How do you improve subject design?
The way you design your subject depends on a lot of things, such as:
- what you want your students to learn
- the kinds of students you're teaching
- the kind of subject you're teaching
- how the subject fits into the course
There are no recipes, however, if you want to improve students' learning, here are some starting points for good subject design:
1. Look at your learning objectives
Look at whether your learning objectives, assessment and teaching and learning activities are constructively aligned.
If you want to read more, an excellent article to begin with is: 'What the student does: Teaching for enhanced learning' (J. Biggs (1999), Higher Education Research and Development, 18 (1) 57-75). This focuses on using the ideas of constructive alignment to help all students to learn in the ways that the more-academically inclined do naturally.
- Do your learning objectives focus on what students will be able to do or understand after completing your subject?
Compare these two statements: 'As a result of successfully completing this subject, students will be able to use theories x, y and z to interpret and develop possible responses for common problems in group dynamics.', or
'This subject aims to cover theories x, y, and z and their application to group dynamics.'
The first statement is much clearer about what students will be expected to do. The second is really a statement of subject content rather than learning objectives.
- If students complete the assessment tasks and meet the criteria, will they have achieved the learning objectives?
Students focus on assessment. It can be very revealing to ask some students about what they did to complete a particular assessment task or prepare for the test or exam. Sometimes tasks that we think require understanding can actually be passed by students who have rote learned chunks of lecture notes, formulae or lists of facts. If students can pass the assessment through rote learning or other minimalist strategies, they may miss achieving learning objectives which focus on understanding, thinking critically, posing and solving complex problems, etc.
- Do students participate in learning activities which help them to achieve the learning objectives?
Examples of aligned activities include:
- problem-based learning activities for an objective requiring problem posing and solving;
- a case study for an objective about making connections between theory and practice;
- a learning journal for an objective about reflecting on the learning process;
- a role play for an objective about being able to understand alternative perspectives.
2. Review what you already know
Review what you already know about students and their learning in your subject. Ask yourself questions like:
- What do I know about how my students approach learning in my subject?
- What factors most influence their approaches?
- What concepts or ideas seem particularly difficult for students to learn and why do students find them difficult?
- How do students' ideas change from the beginning to the end of the subject?
- What prior understandings, skills, attitudes or misconceptions do students bring with them to the subject?
- What helps students to learn the important things in the subject?
- What puzzles me about students' learning in the subject?
Whether you've been teaching the subject for a long time or have just started, it's useful to collect some information directly from your students - not necessarily about what they like or dislike but about their learning and what helps them to learn? One way to do this is by asking them to write responses to some simple open-ended questions such as:
- How will you know that you've learned something in this subject?
- What's helping you to learn in this subject?
- What makes it harder for you to learn?
Once you have students' responses, you'll have a better idea of the things to keep - or enhance - and the things that could be changed. To decide what to do next you may need to consult other sources, like colleagues, the literature on learning and teaching, or learning and teaching staff from IML.
3. Consider the role that your subject plays in the course(s) of which it is part
Students do subjects as part of their course. Each subject should make a contribution to students' achievement of one or more of the course graduate attributes, through contributing to one or more course intended learning outcomes. Subjects in the first year and those taken by pathways students in their first semester are likely to play a role in helping students to make the transition to university study, while subjects at the end of a course will be preparing students for future employment or research degrees and assuring that students have achieved the intended learning outcomes for the course.
- Where is your subject situated in its primary course? Is it a first year subject or one taken by students who come in from pathways programs but are in their first year at UTS? Is it a capstone that is expected to help students to integrate learning from earlier parts of the course? Is it a core subject?
- Does your subject play a role in introducing professional, academic and personal skills that students will need to build on or develop further in the course? For example, does it play a role in helping students develop their academic literacy or English language skills, their information literacies or numeracies?
- Is your subject responsible for assessing whether students have achieved certain course intended learning outcomes at the end of their course of study?
- Is your subject an elective that might contribute to students' development of one or more general graduate attributes such as communication, ethics or sustainability that are relevant to many courses?
- What are students expected to know or be able to do when they start your subject? Do you need to build in some diagnostic or self-test options to see whether students do know or can do this?
- What subjects build on the knowledge and capabilities that students are expected to develop in your subject? What do you know about what students take with them into the following subjects?
The Subject Descriptions and Outlines Policy lists the minimum subject information that must be provided to students. This subject data is held in the Curriculum Information System (CIS).
UTS Subject Outline PDFs are created and updated for each teaching session via the Subject Outlines component of CIS. Faculty approval is required to change some parts of the Subject Outline, for example the learning objectives, how these objectives relate to the course intended learning outcomes and overall assessment.
Full information about registering for access to CIS and using Subject Outlines, including what data you can edit and making the final PDF available to students in UTSOnline, is in the online documentation.