2.2 Course design
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It is best to consider first the overall picture of course design and then to pull ideas together in the form of a programme specification. The cross-referencing and justification that occurs in the production of a programme specification can ensure that all necessary links are made between key skills, curriculum skills, benchmark statements, student achievement and unit/module delivery.
Essentially the curriculum is an interaction between aims and objectives, methods of assessment, teaching methods and content. With respect to the teaching methods to be incorporated into the programme, it is worth noting that the way in which students are taught affects the student experience. Choice, and varying teaching methods and assessment, may even be of greater significance to what students learn than the content that is being taught.
An example of a programme specification is included as an appendix to this chapter. Those areas of the programme specification that relate specifically to course design are discussed in greater depth below. The content and structure of the programme specification as a vehicle for successful programme design is best illustrated through Figure 1.
Initial course proposal
To begin the process of course design, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Why is this course being taught?
- What new levels of knowledge, understanding and skills will the students achieve during the course?
- What knowledge, understanding and skills are required prior to students joining the course?
- What forms of teaching, learning and assessment will help students to gain the knowledge, understanding and skills to complete the course successfully?
- What can be offered to enrich and add value to the overall student learning experience with the resources available?
- What teaching resources are available and how can they best be used?
- What undergraduate course structure would best suit the course outcomes? What units/modules will be most appropriate, what order should they be taught in, and what type of option/elective system will students be offered?
- What assessment patterns and monitoring processes will be used to track student and course progress?
Bear in mind that you want to create a course that encourages students to think like economists and to engage enthusiastically in the material learned. Thus unit/module structure, the ordering of units/modules, the variety of assessment, options and electives, and additional course features (field trips, work experience, exchange programmes) are all essential factors in designing a course that will be attractive to students.
Top Tip: Considering the above questions throughout the process of course design will help you to ensure that you remain focused on the purpose of the new degree course. The answers to these questions will also be useful in the production of marketing materials.
To ensure that the programme that you are introducing makes strategic sense for the department and the university as a whole, you should consider a number of key points. First, you need to identify the intention behind the development of the course proposal – is it addressing a gap in the market, is there evidence of student or employer demand, etc? – and consider how the new programme will fit into the strategic plans of the university and the faculty. Secondly, you need to consider the market for such a course and whether there will be sufficient demand. In addition, you need to identify what differentiates your course from those offered elsewhere. Finally, it is worth considering the possible impact of this course on other courses offered by the institution. For instance, if you are developing a course in economics and mathematics, you need to consider the likelihood that this will take numbers away from the single honours degrees in these subject areas.
Useful marketing data that can help you to determine student demand is available from the UCAS website. This can provide you with information about the demand for single and joint honours courses in different subject areas, your competitors (those institutions that your students also applied to) and the courses that students applied for at other institutions. This is particularly useful when considering the types of course that are offered by your competitors and the programmes that are being chosen by prospective students, as it can help you to decide which programmes might recruit well at your institution.
Top Tip: The UCAS website (http://www.ucas.ac.uk/) now includes an international student dataset, which is a useful reference when designing a programme that will appeal to the widest possible audience.
Aims, objectives and learning outcomes
Considering the aims and objectives of the new course is an important first step in curriculum design. Aims are general statements that relate to the overall orientation of a course, while objectives are more detailed statements about what a student should actually be able to do if they successfully complete the course.
Aims, objectives and learning outcomes of the course should really incorporate the principal benchmarking statements for any of the subject areas participating in the degree programme. Thus single honours degree programmes should cover all the benchmarking statements in the programme learning outcomes, while a joint degree would have learning outcomes that were a combination of the benchmarking statements from the two subject areas. Outcomes of the course may also be drawn from the undergraduate curriculum framework, the institution’s policy on key skills, scholarship and research expertise of academic members of staff, and the National Qualifications Framework.
Expectations of student achievement are generally presented in the form of learning outcomes. Programme learning outcomes include the curriculum skills (knowledge and understanding, cognitive skills and practical skills) that students are expected to acquire during the programme of study. Teaching, learning and assessment patterns are then linked to the programme learning outcomes in order to identify whether the objectives of the course are being met. An example of the link between programme learning outcomes and teaching, learning and assessment strategies is presented in the appendix, section 3.
Bottom-up, top-down and middle-out approaches
There are a number of ways in which to approach undergraduate course design. The bottom-up approach involves all the relevant units being selected and then linked together in order to create a complete undergraduate course.
Alternatively, a top-down approach can be used which involves developing a more global picture of the undergraduate programme – the purpose, the topics that need to be incorporated into the curriculum, etc. – and then selecting those units that fulfil the overall course framework. Some argue that this approach gives the final programme structure greater integrity and a better balance of units/modules across the curriculum because units/modules have been chosen to achieve a specific goal, a factor that is missing in the bottom-up approach. Thus the course design team would decide on a logical progression of content and skills, a specific level of specialisation as the students move from one level to the next, varied assessment methods, the opportunity for students to participate in an exchange, work placement or field trip, etc. They would also consider the type of option/elective system that will be offered to students on the degree (restricted/unrestricted options, restricted/unrestricted electives) and the specific model to be used for the undergraduate programme. Units/modules would then be selected to meet the aims of the programme.
The middle-out approach is considered by some to be the best combination of the previous two approaches to course design. This involves the course design team bouncing between the strategic issues of course design (the aims of the course, the balance of teaching, learning and assessment methods, continued development of key skills throughout the programme, etc.), and the specific unit/modules that they want to incorporate into the new programme. The combination of these two layers can ensure that the course design process benefits from attention at both the strategic and the unit/module level, which should help to deliver a more balanced and innovative programme.
There is no right or wrong approach to take. It is just important that those involved in the course design process are aware of the different routes available in order to decide what would best suit the process in their institution. Ultimately you want to use this information to ensure that the programme that you design has purpose, justification, logical flow and a specific set of outcomes. Also you want to create a programme that offers students a solid foundation in economics and enables them to develop their interests further through a selection of subject-specific options. Tackling these issues at the initial stages of programme design helps to ensure that the final product will be of a high quality.
All programmes should have constructive alignment. Programmes should seek to engage students in a variety of learning activities that produce compatibility between curriculum, teaching methods and assessment procedures. Essentially the final curriculum is an interaction between aims and objectives, methods of assessment, teaching methods and content. With respect to the teaching methods to be incorporated into the programme, it is worth noting that the way in which students are taught dramatically affects the student experience. Choice, and the use of different teaching methods, may even be more significant to what students learn than the content that is being taught. In addition, changing any one element of teaching or assessment will affect the balance of the overall learning experience, and changes in assessment will certainly change the way in which students view material and learn.
Balance in a programme is achieved, in part, through the provision of a variety of learning and assessment modes. A programme that incorporates problem-based learning, research skills, presentations, computer-based learning, etc. enables students to gain both a thorough understanding of economics and a proficiency in transferable skills that will make them more employable. Thus programmes that focus on both of these elements will ultimately lead to courses that are more attractive to prospective students.
It is also worth considering the extent to which you want to encourage the development of personal interest in the course design process. Some lecturers like to incorporate their research interests into their teaching and assessment, which can increase staff motivation for teaching and can, through the depth of the lecturer’s research experience, make a unit/module more interesting for students. Be aware, though, that the curriculum is likely to become unbalanced if a very high proportion of the undergraduate curriculum is informed by specific staff research interests. It is essential that the curriculum also focus on wider issues such as key skills development, the application of relevant materials, varied assessment patterns that will sustain student interest, etc. Thus incorporating research into teaching can be valuable for students as long as it is balanced with other key learning activities.
When designing an undergraduate degree programme it is useful to consider what skills we would like our students to know, and be able to achieve, by the time they complete the degree course. By deciding what you would like the students to achieve, you can then build a balanced selection of assessment methods into the programme and map the specific skills that will be demonstrated in each unit/module.
Firstly, you should consider the learning objectives and the expected outcomes of the units/modules that students will take during their programme. You then need to consider how these outcomes will be assessed and whether the assessment patterns in the different units/modules are suitable and balanced. For example, at level 1 you might require students to participate in group assignments or presentations in order to demonstrate the ability to work effectively as part of a team. At level 2 you might add to these skills by requiring students to combine their team and presentational skills with the ability to think critically and identify strengths and/or weaknesses in a given argument. At level 3 you might then encourage students to expand these skills by providing them with the opportunity to participate in peer assessment and to demonstrate an ability to apply previous knowledge to the development of ideas and theories. This might also include the requirement that students use original ideas to explain and present previously learned theories in a variety of economic contexts.
The assessment techniques used at each stage need to reflect the learning outcomes for the programme. Thus you need to ensure that the programme offers a wide variety of assessment patterns to enable students properly to demonstrate a wide range of taught skills. For instance, if a programme has a learning outcome that requires students to communicate effectively orally, then it would perhaps be useful to have some assessment practices at each level that incorporate both individual and group presentations. Alternatively, if a programme requires students to create links between different subject areas, then it would be useful to incorporate some essay-based assessment or assignments that require students to draw on skills learned in different subject areas.
Overall it is essential to incorporate a wide variety of different assessment patterns into each programme so that at each level the students are given the opportunity to develop, exploit and recognise their strengths. The combination of presentations, problem-based assessment, essays, computer-based assessment, teamwork, driving tests, quizzes, etc. enables students to demonstrate to future employers that they have a proven ability in a wide range of areas while also giving the students the opportunity to excel in certain areas, which can contribute to continued student motivation and enthusiasm.
Top Tips: Using the course design phase of a new programme to encourage the incorporation of a wider range of assessment modes can encourage staff to strengthen the delivery and provision of established units/modules on other programmes.
It is useful to create an assessment map to clarify the types of assessment method that will be used across the programme. This will help you to ensure that the assessment pattern is balanced at each level of the degree course.
Curriculum skills relate to the knowledge and understanding, cognitive skills and practical skills that you require a student to achieve if they follow the degree programme. For a single honours economics degree, this might include the following skills.
1. Knowledge and understanding of:
- fundamentals/principles of economics;
- the basic tools of economic analysis;
- economic theory and practice;
- quantitative methods and computing techniques relevant to the study of economics;
- the use of data, both quantitative and qualitative, relevant to the study of economics;
- the relevance of economics to the study of society;
- the application of specialist knowledge.
2. Cognitive skills
- Identify, define and explore economic issues.
- Identify tacit assumptions and limitations of data and information.
- Analyse and evaluate evidence.
- Expound findings whether orally or in a written format.
- Apply study skills necessary for successful learning.
- Discuss hypotheses, interpret data and produce cogent and analytical practical reports.
- Deploy a high level of analysis and critical judgement in relation to theory and methods.
- Apply skills of mathematical and statistical analysis.
3. Practical skills
- Use techniques for planning and scheduling work/projects.
- Use computers to generate documents to illustrate and clarify arguments.
- Use word-processing and data analysis packages and undertake computer-based literature searches.
- Use interpersonal skills to relate to, and collaborate effectively with, colleagues.
- Use the Internet to retrieve and manipulate text and data.
- Manage and process data using spreadsheets and other specialised software packages.
- Use computer skills in a variety of learning contexts.
In addition to deciding what skills each student should be required to achieve as part of the degree programme, it is also necessary to outline the teaching and learning strategies that will be used to ensure that students achieve these goals. These will vary depending on the mode of study and the institution. As an example, the teaching and learning strategies for knowledge and understanding might include the idea that teaching and learning are achieved by lectures supported by seminars, workshops, labs, tutorials, surgeries, etc. It may also be relevant here to include some information about the student support system.
Teaching and learning strategies in relation to cognitive skills might include information about lectures being the starting point for the development of cognitive skills by encouraging students to think about the evaluation and application of theories, principles, etc. in different situations. Seminars, tutorials, case studies and lab work might then provide the main vehicles for further development of these skills. In these sessions, students might be encouraged to interact with lecturers and peers, making use of relevant examples, new developments and current research. Creativity of thought and the application of theories to the solution of problems might be developed by the use of case studies and current research done in the main subject areas studied.
Teaching and learning strategies applied to the development of practical skills might include information about library skills, computing skills, etc. Practical skills may be further developed as part of specific units/modules and/or the dissertation component of the degree course. Students might be required to display a range of practical skills as an integral part of work undertaken within various seminars and tutorials. Coursework assignments and the dissertation might require students to make use of all practical skills, such as collecting and interpreting data, applying relevant models, organising and controlling resources, producing reports, and presenting and justifying results and recommendations.
Finally, curriculum skills need to be assessed and it is necessary to ensure that you indicate, generally, how this will be achieved. For example, you could note that assessment is via a mix of continuous assessment and examinations. That continuous assessment might include individual and group work, presentations, essays and assignments.
When designing an undergraduate programme, you need to consider the extent to which you will incorporate key skills and whether it is best to develop these skills in one core unit/module or through a number of units/modules across the programme. There are few units/modules in an economics undergraduate programme that do not develop and assess some key skills; the danger is, though, that a programme develops and assesses one or two key skills extensively while only touching on others. This may become a particular problem if some key skills appear only in optional units/modules, thus resulting in students who do not select these units/modules as part of their degree programme completing the course without having demonstrated proficiency in one or more of the key skill areas.
The best way to ensure a balance of key skill development and assessment throughout a programme is to produce a key skills map. This process needs to occur from the unit/module level and feed up to the programme design. Most universities ask unit/module co-ordinators to indicate which skills are taught, practised and/or assessed in their units/modules. This information can then be compiled into a map and enables the programme designer to ensure that all students will gain experience in each key skill at some stage during the degree programme.
Top Tip: Creating a key skills map that only covers core units/modules can help to ensure that students on the programme will have the opportunity to demonstrate all key skills despite the options that they select at each stage of the degree.