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December 10, 2015

Teaching@Pitt: Teaching an “inherited” course


Congratulations on your inheritance!  No, you haven’t come into a million dollars. You’ve inherited a course, and now you get to teach it.

While faculty and graduate student instructors often develop their own courses in higher education, they also commonly “inherit” a course or course materials. Sections may have been added, a faculty member who developed the course may have moved on to other opportunities or different graduate student teaching fellows may be asked each semester to teach a course offered regularly by their department.

Regardless of the circumstances, an inherited course presents both opportunities and challenges. Adopting a strategic plan and avoiding pitfalls can ensure that you maximize your inheritance, and earn the highest return on your investment in teaching an inherited course.

Your first step should be to take ownership of the course. That means identifying your learning objectives for your students, the readings that you think are critical, and the teaching methods, materials and activities that you believe will be most effective in helping your students meet those objectives.

Familiarize yourself with the course as it has been taught in the past, how it fits within the departmental curriculum and, if appropriate, whether other sections of the course are offered either concurrently or successively. Is your course a prerequisite for another course? Has your school or department determined a level of standardization for your course? Be mindful of any mandatory institutional accreditation standards and/or certification for which you may be preparing your students. Identify standards, such as specific learning outcomes, that you must maintain and how much freedom you have to make modifications.

Don’t settle for the materials that you’ve inherited: Instead, look for other possible resources. For example, if others in your department have taught the course, they may have significantly different syllabi and course materials that they would be willing to share. Also, consult the syllabi of similar courses at other institutions. Your discipline’s professional association may maintain a syllabus repository, and a search through Open Educational Resource databases also may turn up helpful materials.

Organize materials in a logical manner so that items are easy to locate when you need them during the semester. Options for organizing include folders associated with class sessions or type of material (e.g., “exams,” “PowerPoint presentations,” “lesson plans,” “activities”). Identify which materials you will use, modify or discard. Note that some materials may have been included in a previous course iteration primarily because the instructor was an expert in that niche area; therefore, they may be optional in terms of preparing students to meet course learning objectives. As you organize, scan materials for the semester to develop a holistic view of the course. That way, as you prepare for upcoming class sessions, you also will have in mind where the course is ultimately headed.

As you develop new materials devise a method to differentiate them from materials used in previous offerings of the course.

Consider incorporating your own specific area of expertise into the course materials. If you are passionate about the course materials, it is more likely that your students will be, too. Be wary of “expert blindness,” the tendency to ignore the necessary foundational levels of knowledge.

If you’re using PowerPoint, make the slides yours. One strategy is to skim the existing slides beforehand, then put them to the side and start a new presentation from scratch. Then go back to the existing slides and determine what you will add, and with what modifications, into your own presentation. This will help you avoid trying to fit your own understanding of concepts into someone else’s framework — a trap that you may not notice until you’re mid-presentation and you don’t know why something is displayed on the screen.

Also avoid the “I didn’t write the test” trap. Your instructional activities should prepare your students for any assessments, including exams and quizzes. If you change the learning objectives, instructional activities and/or topics emphasized, you also should consider changing the assessments. If you’re not sure why questions from an existing test bank are on the exam, find out and then either prepare your students to answer those questions, delete those questions or modify them.

Finally, as you plan the semester, pay attention to any changes to the course schedule and format. For example, if the course previously met two times a week for 1.5 hours each session, and you will be teaching it as an evening or six-week class with three-hour sessions, you’ll likely need to modify how much you cover, what kinds of in-class activities you design and the sequencing of materials. Note also that the timing of holidays and other breaks may cause you to modify your schedule.

Devoting attention to this course development process before the semester begins will allow you to earn the highest return on your investment in teaching an inherited course.

Joel Brady is CIDDE’s coordinator of teaching assistant services.

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