Oz Behind the Curtain, Part 1

By January 10, 2012

This will be a series of posts about the process of course creation, using my “Religions in America” course as a case study. I’m thinking about it this week because this is my university’s faculty “Winter Institute” and as part of it, there’s a two-day syllabus development workshop.

Course creation and syllabus design were not something that was covered in any great depth during my graduate education. I used syllabi I like as a model and tried to imitate the teachers I thought were exemplary, but as a general rule: pedagogy was a taboo topic. I don’t know if it seemed beneath us, or too self-evident to merit comment, or irrelevant to the research-and-dissertation-writing process… but you know, when I write those out that way, it seems so obvious that in real life it is NONE of those things, and that it is not only a worthwhile topic for us to talk about, but in fact a NECESSARY one.

Pedagogy and scholarship feed each other; sometimes in a parasitic way if a teaching load becomes a tapeworm to your research ambitions, but sometimes, hopefully, in a more symbiotic way when your teaching interests and research interests germinate and grow in the same fruitful medium. Good course design can help in that process, while poor course design is draining on you and punishing to your students. I didn’t start out with a solid sense of what good course design was or how to accomplish it, so maybe my story will benefit others along the way as I talk through revising my religion course, working backwards from outcomes.

A good place to begin with “backwards design” is with this Profhacker post by Mark Sample (@samplereality). Sample has argued in the Open Source Professor and elsewhere, that scholars in the humanities–for whom the lone guy or gal in the stacks is the iconic image–need to do far more to make their process evident to each other and to their students.

I taught a version of “Religions in America” probably 5 or 6 times at Brandeis, once as a graduate student and later as an adjunct in the American Studies department. My course design then was pretty much what Sample described in the Profhacker article:

(1) we look at the topic of the course we’re assigned to teach, (2) we select enough essential/canonical/anti-canonical reading material to fill out fifteen or so weeks, and then (3) we plot that reading onto a calendar. Instant Syllabus!

And my students liked it fine. But I conceived of the course entirely in terms of what *I* was giving my students or doing for my students. My early syllabi contained a lot of phrases like:

this course introduces students to
this course explores
this course provides opportunities to

The issue with this kind of language is that it’s all about ME and what I will accomplish in *teaching* the course. It says nothing about what students will accomplish by taking it. I’ve fulfilled the responsibilities of the traditional syllabus if I deliver content to an empty room. But if I really care about what competencies I want my students to develop or what content they should know at the end, I need to flip the syllabus from being oriented around “what Prof H will do for you” (which students can neither control nor measure) to “what you should be able to know or do by the end of this course.” Now who’s in the driver’s seat for course learning? The student. Aha.

Writing student-centered outcomes takes some practice. You probably will start with some squishy, useless, unmeasurable things like:

students will be introduced to
students will appreciate
students will understand

but as you get better at it, you’ll begin to substitute specific and active verbs. Here’s a helpful list, based on Bloom‘s revised taxonomy, similar to one that I keep posted on my office bulletin board for inspiration. Notice that if all your verbs are at low levels of cognition (recall, explain, define, identify, regurgitate) then you’re probably not asking enough of your students and the course is too basic. And conversely, if they are all at the highest possible levels of cognition (synthesize, invent, evaluate, create ex nihilo) then you may be omitting the foundational skills or content your students might need in order to perform these kinds of tasks.

Now, your turn. Start with a course you’re working on (or dreaming of), and jot down 5 or 6 student learning outcomes using these kind of verbs. Each of them should answer the question, “what should my student know or be able to do at the end of this course?” I’ll be back later in the week to share mine and see how you did.

Jump to Part 2

[Cross-posted to my blog]

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Pedagogy


  1. Fantastic; this is of immediate relevance and importance, Tona. It’s funny how such a commonsensical shift could bring such a different outcome. I’ll come back when I have more time to try out some learning outcomes.

    Comment by Ben P — January 11, 2012 @ 4:22 am

  2. Tona, I sat down this morning to start preparing and revising lectures for the second half of a course I inherited to come across this gem of a post. Thank you.

    Comment by Aaron R. — January 11, 2012 @ 6:18 am

  3. This is great, Tona. These are just the kind of posts that the JI has been lacking. I’m gearing up to teach the second half of the US survey and I’ve been trying to apply what I’ve been reading in Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts and his incredibly helpful websites, Historical Thinking Matters and the “Reading Like a Historian” Stanford History Education Group Project. I’m also using a modified form of Lendol Calder’s “Uncoverage” model, but instead of using two textbooks, I’m having students use eChapters from Major Problems in American History, vol. 2, especially the essays section of each chapter. Based on what I’ve developed so far, here are my learning outcomes:

    1. Students will come to understand that history is not a long list of facts, dates, and names to be memorized, but rather an interpretation based on the fragmentary remains of the past–primary sources.

    2. Students will be able to demonstrate the four congitive moves historians use to “think historically” about the past: sourcing, contextualizing, close reading, and collaborating.

    3. Students will construct their own evidence-based interpretations of the past and demonstrate their ability to do so in short, frequent writing assessments.

    4. Students will analyze, discuss, and debate competing interpretations of a past event written by historians (secondary sources) in order to understand how background and social location influence the questions (and ultimately, interpretations) historians and other people construct. Students will learn to critique secondary interpretations they consider weak and defend those they find strong in writing.

    5. Students will combine their skills in analyzing primary documents and critiquing variant secondary interpretations in a midterm assessment (New Deal) and final assessment (the Conservative Movement).

    Oh, and thank you for the link on Bloom’s Taxonomy. I was just reading Wineburg’s recent article critiquing the pyramid (JSTOR subscription required). Although Wineburg is criticizing the old version, I don’t expect he’d be a big fan of the new one, either.

    Comment by David G. — January 11, 2012 @ 10:03 am

  4. Glad this is helpful.

    David, these look well-conceived. Love, love Wineburg’s work and recommend it highly. There’s also an inexpensive & very helpful publication of the AHA, “Perspectives on Teaching to Think Historically.”

    I’m not a huge fan of Bloom’s taxonomy either but I like the lists of verbs that it generates because those help me be more precise in my thinking about what my students are really *doing* when they are thinking like historians, and break some of those very complex cognitive habits into component steps. A lot of my students, esp in survey courses, think that they are either “good” or “bad” at history. Giving them active verbs helps them understand that these are learned skills, not innate qualities.

    Comment by Tona H — January 11, 2012 @ 10:19 am

  5. […] of LDS Temple Worship, 1846-2000: A Documentary History: Book Review: The DevelopmentTona H: Oz Behind the Curtain,David G.: Oz Behind the Curtain,Dave: Panel Summary: "Teaching MormonismAaron R.: Oz Behind the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Oz Behind the Curtain, Part 2 — January 11, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

  6. […] Part 3 in my series on course & syllabus design (“Oz Behind the Curtain”); here are Part 1 and Part […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Religious Classes Come With Instructions — January 16, 2012 @ 8:16 am

  7. […] you can see why this post comes late in my series about course and syllabus design (you can read part 1, part 2 and part 3 plus a part 3a if you care about the nitty-gritty of governance and assessment). […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Oz Behind the Curtain, Part 4: The Syllabus — February 5, 2012 @ 3:49 pm


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