Roll up, roll up for star attractions

December 3, 2004

Designing a new course module is no mean feat, but it will all seem worthwhile once you've got it right and the students start rolling in, Harriet Swain argues.

Your subject needs a revamp. Your teaching year has been rearranged. You have persuaded the department head that your specific research area would make an ideal teaching topic. Whatever the reason, it is likely that at some time in your academic career you will be asked to design, or help to design, a module.

How do you start? The best way is to think about the ends. "Think 'what do I want the learning outcomes to be?' and fill the content into it," suggests Tina Overton, director of the Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre. For this you need to take into account who the students are, how much they already know about the subject, their level of competence and the other modules they are taking. This means liaising with others in your department.

Overton says it is always sensible to design a new module as a team, especially if your colleagues are going to be involved in delivering it. "You want everyone to buy into it," she says. "The people teaching it should be involved in designing it."

Establishing learning outcomes is not as easy as it sounds. Jenny Moon, author of The Module and Programme Development Handbook , stresses that "learning is slippery. Most of the time, whether a learning outcome has been achieved is uncertain". To make clear to lecturers and to students what a particular module is trying to achieve in terms of learning, she suggests restricting learning outcomes to no more than eight. "Beyond eight you are starting to divide them too finely," she says.

Moon is particularly against splitting learning outcomes into groups, such as subject-specific knowledge and cognitive knowledge. "That's nonsense," she says. You need subject-specific and cognitive knowledge to relate together to learning outcomes. "For example, you cannot logically split analysis and what is being analysed."

Ben Knights, head of the English Subject Centre, stresses the importance of "fitness for purpose". The module needs to fit into a general learning strategy, he says. He adds that to achieve this you need to think holistically, simultaneously considering the subject matter, the best way of communicating it, what texts and secondary literature to recommend in terms of use and accessibility, and the most suitable type of assessment.

Considering how to communicate the material will depend largely on the different teaching styles of those delivering it, but you also need to take students into account. For example, Overton says she recently designed a module delivered entirely by independent learning because that was the only way the group of students concerned could take it.

Knights says that while the lecturer's enthusiasm is important, particularly in special topics, you also need to know what it is on a subject that sparks enthusiasm in the students. "You have to think about your potential audience."

He says that while achieving variety is important, you should not get too hung up about it. "You have to remember that students will be doing this option alongside other modules," he says. "The experience of different teaching styles and assessment will be across the whole programme. They can't expect to experience them all in a given unit."

Certain teaching techniques can be built into the module, however. Chris Rust, head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, recommends building in a task, or set of tasks, in the first few weeks that will spark students' enthusiasm quickly and give them early feedback. It may also be a good idea to make it a group task so that they can get to know each other. He points out that unlike traditional courses, where students would be together for the whole of their degree, a modular system means that they have less time as a group. You also have less time to get to know them and to capture their interest.

This timescale means it is a good idea to build in some kind of early assessment. Moon says that many of the ways in which people assess in higher education are not appropriate. Assessment often takes place at the end of a course when people are ready to move on, rather than at some mid-point when there is still time to rectify gaps in their knowledge.

Instead, Moon advises using the time to provide feedback to students and staff on how successful the teaching has been and whether students are ready to progress.

Students also need to learn why they are being assessed and how assessment and learning outcomes work together.

Finally, you need to consider a number of practical aspects to designing a module. For example, if you are setting texts, you need to think about how accessible they will be to students. Are they available only in hardback? Are they out of print? You may need to think about whether the module fits in with the requirements of professional bodies and with subject benchmarks. And you need to know about university regulations, templates and the way units are approved. If you are new to it all, it is worth asking a colleague to make sure you get the paperwork right.

Once you have done all that, you just need to sit back and watch students sign up. Of course, it may be worth bearing in mind that the more successful you have been in designing something they want to take, the more students you will have to teach.

Further information: Jennifer Moon, The Module and Programme Development Handbook (Kogan Page, 2002).

David Turner, Designing and Delivering Modules (Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, 2004).


  • Think about what you want the learning outcomes to be
  • Work with a team of colleagues
  • Consider what will spark students' enthusiasm
  • Build in assessment early on
  • Get the paperwork right

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