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4. Designing a Module

Let’s suppose that you have the opportunity to design and launch a module, or that you want to make major changes to a module that you have inherited from someone else. Where do you start?

You might think that you can start by focusing on what you would like to teach…but in today’s climate it pays to begin by thinking about what your students need to achieve by attending your module. To put it into education-speak, you need to consider the learning outcomes that the module will deliver. You will need to express things in this way in order to comply with the bureaucracy (which we will discuss soon). If you prefer it, you can think about this in terms of how students will benefit from the things you would like to teach them.

Approaching the task in this way, you will need to consider not only the content that you intend to provide, but also the skills and attributes that students will acquire by attending your module. You can then tailor the design of the module in order to be able to deliver these learning outcomes. This process is known as ‘constructive alignment’, and this entails three key elements: syllabus content, teaching methods and assessment strategy.

4.1 Syllabus

In identifying the intended content of the syllabus, a first consideration is how the module will fit into the programme (or programmes) of which it will be part. If the module is an optional component of the programme, you are likely to have more discretion over the content than if it is a core or compulsory module. The content of a compulsory module is likely to be more circumscribed, as other colleagues will be relying on you to deliver some key concepts or topics.

Top Tip

Make sure that you are familiar with the overall structure of the overall programme, so you know what topics are likely to have been covered by the students you expect to take your module. Liaise with colleagues.

You also need to consider your likely audience. Will the students taking the module be specialist economists, joint honours students, or perhaps students from unrelated programmes who happen to be interested in the topic? This is important because you need to know what prior knowledge they are bringing. It may be that you need to set prerequisites for the module, if you will be assuming familiarity with certain parts of economic theory. Otherwise, you will find yourself having to explain concepts or impart knowledge that you did not expect to have to include, taking time away from your real intended content.

The syllabus for your module will also have to take into account the amount of contact time available for your teaching. This will be determined by the Department or the University. Remember that there is a trade-off between syllabus coverage and depth of learning. You may be tempted to cram in lots of interesting stuff, only to find that you do not have enough time to cover everything to the level of detail that you wish.

Top Tip

Don’t be too ambitious in the quantity of material you set out to cover. Students may benefit more from deep learning of a limited number of topics than from skimming through lots of issues at a superficial level.

4.2 Teaching methods

So you have chosen the topics you will cover in the syllabus. The next step is to consider how you will deliver the learning outcomes through your choice of learning and teaching methods.

There is plenty of advice on the range of learning and teaching methods available in the Network’s Handbook, so make sure you make good use of the guidance provided there. For our purposes, when designing a module, the key decisions concern the balance between different styles of learning and teaching delivery.

For example, how do you envisage the balance between passive and interactive learning? Will you rely on the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ approach, or will you try to engage the students in active and interactive learning?  Lectures allow you to cover lots of material by transferring some knowledge from your brain to your students’ short-term memory, but this does not encourage deep learning.

You may prefer to use flipped classroom techniques, experiments or teaching technologies. These methods encourage deeper learning, and will engage students more actively in your module, as they need to become active participants in the learning process.

Top Tip

Before you spend time planning lots of exciting ways of engaging students, make sure that the facilities you need are available. Will the rooms in your university be suitable for the innovations you want to introduce? Is the required technology supported?

4.3 Assessment strategy

Having decided what to teach and how to deliver it, you also need to think about how to assess your students.

An important decision in designing a module concerns the balance between formative and summative assessment. Formative assessment aims to help students by providing feedback on their work and to motivate them by developing their awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. It also allows you to diagnose those strengths and weaknesses. Formative assessment does not necessarily contribute to their formal performance measure on the module. Summative assessment, on the other hand, does contribute to the judgement of student performance on the module.[note 1]

Both types of assessment are important. Formative assessment is especially important as a way of improving student learning, and providing feedback. An issue here is that although students routinely complain in the National Student Survey about the lack of feedback provided to them, there are always some students who will only submit work if it counts towards their mark. Providing motivation for them to attempt formative assessment is important, but tricky. Summative assessment is of course essential for determining pass/fail, grading students, enabling them to signal their performance and so on.

You will also need to decide on the form that assessment will take. It may be that your Department insists on an unseen written examination for each module, or that a certain portion of the summative assessment should be based on some form of coursework.

If you decide on setting coursework (or a combination of coursework and exam) as the summative assessment, you will need to think about the timing of the coursework. Too early, and the students may not have covered enough material to make it possible to assess their performance. Too late, and they get embroiled in exam preparation. Where the assessment is wholly on coursework, attendance at lecture and seminars may be affected if the topics relevant to the work have been covered too soon in the module.

Top Tip

Remember that it is important to coordinate the timing of coursework assessments across modules, otherwise students may find themselves with multiple pieces of work with the same deadline. They will then complain about the workload and pester you for extensions. Talk to colleagues to check this.

4.4 Information

When designing a module, you will inevitably need to produce documentation. This will be needed for the module approval process, but also you will need to provide information to students who are considering taking the module, or who enrol on it.

Early in the process, contact your administration or University website to find out what documents need to be submitted to get approval to run the module. This is likely to include the items already discussed — learning outcomes, teaching methods and assessment strategy. There will no doubt be a template in which this needs to be presented.

Top Tip

Find the template at the outset to avoid duplication of effort, and check the timescale in which the documents need to be submitted.

The template will no doubt demand other information as well, including credit weighting, teaching and study hours, not to mention the learning outcomes.

As you prepare this documentation, be aware that you will also need to provide information to the students who will take your module — and notice that some of this will be the same information that is needed to go through the approval process. It thus makes sense to think about this at the same time. Students will need to know about content, teaching methods and assessment methods. They will also be interested in the prior knowledge they will need to tackle the module successfully and the technical level expected. They may also be interested in the likely reading and references involved. They may even refer to the intended learning outcomes.

4.5 Using the VLE

An important part of planning and launching a module concerns the way in which you will make use of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). This could be Moodle, Blackboard or some other software used by your university.

Most (if not all) universities set minimum requirements for the information provided to students via the VLE. This will include such things as the module profile setting out details of the things that we have already discussed, such as content, teaching methods and assessment. You may want to provide a rough schedule for the expected timings of syllabus content, or other information that students will find useful (some of these are discussed in the next section).

You might want to use the VLE more imaginatively, providing video links, setting up blogs or discussion boards. You may wish to tailor the way the site looks to students to set your module aside from the crowd. All these things need to be planned in advance.

4.6 After the module is approved…

Once the module is approved, you need to start planning ready for the launch. There are some obvious things you need to do (such as planning your lectures and seminars etc.). There are also some crucial ‘little’ things that can easily be missed, but which can have a big impact on how the module turns out.

4.6.1 Who needs to know?

Think about who else needs to know about your new module. The library needs to know what you will expect students to access, so a reference list is important. If there is a core text, does the library have enough copies for the number of students likely to take the module? The bookshop will need to know what books to stock (even if most students may rely on Amazon or the library).  The computing service will need to know if there is particular software that students will need to use, or if you need to book computer rooms for workshops.

4.6.2 Room bookings

Then there are issues around timetabling and room bookings. Do you need particular facilities that are only available in some rooms? If you are running a combination of large and small groups, what does this mean for the timing of small group sessions? For example, do they run every week? If in alternate weeks, when do you want them to start and finish? You might have a preference for ‘odd’ or ‘even’ weeks. If you are running experiments or games, do you need a larger room than the number of students would justify, in order to allow them to move around the room or interact with each other? If you want to run sessions where the students discuss in groups, you may wish to avoid a room with fixed seating. If you intend to record your lectures, you need to check that your room has the facility for this. There are many aspects to room booking, so think about how you want to operate.

4.6.3 Handouts

Think about handouts. Will you be providing handouts to support your students at the beginning of the module? Will they get weekly updates or copies of lecture slides? How will these be provided? How will you inform them about assessment tasks (both formative and summative)? Will the VLE be the prime way in which you provide your handouts? Does you institution insist that handouts are provided in advance of the lectures?

Top Tip

When handouts are distributed before the sessions, you may observe that students may think that they do not need to take notes. You could try leaving gaps in the handouts so that students have to write something. They may even take extra notes when they realise that you are not just reading out the handouts.

4.6.4 Liaison with teaching assistants

You might be in a situation where you will have graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) to run seminars or classes for you, or to undertake marking of formative assessment. You will need to provide tutorial or seminar work to your GTAs in good time for them to prepare their sessions. You may well wish to give them worked answers and explain what you want the students to gain from the tutorials or seminars.

4.6.5 Assessment

You will need to be clear about the logistics of the assessment. If you are setting formative assessment tasks or summative coursework, you need to plan how students will submit their work. Will you use electronic submission? Or will they hand in hard copy through an office?

Electronic submission is becoming increasingly common, although this may pose challenges for some maths assignments. You may be able to accept submission through the VLE, and perhaps mark it online. Indeed, this may be an institutional requirement.

Remember that for summative coursework, you may need to provide a sample of work for scrutiny by the external examiner, although this may not apply to work that carries a small weighting in the overall module assessment. You may also need to have the coursework approved by the external examiner if it does carry a high weighting. For written work such as project reports, you will want to check for potential plagiarism, probably using the TurnitinUK software (which may be invoked automatically if you accept work through your VLE).

Top Tip

When running a module for the first time, it is helpful (perhaps essential) to provide sample assessment materials (e.g. a sample exam paper). This helps students to know what you expect from them.

You may want to use mid-term exams or tests as part of the assessment. You may well intend to allocate normal lecture time for this to take place – but be careful. There are likely to be students following your module who are eligible for special exam arrangements, such as extra time (because of dyslexia), or other accommodations for medical conditions. Or there may be students who are ill, or for other good reason unable to take the test at the time you plan. All these will need to be accommodated somehow.

4.6.6 Feedback and communicating with students

Providing feedback to students on their work is important because this is the way in which students can learn from the work that they undertake — and because they will be answering questions about it in the NSS, although, of course, this is not why we do it.

Feedback can be provided in a variety of ways, although all too often it seems that students have a narrow view of feedback as comments given in writing on their work. This is far from the case, but it is important to make students aware when they are receiving feedback. There is a chapter on giving feedback in the Network’s Handbook. You may find that you will have to provide details about how you will give feedback when preparing document for module approval.

When designing the module, it is good to think about how you will communicate with students. Your Department may insist that you have office hours (or even ‘feedback and office hours’), or you may be able to use an online booking system for appointments. You may choose to use the VLE to send emails, or set up a discussion board. However, be aware that students may see these as old-fashioned and clunky ways of communicating, being more accustomed to texting and social media.

4.7 Summary on module design

Please don’t be put off by the range of issues that need to be considered in designing a new module. Much of the hassle comes up-front, and once running the module should be good for a while!

When the module runs for the first time, take notes of what goes well, and what could be improved in the future. It is all too easy to forget both good and bad aspects unless you keep a record. No doubt your institution runs an annual module questionnaire of some sort, so make sure you check out the comments made by students to see whether they view the module’s successes (and areas for improvement) the same way that you do.


[1] See Nigel Miller’s chapter, "Alternative Forms of Formative and Summative Assessment"