Course design: a prelude


How do you design a new course?

First message: don’t. It’s a lot of work, and we professors are already underpaid and overworked. You do not get a bonus for teaching more, you are a salaried worker and you get paid whether you teach one course or five courses. You should be compensated for your labor, but you won’t, and in fact many of the institutions of university governance will conspire to discourage compensation for taking any initiative.

For instance, my university has a precisely defined formula for calculating workload: we plug in the number of lecture hours and lab hours we teach, and it spits out a number of credit hours we’re teaching, which is supposed to be right around 20 (different universities will have different expectations). We all know each other’s number. We strive to keep everyone’s workload equal, because that’s only fair, right? Of course, there are many assumptions built into the formula — the weighting of labs vs. lectures, for instance — and there’s nothing about the difficulty of courses. I could teach nothing but introductory freshman courses with no labs, while someone else could be assigned a set of new, advanced upper level lab electives, and we could have exactly the same number, but you know which of us would be working much harder. We informally try to balance that kind of load, but that magic number is really only a rough guideline.

It’s also a fiction for another reason: we fudge it to keep from breaking the system. For example, we have a whole course and other workload obligations that are not plugged into the formula, because to do so would increase the number, and require us to stop teaching other courses that we require. Or for the administration to hire more faculty to distribute the load, and we know that is not going to happen. We can’t break our obligations to students, and the administration can rely on our sense of responsibility to compel us to do more work with no extra pay.

Which brings me to more terms of art, ones the students know well: required courses vs. electives. We have a set of core courses in the discipline which every student in biology must take in order to graduate, which means we must teach them. If we just declared that we don’t have enough faculty to teach cell biology this year, for instance, it would hurt the students, because it would basically add an extra year to their graduation time. Which would make their parents unhappy. Which would make the administration unhappy. These courses are required in more ways than one.

These required courses also tend to be standardized across all universities. The cell biology course you take at Harvard is going to be very similar to the one we teach at UMM. There are pedagogical variations, of course, but the content is a kind of shared understanding among biologists everywhere. There isn’t a lot of latitude in what you teach in these courses, but there is space for revising how you teach them, which makes them fun. However, you’ll only rarely have the opportunity to design a required course. Most likely, you’ll be assigned one and then the challenge is to teach a known quantity well.

Electives are more complicated. Some also have a fairly standardized body of content — anatomy is an elective in our department, but it really hasn’t changed in a century or more. Others are about more recent innovations, or reflect the instructor’s research interests, or synthesize different areas. These are the courses we live for! Teaching a course is more than just a way to pass on known knowledge to younger people, but also a way for us to learn. The discipline involved in learning how to teach a new course requires us to stretch our brains and master new material.

That leads us to our dilemma. We don’t get monetary rewards for teaching new classes, but there are great intellectual rewards, and it’s good for the students to learn what’s new and exciting in our discipline. So we inflict this extra effort on ourselves.

This is my situation. I identify as a developmental biologist. I was specifically hired as a developmental biologist, with a focus on evolution. But I haven’t taught either of those things in years! Due to the usual inevitable faculty changes, retirements and departures and so forth, I’ve had to take on two major courses that eat up most of my allotted work load: in the fall, every fall, I teach cell biology, a required core course in the major; every spring, I teach genetics, another big lab course, a standard elective, but one that is required for our pre-professional students. We can’t stop teaching either one, and in a very small department we don’t have the slack to swap in an alternate instructor now and then. My developmental biology course is a lab course, and simply adding it to my load would bump me well above our magic workload number, as well as leaving me exhausted and drained and unable to teach well. So I’ve found myself in a rut of cell biology-genetics-cell biology-genetics, etc., etc., etc., with a few low-credit supplemental courses around the edges.

I decided last year to put together a new course in developmental biology with a twist, that I could wedge in the scant space in my workload. But I’ll write about that tomorrow.

P.S. A few hints for you brand new academics applying to enter the professoriate. We don’t get permission to hire new people because we tell the administration we’d like to offer an exciting new elective. We get permission because we tell them we need the support to teach a required course or courses. That means our job ad will say we’re hiring someone to teach Course X, which is a necessary part of the curriculum, and which is typically a common course taught at many universities. If you don’t have teaching experience in that course already, you damn well better do your research and figure out precisely what kinds of things should be on the syllabus for it. We always ask questions to probe whether you understand what the obligations are (and we also like it if you have creative ideas about pedagogical innovations to make it more interesting to teach). We also want to know that you’ve thought about what is appropriate for the students — one big mistake we see all the time is when we ask about how the candidate would teach a second year course and they enthusiastically gave us an outline of a graduate level course in their specialty.

We also typically ask about what kinds of electives they would like to teach. Again, an outline of a graduate level course is not what we want: we’d like to hear about a course you find exciting that would integrate well with our existing courses, and extend them in new directions. That means…do your homework and find out what electives we do teach and propose something that fills a gap in our curriculum and also goes one step beyond what we offer. For instance, we have core courses in ecology and molecular biology — think about what we teach already, and propose something that an undergraduate who completed molecular biology would want to take, or something that would be a natural progression from our ecology course, or something that related the two. And show some passion and enthusiasm, and that you’ve actually thought about what you’d love to teach.

Also, we try not to throw new faculty directly into the challenge of designing a course from scratch in their first semester, so don’t panic.


  1. Becca Stareyes says

    Re: the PS. I was pretty much hired to teach astronomy for STEM students at my current job, and I found out from the chair that the fact I came into my interview with a plan of what I would do with the program was what got me the job. Granted, it didn’t hurt that I was interviewing at the same program I got my BS was, and no one had had time to really do anything with the courses so they were pretty much what I took in the early 2000s. But I also used what I had observed at my prior job AND mentioned what other schools in the region were doing and what we could learn from them.

  2. Kevin Anthoney says

    anatomy is an elective in our department, but it really hasn’t changed in a century or more

    If that doesn’t disprove Darwinism, I don’t know what does!

  3. blf says

    anatomy […] really hasn’t changed in a century or more

    Which is why the skeletons in the closet keep piling up, no-one’s doing anything about them.

  4. says

    Thanks for the insight. I’m in a totally different field, but that’s still going to help me when applying to US universities. I usually have to come up with a new course topic every semester (for two courses), but then I’m free to choose the topic and can take it from my research interests. Still a lot of work to read relevant literature every time and break it down to accomodate students who know next to nothing about my specific region’s history.

  5. =8)-DX says

    So instead of evil cat pictures and status reports on PZ’s whiskey imbibement status, we get this? In-depth and exhilarating descriptions of the course design process? What a lovely yuletide present PZ, thanks!


  6. andyb says

    PZ, you shouldn’t assume a 100-level class with no labs is always easier or less work than an upper level class. This really depends on how we structure the class and the number of students. Writing intensive classes, and a pile of 100 exams with no scantron questions can demand a lot of time. If you are creating digital content (lectures and homework) and planning original activities for class time, even a 10 student 100-level class can be more time consuming than a traditional lecture-based class. I find upper level classes easier in many ways because the students are motivated and naturally more engaged.

    What bugs me most about the system is that the youngest faculty have to work the hardest. I had 4 new preps the first year I taught (and a 24-credit load), and it took almost 5 years before I didn’t have a new prep. I was fortunate enough to be geographically separated from my wife that first year (and didn’t have kids), so no one minded that I worked 12-hour days and weekends. There should be more flexible systems, so tenured faculty who have stopped doing research or significant service have to teach more classes, and faculty trying to balance family can have lower teaching loads (with less pay).

    As long as you’re offering advice for potential faculty, here’s some other things I wish I’d known 20 years ago (but it would not have made a difference) – this is just my opinion (so flame away)….
    > It matters a great deal where you go to graduate school, because the R-1 schools prefer to hire from a small subset of elite programs (Ivy League, Caltech, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley).
    >If you want to attend one of those elite graduate programs, you’re best served attending one of those elite liberal arts colleges (like Williams) or an Ivy, which will give you the opportunity to work with a faculty member and publish research. (Some of the graduate school applications now let you upload your undergraduate publications).
    >If you want to get into one of those elite schools, I hope your parents can pay for tuition and all the after school activities and lessons that will make you “well rounded”.
    >If you’re not at one of the elite schools, or you want to work at a “teaching university”, it’s really important to diversify your background and find research that can be completed at a school with no money to support research.

  7. says

    I agree. But all other things being equal, the small introductory course is easier than the big upper level course. It’s all about stuff like assessment — which I’ll talk about later — since you’d never assign weekly multi-page papers in that 50 student molecular bio course as you would in the 10 student intro writing course.

    We make design decisions about what we’ll expect from students all the time, and I’d say we tweak the content for all kinds of courses to make them roughly equal.

  8. marcoli says

    Developmental biology? How exciting! I had the fortune of developing 3 different developmental bio courses at various universities over a long teaching career. I know you will do well with it, and have fun since this is the kind of course where you will do the essentials (which is rewarding in itself in this case), and you also get to throw in a bit of what you want to teach as well. I suspect we both share an interest in evo devo, for one thing.

    I also fully agree with you on the need for interviewees to do their research on the needs of the department. and to have a clear plan about teaching at the right level. The bit about the interview process that always seemed a bit ‘off’ to me was the part where we give a ‘lecture’ to the faculty (and any students they can round up). It is supposed to be like a class lecture, but of course it is done without the background that the real class would have, and trying to get the ‘class’ to answer a question like you would do in an actual lecture? You can forget about it!

  9. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Hey, PZ, if you all need someone to take up some teaching hours, ***I*** have developed biologically, and I even have two multi-year experiments in progress. Clearly I have the necessary knowledge to teach your courses!

  10. andyb says

    Some departments will provide a topic and have you present a real “lecture” (I quote this, because there is a push to move away from traditional chalkboard lectures). Some will have you deliver a mock or real lesson, plus give a research seminar. Most seem to prefer just a research talk – even at the teaching schools. My first interview lesson didn’t go so well…but I am much improved teacher – I still wonder how I would do in an interview today, because so much of teaching is about developing a relationship with your students. Students need to become comfortable asking questions and speaking up, so you know if they’re engaged and whether what you’re doing is working. (It’s not good if the first time you get an idea how class is going is on midterm exam). On the flip side, how common is it to turn around a research agenda, if you haven’t got something working by the time you interview?

  11. John McLachlan says

    Your anatomy course hasn’t changed in a hundred years? You may have just made it past the discovery of x rays, but how about CT scans, MRI, Ultrasound (with students using portable US to explore the living body)? The Visible Human, and other digital humans, and 3D printing of scanned body parts, living anatomy, and body painting?

    Also a bit puzzled by the references to the burden of all the marking. For most purposes, multiple choice questions give the same results as hand marked free text, except with higher reliability. This is probably because most answers are really just tests of knowledge, especially at the introductory level. It’s fine to test really high level things with free text answers, but you probably only need a few of them. They don’t save the faculty much time, since writing a good MCQ is a high level skill, but they do re-distribute the time burden so it doesn’t all come at once, and it isn’t as boring.