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Part Two: Understanding the Teaching Situation

Objective: In this part of the seminar, you will explore different elements of your teaching situation and consider their effect on course design. Afterward, you should be able to identify key questions you need to answer about context before developing a course.

EXERCISE: Imagining Your Course

Before we get started introducing new information, let's uncover what you already know or think about designing courses. Listen to the following podcast. You will need: either paper and pen or a blank electronic document - some space for recording your thoughts and completing the activities described in the podcast. Click here for a transcript (PDF) of the podcast.

Save the ideas you have generated here. You will need this content later in the seminar.

Video: Understanding the Teaching Situation

The following video will explore the elements of context crucial to designing courses. It will address the relational and situational aspects of the teaching situation in order to help you identify key questions you need to answer about context before developing a course of your own. (Click here for a transcript of the video.)

The Teaching Situation from Reinert CTTL on Vimeo.

As you have seen, there are many different layers to the teaching situation, and many questions and considerations of context that can inform course design. In this video, we prompted you to identify as many layers of context as you can in order to ensure that you are designing courses appropriate for your educational context. The next exercise will ask you to revisit the earlier course brainstorming you did and to begin making some tentative decisions about the course you're designing.

EXERCISE: Identifying Your Teaching Situation

Think back to the brainstorming work you did earlier, when you were imagining a course in your discipline for next semester. Using the Worksheet: Identifying Your Teaching Situation below, begin to settle on some specific elements of context for that course. Try to sketch out a real teaching situation for your course. As you respond to the prompts in the worksheet, consider the following guidelines:

  • If you are sketching out a real course in your home department: be as specific as you can be about your actual context.
  • If you are working on a hypothetical course: make some preliminary decisions about context (even if they are arbitrary at this point), so that your work from here on out is fixed within a specific situation; you can always make adjustments later, when you have more knowledge about your actual educational context.

In the future, this worksheet can continue to guide your efforts to understand your specific teaching situation as you design courses of your own.

MS Word Doc. Identifying Your Teaching Situation.

EXERCISE: Re-Imagining Your Course

Now that you have made some decisions about your teaching situation, let's revisit your earlier brainstorming list to see what changes might be in order. Listen to the following podcast. To complete the activity it described, you will need: the material you generated in the earlier podcast, Imagining Your Course, the completed worksheet, Identifying Your Teaching Situation, and a pen or keyboard, to revise your earlier content.

Click here for a transcript (PDF) of the podcast.


In this section, we have looked at teaching through the lens of the communication triangle, derived from Aristotle's notion of rhetorical situation, to frame teaching as a set of relationships between the teacher, learner, and course content. Each component of the teaching situation brings to light a different focus, and each informs the decisions you make about what your course looks and feels like and about the kinds of experiences your learners will have. By examining each aspect of the teaching situation, you can better identify the different layers of context that influence the design of an effective learning experience.

Additionally, you could further explore each aspect of the teaching situation - seeking to understand better yourself as a teacher, your learners and their preferences, and/or the relationship of disciplinary content to your learning objectives - using the resources below. Understanding the complexity of your teaching situation may be helpful in later stages of course development (such as when you are developing specific learning objectives for students, identifying appropriate assessment methods, and so on). They may also be useful as you develop a series of related courses and consider your department's curriculum on a more programmatic level.

Continue to: Part 3: Designing Courses for Learning

To Learn More About...

Aristotelian notions of rhetoric and the "rhetorical triangle":

The rhetorical triangle: making your writing credible, appealing, and logical (SLU English):

Penn State's composition group

More full treatment of Aristotle:

Yourself as a teacher, your style and approach:

Grasha, A. F. (2002). Teaching with style. San Bernadino, CA: Alliance Publishers.

Filene, P. (2003). Understanding yourself as a teacher. In The joy of teaching: A practical guide for new college instructors (7-12). Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Caroline Press.

How your students learn:

Filene, P. (2003). Understanding your students. In The joy of teaching: A practical guide for new college instructors (13-21). Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Caroline Press.

Fleming, N. (2012). VARK: A guide to learning styles. Retrieved from

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Understanding your students and how they learn. In Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.) (3-16). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

The relationship between your content, teaching, and learning:

Filene, P. (2003). Constructing a syllabus. In The joy of teaching: A practical guide for new college instructors (13-21). Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Caroline Press.

Weimer, M. (2002). The function of content. In Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (46-71). San Fransciso, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.