, depending on which role you're more inclined to play, the role of course content might shift accordingly. For example, someone who gravitates toward the Expert may see her role as introducing authoritative and essential texts in a discipline, whereas someone who gravitates more toward the Delegator role might see his task as providing students with reliable criteria for selecting the course content themselves.

EXERCISE: What's Your Teaching Style?

To understand the role of content in your own course planning, you might reflect on your ideal role as an instructor. This short exercise might help.

Step 1: Go to, and complete the Teaching Style Survey.

Step 2: Reflect on the results. Did the results line up with what you thought your most common Teaching Style was? What surprises you in the results?

Step 3: Reflect on the possible implications of these results for the role content will play in your course. What might they suggest about how you select course content? About what students do with content in your class?

You don't need to hold onto this material unless you want to. This was intended as an exploratory exercise only.


Ultimately, how people think about course content and its role in course planning varies greatly across disciplinary and curricular contexts. Our purpose in this seminar is to encourage you to ground your course-planning efforts in the goals and objectives you have for learning, rather than an authoritative list of "must-cover" course materials. At the same time, we recognize that course often do have set lists of material and concepts that need to be covered, and we don't want to under-value that content. We simply want to keep the question, "what will students do with the content?" foremost in your mind as you develop your courses.

Part 7: Assessing Learning

To Learn More About...

Integrating course content intentionally:

Filene, P. (2003). Constructing a syllabus. In The joy of teaching: A practical guide for new college instructors. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Caroline Press.

Prégent, R. (2000). Choosing your teaching materials. Charting your course: How to prepare to teach more effectively. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Wulff, D. H. (Ed.) (2005). Aligning for learning: Strategies for teaching effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.