Course Design: Goals and assessment


Now that I’ve decided what I’m going to teach — Ecological Developmental Biology — and gotten departmental and university approval to do it, I have to start doing the hard part, actually putting a course together. I usually start by laying out a set of goals for the course.

First, there are some general goals that apply to any upper-level undergraduate elective.

  • Students should be reading the primary research literature as an essential part of the course. It’s all well and good in a lower-level course to rely on a textbook, but in this realm we should be thinking about what’s currently being published as well.

  • It should involve some synthesis. It’s straightforward to plod through a paper and summarize what it says, but you also have to be able to relate it to a general topic and make it part of a larger story.

  • Class work should be participatory — students have to take an active role in learning. Less of me standing at the front and lecturing at everyone, more of everyone working together to answer questions.

  • If this were a lab course (this one isn’t), labs should be less cookbook and more inquiry-based.

So those goals are just a given. I wouldn’t have approval to teach this course if I weren’t planning to do all of that. Now let’s consider course-specific goals, and I’m going to start with the big concepts.

  • This is an interdisciplinary course that should bring together ecology, development, and evolution. While individual components can focus on any one of the three, there must also be time to relate these pieces together throughout the course.

  • We’re going to kill that ‘nature vs. nurture’ nonsense from the very beginning. Discourage excessive reductionism and encourage synthesis. Break apart both genetic and environmental determinism.

  • Approach development from the perspective of reaction norms, polyphenisms, and plasticity. We often present development as a process that runs on rails towards a stereotypic end, rather than a responsive process that is modulated by environmental interactions.

  • Increase awareness of ecological concerns: there should be a place for students who may be less interested in the molecular details, and more concerned about the environment.

Another aspect of the course, though, is less conceptual and more about the essential details — we have to found our ideas on empirical evidence. It’s very high-minded to say we’re going to talk about epigenetics, but if they don’t understand the basic genetics, we’re not going to get very far. I can skip some of that — they’ve been introduced to gene regulation in cell biology, for instance, and get even more in our molecular biology course, and we offer other electives in cell signaling and more advanced ecology, and I can just skim through those topics and recommend that everyone take those courses, if they want to get more in-depth. But I’m also aware of what they won’t get outside of my class, so I’m going to have to introduce these topics.

  • Basic embryology. I must cover concepts like induction, the organizer, gastrulation, neurulation. You can’t claim to have taken a developmental biology course without something about gastrulation!

  • Human embryology. The students include pre-med and pre-nursing students; I should give an overview of human development, if nothing else, because some of the environmental studies will be about the impact of teratogens and endocrine disruptors on human populations.

The next step is to figure out whether the students have learned anything — that assessment thing. Ideally, I’d have them writing papers, lots of papers, every week, but there is a major constraint: my time. At the same time that I’m teaching this fun elective course with 15 students, I’m teaching an upper level genetics course — you may recall from back at the beginning that I was aiming to wedge this course into my existing load, and I can’t dedicate as much effort to grading this one as I do to my class with three times as many students, at risk of melting down by midterms. I’m going to have to take a hard line on how much work I’m going to be able to manage.

My tentative plan: there will be one major paper to write, plus several short ones. The major paper will be associated with an in-class presentation, giving the background on their topic.

Since I want synthesis, I’m going to force the students to do that presentation in pairs, and the point of the joint presentation is to combine their independent research projects. The paper will of course be due well before their presentation.

After the presentation, there will be an in-class discussion centered on at least one of the primary research papers used in their research.

There goes the last several weeks of the semester. But it does meet my goals of a participatory class that synthesizes material from primary research papers.

What about exams? I really don’t like them, and avoid them when I can — to be practical for a written test in a class hour, they have to be narrow and specific, or they have to be long written essays to answer a more general question. And if I’m doing the latter, I’d rather give a take-home exam, which is probably what I’ll do.

Another possibility that I’m considering is something they don’t get much of as undergraduates: an oral exam. At least one. They’re time consuming for me, terrifying for them, but it’s a good way to probe the depth of their understanding with follow-up questions.

I also want these exams to be question- and concept-focused, less on the minutia (although an oral exam would give me the chance to explore details that the students are focusing on).

That sounds like enough. I’m going to give one or more probably two take-home exams (which also have the advantage of not taking up precious class time), one oral exam (which will destroy me for a week, I think), and the students will give an integrative presentation on two or more topics as the culmination of the course.

I think this means I can put a syllabus together.


  1. No One says

    Just a thought… when I designed Animation and Special Effects classes… before the goals, I would come up with the “philosophy” of the course. One short paragraph explaining why it is important and how it fits in and “interacts” with other courses and disciplines.

  2. kagy says

    RE: exams, as mentioned nearer the end

    I had an excellent professor for a Restoration Ecology course that was taught simultaneously at the 400 and 600 levels, for the first time. We obviously had separate discussion sections, but for the Midterm, in order to “tweak” exam questions, each student was forced to turn in 5 questions, with complete answers. Our instructor sifted all the questions, tossed any obviously easy ones, and even mixed a few of the grad level questions into the specifically undergrad exam to give those thinking at higher levels a chance to shine.

    Monday before the Friday exam, we were given a study guide (a bank) that questions could come from, and it really separated out the people who wanted that A from C, and the “Pfft, I know all this, I came to all the lectures.”

    I was taking it at the graduate level, and loved this system. It forced me to find who had made the question and where they came from writing it (occasionally it was erroneous, and discussion ensued). I saw some of my own questions on the exam, which made them easy for me, but forced me to explain it in different ways to others who didn’t catch (or even mildly understand) concepts behind the question. I think it allowed the instructor to control the test, while also gauging our understanding, and not having to work too hard on an experimental class/test. In this case, maybe you’re the “grad level questions” and you can sift through the others, forcing discussion amongst the students on what exactly the correct or full answer is.

    The “drawback” is that many of the answers to concept questions given on the actual test are similar or formulaic, but the bonus is that your key is already mostly done before the exam is even given. As an added level of suspense and discussion, he would give us the “key” on Monday at the beginning of class, in the form of the “Question” : -> “Answer as given by the submitter”.

    Just a thought if Midterms roll around and you’re buried. I’ve used the system a few times since, teaching styles are open source these days. Plus, the students think they’re being given a break, when they’re really not. Muahahaha….

  3. wzrd1 says

    When you say essay testing, I always have angst. That said, it’s not due to a lack of knowledge or use of language, but due to the era I was essay tested in and my infamous death grip upon a pen. Hence, some angst over the notion, which would be absent in a contemporary peer, who has a computer and word processor.

    Still, one thing triggered some desire.
    You said, ” It’s very high-minded to say we’re going to talk about epigenetics, but if they don’t understand the basic genetics, we’re not going to get very far. I can skip some of that — they’ve been introduced to gene regulation in cell biology, for instance, and get even more in our molecular biology course, and we offer other electives in cell signaling and more advanced ecology, and I can just skim through those topics and recommend that everyone take those courses, if they want to get more in-depth.”

    Could you suggest courses that have initially, remedial chemistry (it’s been decades), then build onward to a proper knowledge of chemical genetics?
    Frankly, I’d give you a dumb look if you asked me to describe a methyl group from an ethyl group. I can comprehend the function in pharmacology, but not chemically, only functionally in very specific conditions.
    While that’s no longer my field of study or endeavor, knowledge should always be its own goal. Those classes, I’d pay out of pocket, letting the company pay only for professional classes.
    Personal gain vs corporate payback, a conflict of interest that I have no interest in.

  4. WhiteHatLurker says

    Can you post your syllabus? I have no idea what you would be discussing in this course. About the only part I recognise is that the environment affects development.

    I’d also like to see your assessment criteria. I am not a fan of take home exams, personally. The idea of personal q’n’a exams is nice, but could not be consistent across all students, and would be prohibitively time consuming if you have more than 20 or so students. (I also think I’d break down and cry if what I see on exam papers is echoed to me in person.)