Professor Destressor eNews
Combining productive work lives and balanced personal lives
Summer 2008

Our goal is to bring you news, insights, and information about leading a balanced and productive life while making a difference.

In this issue, you'll find:

  1. Course Revision
  2. Professor Destressor coaching
  3. Up and coming workshops

1. Course Revision

When is the best time to revise a course?

If you are stumped by the question, you are not alone. In a recent workshop for the Lilly East Conference on College and University Teaching, I posed that question to an audience made up of graduate students interested in academic careers and early career faculty. They couldn’t answer the question either. My answer: the summer is the best time to revise your courses because most professors have more discretionary time in the summer. Notice that I didn’t say, “free time.” Free time is what your corporate employed brother-in-law thinks you have, as in “It must be nice to have all summer off with all that free time. What a cushy job you have!” A summer of languishing by the pool, playing Monopoly with the kids, trying new recipes, in short, and having the summer off.

The reality is that even if you aren’t obligated to teach summer courses, you are still working in the summer. Instead of “free time” think of yourself as having more discretionary time, that is, time during which you direct your tasks and your priorities with no urgent obligations to show up anywhere like class. You have courses for the next year to prepare and scholarly work that contributes to your field and to your own career path to produce. Those activities are part of your job description all year long, but during the summer you can choose the pace at which you work ­ provided you still work on these worthy goals. Faculty who spread their class preparation and scholarly work across the whole year including the summer produce more quality work and feel less stressed. This newsletter will cover two practical skills to help your summer transition: your Ideal Week and the Steps to course Revision.

Ideal Week

How are you going to do some of this work and still have time for taking the kids to the pool? As you transition from your end of the semester duties to the summer it is a good time to design your ideal summer week, one that paces your work tasks with time with your family and friends. In order to shape this Ideal Week ask yourself these questions:

Steps to a Course Revision

Naïve early career academics usually start course designs by looking at content, texts, and the academic calendar. I have taken workshops from experts on course design such as Dee Fink, Laurie Richlin, and Barbara Millis who suggest a different process to a well-designed course. I am going to extrapolate from their separate approaches to give you a course design structure to follow.

  1. The Cosmic Questions.
    Students who see the connection of the course material to the bigger vision of the field, bring their motivation to class with them. If you pause to answer these questions, the rest of the process and the course will go better.

    • Why should a student take this course or learn this material?

    • What does it teach them about life or their career areas?

    • What do you want them to do as a result of this course?

    • What should they care about and why?

    • What do they already care about or expect from the course? How could you find out?

    • What do you care about? What are you passionate about in this course?

    • What kind of students will you be teaching: on-line, lower level, or honors?

    Stating these hopes and dreams prior to picking a text will help you search for one that emphasizes what you want your students to learn. They will shape your philosophy of the course and your classroom and grading policies. They will shape how much time you spend on each topic, what chapters of the text to emphasize, and what supplemental readings or experiences you want to design into the course.

    In her recently published study of the highest rated college and university religious studies teachers in the U.S., Barbara Walvoord found that even experienced teachers have unvoiced expectations that can get easily frustrated when unmet by the students. For example, many hoped that their students will increase in critical thinking skills but didn’t always have specific strategies to achieve that goal. Instead of keeping your goals secret, hoping that the students guess them, a better way is to articulate those goals by building them into the course design and planning learning experiences that bring out the best in your students.

  2. Pick your resources.
    Plan how you want your students to use your course resources. Tie the resources into your Cosmic Questions. For example, what texts, articles, lab manuals, audio-visual materials such as films support your course goals? What do you want the students do with these materials, for example, skim articles, write reaction papers about films, or turn in lab reports using the scientific method?

  3. Lay out a course design.
    Using a grid format allows you to juxtapose content, course objectives, and competencies. List the content in the rows and the course goals and competencies in the columns. Add another column for the learning activities that best accomplish your course goals and competencies. For example, do you want the students in biology to be able to list the parts of a cell or do you want them to diagram and label the parts?

  4. Assess learning.
    How will the students demonstrate their competencies? Class discussion, one-minute papers, random quizzes, and term papers are all very different experiences from the students’ point of view. Which assignments make the most sense with the goals you have for the students? How can you best assess yourself as a teacher? Have you thought about a mid-term course evaluation to find out the “consumer complaints” so that changes can improve the experience while the students are still in the course instead of at the end where only next year’s students benefit?

  5. Review evaluations.
    If you have taught this course before, you have student evaluations that you can review any time during the revision process. I know, it takes a good stiff drink to face those happy pieces of paper but you can do it. And reviewing them soon after the course ends will help make the connections between your “Cosmic Questions” and whether the students got the major course concepts. If you only have one or two bad evaluations, put them back in the manila envelope and ignore them. Those “outliers,” as social scientists call research subjects whose responses are so different from the majority, don’t even constitute a statistical minority of your students. The outliers may be disgruntled about a grade in another class and took it out on you. Sometimes their responses are so discrepant from anything that went on in class it is as if they in off the street on evaluation day without being registered for the course. However, if you have greater than 10% unfavorable evaluations, problem solve about what you could do to make that minority group enjoy and learn the next time around. Any number greater that 40% is a majority and if you have that many bad evaluations, consider seriously changing your expectations about the course or communicating them more clearly in the course design and syllabus.

  6. Consult wise elders.
    If you are new at this, read at least one of the books listed below in the resources. Go to someone in your department or your faculty development/ teaching effectiveness center and ask them to read your syllabus draft and critique it kindly. Ask them for tips on how they solved some of the problems with which you are grappling. See what they think you are missing, like expecting too much from lower level students or underchallenging honors students. Ask them if you can look at some of their syllabi to see how they set up classroom policies in a friendly yet clear manner.

  7. Maintain work-life balance during the semester.

Lest you think this grading method takes more teacher grading time, let me reassure you that it doesn’t. For example, in revising my graduate leadership course I articulated the answers to some of my Cosmic Questions that related to the integration of leadership theories and practices. I was willing to decrease the number of papers in the course in exchange for that deeper learning and integration. When the students resubmit, they indicate the changes in colored text or highlights. I review my comments and their revisions without having to reread the entire paper. Then I offer another grade and some final comments and raves about the improvements. In addition to deepening the learning, this rewriting process prepares graduate students for journal review and resubmission processes.


With your “Ideal Week” and the “Steps to Course Design,” you will be able to count on at least one great course in the coming year and spend some time on your scholarly work across the summer and the semester. Hopefully, you will also have some summer fun and a more relaxed academic year.

Susan Robison


Fink, Dee. “Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses.”

Millis, Barbara et al. “The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach.”

Richlin, Laurie. “Blueprint for Learning: Creating College Courses to Facilitate, Assess, and Document.”

Walvoord, Barbara. “Teaching and Learning in College Introductory Religion Courses.”

2. Professor Destressor Workshops and Coaching

About the publisher: Susan Robison, Ph.D. is a psychologist and an independent educator. She is professor of psychology at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and offers services as a professional coach, speaker, author and seminar leader. She loves to coach professionals who want improvement in:

If you are feeling stuck on the way to your ideal life, give Susan a call for a complementary half-hour coaching session.

Susan provides keynotes and seminars to colleges, universities and professional organizations on the topics of:

She offers her audiences a follow-up coaching session because she knows that workshops don’t work… unless the participants apply their learnings.

Contact Susan for your coaching, speaking, or seminar needs at or at 410-465-5892.

3. Up and coming workshops

I am currently accepting speaking invitations work-life balance workshops for winter and spring 2009. Contact me if your group needs a speaker on any of the topics listed above.

I am currently accepting speaking invitations for work/life balance and leadership workshops for winter and spring 2009. Contact me if your group needs a speaker on any of the topics listed above.

Title: "Peak Performance Practices of Highly Effective and Happy Faculty”
Date: October 22-25, 2008
Place: Professional and Organizational Network in Higher Education; Reno, NV
Registration, fee, and directions: TBA

Title: Peak Performance Practices of Highly Effective and Happy Faculty
Date: November 20-23, 2008
Place: Lilly International Conference on College and University Teaching; Miami University; Oxford, Ohio
Registration, fee, and directions: TBA

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