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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:

  • During what time of the day are you at your highest energy? First thing in the morning, mid-afternoon, or after dinner? There is a wide range of individual differences on daily rhythms. One of my coaching clients gets up in the middle of the night when the house is quiet and writes, goes back to bed for a nap before the other family members rise in the morning . Your high energy time is usually the best time for “thinking work” such as researching a new topic for one of your courses or revising an article. Lower energy times like during the morning if you are a night person or vice versa are good times to clean out files, play with kids, or run the vacuum cleaner.

  • How many days of the week or segments of those days do you want to work? You are the “boss of you” here. Do you want to work three mornings or five evenings or have full time day care for the kids and work a five day work week just like you do during the school year? It is up to you to set the pace that allows you to accomplish the goals you have set for your summer.

  • How can you protect your time and space from interruptions and clutter? Before we began coaching about increasing his scholarly work, one dad tried unsuccessfully to work in the corner of the family room while his two children and their four friends played computer games on the other side of the room. The constant distractions interfered with his concentration. After we brainstormed some possible alternatives, he decided to move his computer to a basement “office” created by defining the space with moveable tall book shelves. It was a walk out basement with windows along the back of the house. He placed his desk beneath one of the windows to take advantage of the view. He could still hear the kids above him and took frequent breaks to check on them but was quite pleased at his productivity. He accomplished more in less time, leaving more time for doing fun things with his children.

  • What kind of support do you need if you have child care responsibilities? Day camps, trips to grandma’s house, a teen-aged baby sitter, or your spouse trading child care duties with you are all possibilities for getting you uninterrupted time. Sometimes academics have to educate their spouses that they are not “off” for the summer even though the brother-in-law thinks so. Instead faculty often have increased flexibility for family responsibilities along with their professional goals but they do need to work during the summer to spread their work load across the year.

  • What can you realistically accomplish? If you choose a part-time schedule of three mornings a week, you will probably be able to complete one major course revision and some minor touch-ups on other courses do some scholarly work. Thus, all of your courses will be up-to-date on a rotating schedule. For example, if you are responsible for six different content courses in your department, each course will go through a major revision every six years. Depending on your field and how fast you write, you may be able to write one article from scratch or revise several and ship them off to journal editors.

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.
  • Consider using grading rubrics set out in writing to the students ahead of time so that students don’t have to play guessing games like “What does he really want?” or my personal favorite, “How long should the five page paper be?”

  • Consider mixing some quick assignments like one minute in-class papers graded pass/fail with finely tuned big assignments worth lots of points.

  • If you use papers such as term papers or reaction papers, consider setting aside some class time in which you get students to brainstorm ideas for their topics, outline major points, get feedback on their ideas from their small group, or go online to research content. During class you can roam around grabbing teachable moments to help them increase their skills. The time spent in class will bring rewards to you of better papers and fewer late night anxiety calls.

  • Consider having papers rewritten and resubmitted. In my graduate leadership and undergraduate human relations courses, I require electronic submissions, I offer a preliminary grade using a grading rubric specifying characteristic of a paper worthy of a grade of “A,” “B,” etc. I also offer suggestions for making the piece better. Students have the option to take the grade given or resubmit their rewritten work for a higher grade.

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.


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.”

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