Getting Rid of Everything But the Kitchen Sink

This post was inspired by the ideas that Erin Baumann, Harvard, and John Fitzgibbon, Boston College, presented at the APSA Teaching & Learning Conference two weeks ago. They pointed out that instructors, myself included, often begin the course design process from the content-centric position of what we want students to learn. We collect resources for student consumption that illustrate principles and facts that we think are relevant to the subject of the course. Content for learning triumphs over the process of learning.

When engaging in this sort of scavenger hunt for content, a potentially much more useful question to ask is “What don’t students need?” The value of this approach hit home during a redesign of my course on economic development. I’ve taught this course for years at a variety of universities, and while I always make it a practice to update the readings, the learning objectives with which they were associated remained a fairly static and not very well thought out conglomeration. For the fall 2018 semester, the course is being consolidated with another course on environmental politics, and I’ve been forced to think hard about how I can adequately serve both subjects simultaneously.

I concluded that my existing course design wasn’t very elegant. Though I was fairly satisfied with what students were doing in terms of assignments and exercises, my predilection for the subject material had caused me to fall into the trap of “it would be nice if I covered . . . ” rather than ruthlessly restricting my syllabus to only the most essential content.

I needed a new design process, so I tossed everything about the existing course into a spreadsheet. Then I identified old and new topics — learning objectives actually — that I thought were critical to the new course, and deleted everything else. Same for readings — I discarded whatever didn’t narrowly correspond to the now smaller number of learning objectives, and found a few new ones that did.

I’m sure students will be pleased with the shorter reading list, even though their ability to skip over the most important, more-difficult-to-digest material in favor of breezier newspaper and blog articles has been greatly reduced. I’m happier because the course will be less of a bugaboo to teach given the pared-down content.