During our recent spring quarter workshop on “Differentiating Difficulty,” facilitator Sarah Messbauer walked us through some of the key points to consider when constructing courses for lower- and upper-division undergraduate as well as graduate-level courses.
After an initial brainstorming session, participants discussed what they believe are some of the ways these course levels differ from one another. Among the concepts discussed were:
Size: In general, class sizes decrease as difficulty levels increase.
Scope: Upper division and graduate level courses often focus on depth over breadth of material.
Title: Related to scope, the titles of lower-division undergrad courses often focus on concepts related to “Introduction” or “Survey” while upper-division courses focus on content-specific keywords related to concepts like “analysis.”
Skills: Lower-division courses traditionally place heavier emphasis on the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (remember, understand, apply) while upper-division courses work more with higher level skills (analyze, evaluate, create).
Assessment: Lower-division courses rely more on exams and other kinds of standardized assessment, while upper-division courses are more flexible and often project-based.
Prior Knowledge: Lower-division courses often don’t have prerequisites and are welcoming to non-majors, whereas upper-division courses are mostly designed for majors, and thus, require prior coursework to perform well.
Relationships: The relationships among participants in the course also differ depending on the level. In lower-division courses, the professor/student dynamic is much more formalized and rigid than in an upper-division setting, where close contact between the two is often a requirement for success.
With these thoughts in mind, Messbauer then introduced some of the most common ways colleges and universities frame the differences between the different levels, particularly within course proposal guidelines. According to these guidelines the focus for each level is the following:
Breadth – these courses are designed to provide an introduction to a discipline or subject, and as a result are often broad in scope.
Foundations – because prior knowledge is not expected for lower-division courses and non-majors are often present, the skills emphasized in these courses should revolve around those that are foundational or fundamental to the discipline.
General Education – while foundational knowledge and skills are critical at this level, there should be an equal emphasis on “soft” or “transferrable” skills (working in groups, public speaking, written communication skills, information synthesis skills) rather than focusing wholly on discipline-specific ones. This makes the course more useful to non-majors who do not plan to continue in the discipline, since transferrable skills are desirable in any occupation.
Preparation – the goal of lower-division classes is to prepare students for future work in college (i.e. for upper-division coursework).
Depth/Focus – these courses are designed to provide students with mastery of a particular aspect of the discipline, making depth of content the most desirable trait.
Specializations – because the focus is particular, each course should select one aspect of the discipline to focus on rather than attempting to cover all or multiple aspects.
Refinement – the basic skills introduced in lower-division work (both discipline-specific and transferrable) should be refined in upper-division coursework, ideally through an increase in independent and student-directed exploration of content.
Preparation – at this level, the goal of these courses is to prepare students for future work outside of college (i.e. for professional work or graduate school).
In talking through these issues, participants brainstormed how these differences would actually play out in their own disciplines. Visualizing these scenarios helped discussants to identify what aspects of each course level would be most challenging to deal with. Some potential problem areas included:
Identifying the line between breadth and depth, especially for courses designed for middle-year students (sophomores and juniors).
For upper-division courses: determining how best to prepare students for future work outside of college when the possibilities of what such work entails are so diverse.
Determining best practices for grading when over-standardization in lower-division courses might not best evaluate all students equally and under-standardization in upper-division courses might lead to an imbalance or subjective practice of grading.
Dealing with a lack of background knowledge, either in upper-division courses where non-majors are enrolled or in lower-division courses where “basic” concepts like English language communication, essay writing experience, or access to resources/technology might not have been made available to all students at the grade school level in equal measure.
With these general rules and potential problems identified, participants spent the last few minutes of the workshop discussing how these problems would best be addressed when designing courses. Many participants agreed that Backwards Design, with its emphasis on the overarching goals of a course rather than the specific material covered, presents the best opportunity for ameliorating potential problems before they occur.
Want to know more about Backwards Design? Be sure to check out our posts on it right here in the GTC Blog!