Many of us begin our teaching by imitating the activities and formats we experienced as students. We thoughtfully plan a selection of readings and construct an arc for the course, we draft a course description for our department and our class syllabus, and we get ready to respond to whatever issues come up in the students’ writing. And it works.

Over time, experienced GSIs recognize that they can be more strategic in designing a course — that is, they know more about students in general and can count on addressing certain kinds of challenges their students will face as readers, thinkers, and writers. Planning a course becomes much more about what the students know and can do at the beginning of an R&C course and what they need to know and do by the end of the course. The design process recommended here involves three major components: course learning objectives; learning activities and assignments that will help students achieve those learning objectives; and evaluation of student learning. Additional logistics arise from these.

Establish Learning Objectives

General Skill Objectives

To draft the overall learning objectives of the course, consider what students are capable of when they enter a reading and composition course, and what you want them to learn by the end of it. Here are some characteristics R&C teachers have seen, especially among freshmen, and basic suggestions for learning outcomes:

Writing: In high school, students may have been taught to write a five-paragraph opinion or descriptive essay or plot summary, often with a funnel introduction (for instance, a paper about Hamlet might begin, “From the dawn of time…”). Many have no idea how to “fill” five to ten pages. In the R&C series, they need to learn to write convincing five- to ten-page argumentative/interpretive/analytical essays with reasoning based on evidence on a topic of appropriate scope. Their writing must feature clear, standard academic prose.

Reading: Students may tend initially to read in a decoding fashion, to comprehend content and act as consumers of texts. They largely rely on the teacher (or the Internet) to supply information about relevance or what aspects of a text to question. An R&C course can teach many more sophisticated techniques for working with readings: scanning for structure and relevance, analyzing parts of an argument, close reading, attending to voicing and rhetorical situation, and generally putting to use the intellectual resources necessary to actively engage with a variety of texts and genres.

Thinking: Many beginning students make generalizations and choose examples to “prove” them; they judge based on personal values; or they may look for “contradictions.” We might formulate our objectives for students’ thinking as being able to independently question, analyze, make connections, contextualize, and understand the terms of others.

Of course, students come to R&C courses with a broad range of skills and some are very well prepared by previous courses to move on to more sophisticated work. What follows from this is that an R&C GSI has to take into consideration the learning needs of that full range of students.

Specific Skill Objectives

Once you have drafted general learning objectives regarding reading, writing, and thinking, try analyzing them into specific objectives. A sample worksheet (doc) may help you visualize how to do this, or you may wish to formulate your objectives on this model: “Students will be able to skillfully apply the concept of strategic essentialism to analyze [an unfamiliar performance or object or text], and tell why their findings are significant.” (The first page of the worksheet is filled out with some examples; the second page is blank for your use. Note that the level of analysis shown in the example on the first page gets perhaps more granular than you would find useful for planning. It is meant to demonstrate that a given objective may involve much more than one initially thinks.)

If you are teaching an R1B (or R5B) course, what skills do you want your students to gain in incorporating research results into their writing? Objectives could include distinguishing primary and secondary sources, or scholarly and popular sources; finding appropriate sources for projects in your field; analyzing and evaluating sources; writing an expository overview of a field; and arguing for a particular position on an issue in the field, among others.

Many GSIs assign a complete traditional research paper, which, in a research-intensive university, is actually far more challenging to freshmen and sophomores than it might seem. In the face of such a demanding assignment, student attention tends to focus on finding any sources at all (regardless of quality), formatting, and the end product, rather than on the learning goals. (The level of challenge can also tempt some students to plagiarize.)

By choosing learning goals for the research requirement before defining the product, you can tailor an assignment that gets students to develop particular skills or knowledge: The research assignment might focus on contrasting popular and scholarly treatments of a topic, developing an original analysis of primary sources, analyzing the major differences in two scholarly interpretations of a text or artifact, reading and writing research abstracts, or combing through several potential sources for a research project and evaluating them with relevance to a research question. A handout of alternative research assignments is available at the GSI Teaching & Resource Center.

Conceptual Objectives

In addition to the skills students need to develop, your course will require students to gain fluency with some conceptual knowledge, along with some factual knowledge so they can work with the concepts in concrete ways. What are some of the overarching concepts or metaphors of your course? You might think of these in terms of the overall narrative arc of your course. What are the important concepts and the connections you want students to be able to make with the content? The answers to these questions can generate another set of learning objectives. You can also work on the overall idea for your course by explaining it to others, especially others outside your department. This will help you develop it more fully and break it down for undergraduates.

Try drawing a mind map or cluster diagram of the elements of the course to experiment with how the texts, objects, and ideas fit together. Initially, do this without reference to course chronology. The purpose of the cluster activity is to come up with a lot of connections you might not initially see just by looking at a list or schedule of readings.

Once you have generated a lot of conceptual threads, think about the order of materials and topics.

With the large conceptual and cognitive content in mind, along with a rough ordering of content, you can now etch out the instructional units of your course. In R&C, instructional units are usually based on the subset of texts or objects about which students write each of their formal papers (though departures from this pattern can be effective). Which concepts and information come into play in each unit? What are the optimal places to introduce or expand on important concepts? Translate this information into a more detailed chronology for the course.

Pull Together the Objectives

You can now begin mapping more specific skill-learning objectives onto the units of the course. What should students know and do by the end of the first unit? In their writing, for example, what features should be sound in their first paper? What other features do you want to see in their second paper? For example, it would be reasonable to focus on the quality of the thesis or main question in the first paper and the use of evidence or quoted material in the second. For more on this topic see Assignment Design and Sequencing.

*This is a practical discussion of learning objectives. GSIs are also encouraged to consult the College of Letters and Science’s Reading and Composition Curricular Goals and Guidelines (pdf).

Design Learning Activities

What activities — in class or as homework, in groups or as a class or on an individual basis — are best suited to achieving or demonstrating each specific objective? What assignments? At this level you are working out a strategy, not each day’s activities. Discussions, debates, presentations, group work, online discussions, in-class writing, and out-of-class writing are the most usual for these courses, but you can also think about other activities as well. GSIs have often incorporated field-trip activities such as museum visits, film viewings, and theater performances into their courses. They design an overall strategy, or an instructional unit, to prepare students to get the most out of the field activity. (For more on activities that require financial support, see the GSI Center’s Course Improvement Grants page.)

A frequent question in course design is how much reading to assign per week. It is often phrased as pages per week. This is overly simple; all pages are not equal. The question of how much reading to assign needs to be answered in terms of the time required for students to read and analyze in the ways you want them to, and the University has guidelines about this. Students are expected to spend three hours per week per unit credit for each course they are in. This includes class time. So for a four-unit R&C course that meets three hours per week (three hours in class, twelve overall), students have nine hours for their homework. For the readings, you can probably count on students taking two to three times as long to read and interact with a selection as you do. Think not just about the length of the readings, but about the level of difficulty or the degree of effort you want your students to go to with the readings. (It will take much more time and effort to get through ten pages of a philosophical treatise translated from eighteenth-century German than ten pages of a twentieth-century memoir originally written in English.) For more considerations about assigning readings, please see the Reading section of the Teaching Guide for GSIs.

Plan Assessments of Student Learning

Now that you know the learning objectives and the kinds of activities that will move students toward those objectives, it’s time to think about assessing student achievement of those objectives. These three major elements should fit well together. That is, grades are based on assignments for which the learning activities adequately prepare them, and grades accurately show how well students have reached the course learning objectives. (Students also sense the fairness and usefulness of this arrangement when it is well done.)

In R&C sections, the major, letter-graded assignments are usually formal papers and revisions of papers. The GSI evaluates the papers and revisions using a rubric, which is often given to students early in the semester so they can see the traits of the formal papers they are expected to produce. For more on grading and rubrics, see the Grading section of the Teaching Guide for GSIs. For examples of grading rubrics for R&C sections, contact the GSI Teaching & Resource Center directly. Experienced GSIs are also often happy to share theirs.

In addition, each class session’s homework assignment and the quality of students’ participation in class learning activities are usually evaluated. The grades for these elements of the course motivate students to commit effort to them, and they provide the GSI with immediate assessments of how well students are doing with course material from day to day.

One More Useful Assessment

The course itself should be evaluated during the term: consider soliciting feedback about the effectiveness of teaching and learning activities, fairness of grading, resources students wish they had had earlier in the term, whether students are spending too much or too little time on the assignments, and so on. A formal midterm evaluation instrument takes some planning to design and implement, but it is well worth the time. Students provide valuable feedback on the teaching and learning that take place in the classroom. For more detailed information about running a midterm evaluation, see Conducting a Midterm Evaluation.

Gather Your Resources

What resources will you need in order to make your course succeed? What will students need to use? Resources include the readings, but also handouts, reference works, research exercises, sample student papers, announcements, and electronic or library reserves and films for streaming or screening. If your course features a research assignment, it will be essential to assess the availability of key library or museum holdings for student use.

Readings can be made available in several formats (specific editions of books, photocopies, pdfs, etc.). Be aware that copyright issues apply to photocopying and to uploading other peoples’ work to your course website — even in bCourses. A good place to start informing yourself about the policies that apply here is the UC Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning page Using Copyright Materials in the Classroom.

A Final Comment

It would be very difficult to achieve the perfect all-around course design in your first round of planning, so you don’t need to be discouraged if your course is not planned to a fine level of detail before the semester starts. You might want to create the overall sequence and strategy at first, and then refine a couple of aspects each time you teach, based on your notes about how well different segments or activities have worked in the past.

Now that you know the elements of your course, you are ready to create the course syllabus.