Designing and Teaching Short Courses – St. Thomas E-Learning And Research
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Designing and Teaching Short Courses

This post originated as a presentation given to faculty on November 13, 2020.  You can view the recording of that session here

In this post, we will present some considerations and strategies to help you design and implement an effective short online or hybrid course. For the purposes of this post, a “short course” is one that is equivalent to a semester-long course in terms of credit hours but is condensed into a shorter amount of time (for instance, a course that would normally be 15-weeks long is instead 5-weeks long).  Sometimes called “compressed”, “intensive”, or “accelerated” courses, they present unique challenges to both students and teachers, especially when all or part of the course takes place in an online environment.

Don’t Merely Condense

For instructors accustomed to teaching semester-length courses, particularly those converting a course they have taught during a whole semester into the short-course format, the first temptation to guard against is expecting to be able to just condense the longer course into the smaller one.  This is often inadvisable for several reasons, and it’s important to reflect on these reasons so you can make wise choices about what to include or leave out. 

Stamina

First, for many students, some activities cannot be sustained for the long periods of time that would be required to complete them in the shorter time frame required in a short course. Examples may include reading a challenging text, doing complex mathematical exercises, or listening to a lecture. Suppose, for instance, you assign students a challenging article or book chapter.  The average student may be able to spend a half hour or an hour at a time on the reading before their concentration drifts and they start to lose the focus required for deep comprehension.  With several days to complete the reading, this may not be much of a problem, but what if they only had a day to do it, or had to complete several such readings over a few days?  Students with less capacity for long periods of sustained concentration may not be able to complete the readings, or may only be able to do so with diminished benefit. 

RunnerWe can liken this to endurance athletics training.  If a running coach has her athletes run 5 miles a day over 6 days, can she just have them instead run 15 miles a day over 2 days and expect the same kind of performance and benefits?  Obviously not.  Something similar holds for many academic activities, which likewise require a kind of endurance and stamina. 

Processing and Internalizing

Secondly, and relatedly, it’s important to consider the time needed to not merely “get through” material, but to process and internalize it. A rapid-fire encounter with a bevy of topics, ideas, information, arguments, and the like, may allow a student to check off a requirement if she’s clever enough to perform well on exams, but she will be likely to forget them as quickly as she learned them.  And courses that involve critical thinking need to give students the chance to think critically, which requires time to ruminate and digest material. 

Instructor Overload

Third, consider yourself, the instructor, here.  Short courses are not just time-intensive for students but for the instructors as well. As a general rule, to ensure that students complete the activities assigned to them there needs to be an associated assessment (a quiz, grade, etc.), and as we will discuss later in the post, a crucial component of short courses is timely feedback. Are you prepared to provide a meaningful assessment – and feedback – for (nearly) everything you assign?  Are you going to be engaged in all of the online discussions you assign?  Teaching short courses online is frequently much more work than instructors realize, and so you want to avoid overloading yourself. This isn’t about laziness or making things as easy on yourself as possible; it’s being realistic about the fact that good teaching takes time, and you want to be thinking carefully about where you want to be putting in your time so that it’s being used most effectively. 

Clarify Course Goals

Having discussed why you usually shouldn’t just condense semester-length courses into short courses without encountering significant problems, the question now is how to make decisions about the material, activities, and organization of a short course. 

The first task is to think carefully and be explicit about the course goals. Those of you who’ve participated in our course design workshops or who’ve worked with instructional designers in building out a course will know all about the importance of setting out the course goals or outcomes right at the beginning, or at least as early as possible in the process.  As important as that is in designing a normal course, it’s especially important for a short course given that a lot of decisions will have to be made about what material and activities are essential and what are not. 

Similarly, if you have tended to focus on content delivery, you want to think about how to translate that into outcomes.  Why is it important for students to read a particular text?  Can the outcome of that be achieved by substituting a different, shorter text, a combo of text and lectures, etc.?  If you’re working from an existing course but haven’t spent the time to carefully articulate the outcomes or goals, this would be a good time to do that, and the instructional designers at STELAR would be more than happy to help as it can often be challenging to pin that down. 

Next, you want to think about how you would prioritize those goals or objectives, because that’s going to help when it comes time to deciding what content and activities may need to be cut or pared down.  This can be quite challenging in cases where an instructor may have a range of goals or content that she would like to include yet would be too much to fit into the course.  But bear in mind that what seems indispensable to a content expert with command of the subject, years of experience and study, etc., may not, in fact, be as necessary for the student to know.  There’s a temptation among academics to design courses as if they’re training up other academics.  It’s how they were trained up, at least those who went through graduate school, earned advanced degrees, and so forth. So they’re accustomed to teach as if they were training up people like them, thinking about the major theories, arguments, etc., that one needs to know to be an expert in the field. 

Short courses force one out of that mentality, and in doing so it’s helpful to think less in terms of comprehensiveness or breadth and more in terms of depth or “meatiness”.  A soup metaphor may be apt (Kops, 2009).  If you’re transferring soup from a larger container to a smaller one, some will inevitably spill over, but you will want to ensure that it’s only the broth that spills rather than the heartier bits.  One commentator has suggested, as an exercise to help make those distinctions, to consider what you would do if you had to teach a course in only 3 hours versus several weeks (Lee, 2002).

Along those same lines, you may consider refocusing your course a bit more radically, making a more minor or secondary goal into one of the primary ones.  For example, if a semester course aims to provide a wide survey of a particular topic, such that a subtopic is comparatively minor, you may decide to focus the short course on that subtopic; in other words, to make the course much narrower. Students may not get the survey you would normally provide, and there may be many gaps in their understanding of the subject, but they may come away having given quite a bit of thought, attention, and discussion to a few subtopics in a way that has shaped their capacity for skillful and critical reasoning far better than a cursory examination of a wide range of issues would. 

Course Design

When you’ve done the work of articulating the course goals and prioritizing the aims and content, it’s time to think about how to design the course.  Again, there are reasons to avoid automatically designing it as a shortened version of an existing course, and material may need to be rearranged.  In the next section, we will present some common challenges students face with short courses, which will then inform a series of design considerations in the section following. 

Holding the Wheel

Consider that in a high-intensity course, late-course fatigue may be more of a factor than in normal courses; even the most dedicated and determined students may find it harder to sustain their concentration or think creatively.  Moreover, students may have a more difficult time catching up if they fall behind, and because of that there’s a greater danger that they will fall behind more precipitously than in a longer course, or give up altogether

Sophie P., CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The endurance athletics analogy is apt again here. As to the first point, a major endurance or skills test – like a hill or a technical part of a course – is far more difficult later in a stage than earlier.  But the more interesting analogy pertains to the second point.  A phenomenon commonly-known among participants and observers of endurance events, such as marathon running or cycling, is that when an athlete in front gains a gap – even a small one – on the athlete behind, the psychological effects can be profound.  So long as the trailing athlete “holds the wheel” or “the heel” of the athlete in front, she can produce the energy required to keep up, even if it’s far more than what her body would normally produce.  But once the leading opponent opens a gap, her motivation is quickly sapped, and not only can she not sustain the pace of the person in front, the pace drops considerably more, even less than she might produce on her own due to the impact of discouragement.

Similarly, in a high-intensity environment, falling behind even by a small amount can quickly give way to complete abandonment. As the student struggles to catch up, she is aware that more and more is piling up, like game of Tetris gone bad, and this feeds a sense that no matter how much effort she puts in she’ll never be able to get back on track, so it’s better to just abandon and eat the costs. 

One more consideration needs to be kept in mind.  Students have different learning styles (viz., visual, aural, verbal, logical, social, and solitary).  While it’s important to acknowledge this in the design of any course, the fast-paced and intensive nature of a short course make it much more difficult for a student who favors one learning style to adjust or accommodate herself to a course that emphasizes a different style.  For instance, an aural learner may be able to adapt to a course with a heavy reading load if she’s given plenty of time, but that’s precisely what she’s not given in the short course. 

Design Choices

For reasons like these, a few design choices are worth considering.  Some of these are not ideal, and some may not be possible for a particular course.  That’s why they’re considerations rather than “best practices” (and that’s why we spent time discussing their grounds above, so you can determine whether they apply to your own particular course).  

  • If possible, arrange more difficult, complex material and topics to be earlier in the course so students can tackle them when they are fresher and have a bit more time. (This may not be as easy in courses where the difficult, complex material requires a solid foundation to be built first.)
  • Include shorter, more frequent assignments in lieu of longer, less frequent ones. This keeps students active and engaged, and gives them more opportunity to catch up if they miss something.  For instance, divide up an essay assignment into shorter parts that scaffold onto one another, which can help them avoid the blunder of starting too late on the assignment.  Include several quizzes comprised of questions that you would normally include together on a larger exam.  And so on.
  • Schedule the first assignments as early as you can, even if it’s just a quiz on syllabus, a survey, an initial outline or abstract for their assignment or something like that. With such a short time frame students will need to jump right in, and scheduling assignments early can help with that.
  • Vary the activities they will be engaging in throughout the day, as well as the modes of presentation and engagement: readings, video, audio; academic as well as popular pieces; individual writing assignments, group discussions, collaborative assignments, media production; quizzes and journals, etc.
    This can be important for three reasons:
    • Varying the activities and modes is a way to keep things fresh, which is important to avoid burnout.
    • It’s a way of responding to the differences in learning styles mentioned earlier, which, again, becomes much more important in this intensive format. If everything is designed for one type of learner, a student who is a different kind of learner is much more likely to fall behind or be unable to cope.
    • It can give students an “out” if they fall behind, especially when it involves alternative modes of presenting or engaging with similar kinds of themes, such as an article or book chapter as well as a short video presenting similar ideas. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving students different options for achieving the same goal (although you could do that), but it can mean the difference between a rudimentary engagement versus no engagement at all.   
  • Finally, look through your material and consider whether there is something, especially something that involves listening, that they could do while working out or jogging, doing laundry, eating lunch, etc. If they don’t need to have a text in front of them or necessarily be taking notes, but just need to listen and absorb, you build that into the course and designate it as a “listen” video or something like that.

Course Delivery

In this final section, we will consider some strategies to optimize the delivery of your course. As before, many of these are ones that are important to consider for semester-length as well as in-person short courses but become especially important when a course is delivered in a condensed online format. 

Leverage groups

Dividing students into smaller groups for discussions, activities, and assignments can have numerous benefits in the short-course format. 

  • You can have students conduct peer reviews of assignments, or early drafts of assignments, as a way to facilitate critical thinking and take some of the burden off you, the instructor, to be the sole source of feedback.
  • In the short-course format, in which students may be less inclined to read through many of their classmates’ posts and will instead choose to respond to the first post, the shortest post, the post of their friends, etc., smaller group discussions can help ensure that they’re engaging with a wider variety of perspectives (you could even require them to respond to everyone in the group).
  • Create collaborative assignments, such as group presentations, that allow them to divide up time and responsibilities.
  • Students have often reported that relationships develop better in these environments – just as they tend to do when people share intensive experiences – so you can think of groups as providing opportunities for that kind of bonding.

Communication

  • For most students, the short course will require significant adjustments to their study habits, and communicating time expectations can help quite a bit, especially in the early days. *resource.  Indicating how much time should they plan to devote to various aspects of the course can help them plan their days as well as prepare them mentally for the effort involved. 
  • You should also provide resources for time management if those are available. At St. Thomas, all students are enrolled in Tommie Tech, which includes a page on Success Routines and Time Management.  If a student contacts you because he or she is having a hard time keeping up, you can point him or her to this resource, or better yet, include a link to this page in your Canvas site. 
  • It also may be worth checking in with students a week or so into the course to ask about the pace. Are they finding it too fast, or even too slow?  This can be a way for you to adjust if necessary, and at the very least it reinforces to the students that you are concerned about pace and workload rather than just wantonly piling things on. 

Be a Resource

  • Since students are often having to traverse a large territory in a short amount of time, reading and study guides are especially important to help them know what is essential for them to know and remember. 
  • When providing instructions for assignments, discussions, and the like, be as clear and explicit as possible.  Remember that in the intensive environment, students won’t have as much time to ask you questions, get clarifications, etc., nor will they have as much time to work out details on their own. 
  • Providing regular, timely feedback helps them stay focused, motivated, reminds them that you’re present and that they’re not just taking a correspondence course or the like.

Be available

  • Hold office hours regularly. 
  • Provide a Zoom link that serves as a “office door” – if you’re available (at your computer working, for instance), you can open Zoom like you might open an office door, even outside of regular office hours, in case students may want to pop in. 
  • Check email on a regular schedule, and communicate that with students.
    • For instance, you can communicate to students something like, “I’ll check my email every day at 8am, noon, and 4pm M-F.  So if you send me an email, you can expect a reply within 30 minutes of those times.”
      This is a great way to ease their anxiety and help them budget their time. If a student only has a small amount of time to complete an assignment but needs a question answered, knowing when to expect that answer greatly reduces stress and gives the student the freedom to wait on the answer before trying to proceed. 

Be flexible, supportive, and understanding

  • As we mentioned before, we have to be attentive to different learning styles and how it’s harder to adapt to a mode of delivery that favors a different learning style in such a short time frame.
  • Be ready to accommodate contingencies and off days. Everybody has the experience in which something unexpected comes up that draws you away from your work, or you’re simply having an off day in which you can’t focus or your body woke up but your brain slept in.  In a normal course a student can usually afford that, but an intensive environment, this can be disastrous. Once they fall behind a little bit, it’s not only hard to catch up, it saps your motivation and energy as we discussed earlier.  The question we instructors have to ask ourselves is, what do we want to have happen to a student who experiences that?  Do we want them to be left in the lurch or do we want to make sure they are able to be reintegrated with the class?  Assuming everyone prefers the latter option, as we design and deliver our courses we have to keep in front of us that student who will get sick, have to contend with a family crisis, have an off day, etc., and how we will help ensure that student will be able to finish the course successfully despite that. 
  • There’s also the anxiety and pressure, some of it due to the intensity of the course but much of which is due to the students being aware of everything we’ve been discussing – the fact that she has a different learning style, that he’s at home with his family, that if she has an off day or an unexpected demand she’ll fall behind and be unable to keep up. So being aware of and sympathetic to that in the way you design and execute your course can be very consequential. 
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