Designing a College Course

Mind Matters

An Occasional Column by Anthony D. Fredericks

Designing a College Course

As a new professor, you may want to include everything about your discipline in your course, but realize that you have a limited amount of time or limited resources to do so.  Designing a college course also means designing specific (manageable) goals and outcomes that give you and your students both direction and accomplishment.  The result can be a learning adventure full of great memories.  Let’s take a look.

There are two critical questions that confront every college teacher – whether novice or experienced.  Your response to these two queries will determine, in large measure, the success you enjoy as an adjunct professor and the academic success students will enjoy in your courses.  They are crucial in the design of every effective course – from introductory freshmen courses to graduate seminars.  They are:

Question Term Definition
‘What will I teach?” Goals These are the ideas, principles, concepts, or questions that you want to include in a course or that you want to teach.  They are the end products of a course.
“What will students learn?” Outcomes Outcomes are what students will learn as a result of their exposure to those course goals.  They are the skills that students develop throughout a course.

One of the classic errors many adjunct professors make is that they tend to concentrate on the first question almost to the exclusion of the second question.  That is to say, they spend a lot of time planning what they will teach in their courses, but insufficient time on what they plan to have students learn in those courses.  Many adjunct professors, particularly those fresh from graduate school, have all the latest theories, statistics, research, and content about a particular discipline.  They often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to “fit” that content into the parameters of a fifteen-week semester.  Little thought is given to the “learnings” they want students to have at the conclusion of that course.

Reframing the Questions

One of the ways to begin designing your courses is to reframe the questions above.  Instead of asking yourself, “What will I teach?” consider these two modifications:

  • What do students need to know?
  • What will they be able to do with that knowledge?

This reframing of the initial questions provides you with two critical focal points.  It helps you zero in on the necessary content in concert with the utility of the content in students’ lives.  If your sole goal is to have students memorize the content (the traditional approach) then you are eliminating a critical component of the teaching/learning paradigm.  That is, what do you want them to do with their newfound knowledge?  In short, teaching is about changing – changing students’ minds, changing their perceptions and outlooks, and changing their interpretations of the world.  Giving them knowledge is one thing; giving them opportunities to use that knowledge is the sine qua non of a good college course.

Course Introduction

Before you write a course syllabus, give some thought to constructing a course introduction (frequently the initial paragraph in many course syllabi).  By focusing on the goals and outcomes of a course in your course introduction you will be able to address the two critical elements of any subject – what will you teach, what will they learn?  Everything else in the course can stem from the answers to these two initial queries.

Let’s say you’re designing a course entitled “Survey of the Music Industry.”  Now, here’s a course chock full of information and details!  Potential topics include: career planning, creative careers, producing/directing, performing, teaching, songwriting, music publishing, copyright registration, sources of royalty income, performance rights, music licensing, the role of unions, music associations, arts administration, talent agencies, and artistic management.  That’s a lot of stuff for one course!  How do you get it all in?  My suggestion – don’t try to.

In trying to “fit” all that information into a single course you will have a tendency to ignore or eliminate student outcomes for the sake of (or at the expense of) all your planned goals.  Here’s a sequence of activities that will help you respond to the two critical questions above (while also maintaining your sanity):

  1. Make a list of all the goals, concepts, or principles that are part of the course.  These can be obtained from your own experiences, a planned course textbook, suggestions from colleagues, or research.  You can begin drafting your list of goals by providing answers to some of the following self-directed queries:
  • What is important for students to know?
  • What topics interest me the most?
  • What concepts should I emphasize?
  • What is the main idea of this course?

2. Identify the three most critical goals.  These should be more general than specific.  For example, “The mental processes and structures that compose the human cognitive system” rather than “The retrieval of memory.”

3. Make a list of all the outcomes you want for your students.  You can begin drafting your list of outcomes by providing answers to some of the following self-directed queries:

  • What do I want students to be able to do by the end of the course?
  • What new skills will students have after this course?
  • How will students’ thinking be changed by this course?
  • What student perceptions or misperceptions do I want to challenge?

4. Select the two most critical outcomes.  Be sure these are framed in terms of what students will be able to do with the information you provide them.  For example, “Students will be able to use standard methods of solving ordinary differential equations and apply them to physics.”

5. Design a one-paragraph introduction to the course which incorporates the three goals and two outcomes.  You may wish to direct this introduction to students (“By the end of the course, you will be able to….”) or you may wish to keep it impersonal (“This course is an introduction to the principles of ….”).  Make this introduction the opening paragraph of your course syllabus.

You may argue that three goals and two outcomes are insufficient for your subject or course.  I realize that most courses involve an overwhelming plethora of principles, concepts, factual information, and issues.  But, the key here, especially in initial course design, is simplicity.  It’s also to provide you with a manageable plan, one that helps you keep your focus without losing your way.  Inevitably, you will deal with many issues and concerns throughout the semester, but the 3-2-1 plan will provide you with a reliable compass as you begin to design that course.

Know, too, that as you progress through your teaching career you will refine, hone and sharpen your course design.  Suggestions from colleagues, ideas from periodicals and journals, research, conference proceedings, and other information sources will all become part of your courses.  For now, you just need a solid platform on which to stand.  Don’t try to do everything the first time “out of the blocks.”  Keep the plan manageable, simple and straight-forward.  Remember that good courses and good instructors are always evolutionary.  Start with a simple plan and then, as you add to your experience base, adjust and modify the course accordingly.


 Dr. Anthony D. Fredericks is Professor Emeritus of Education at York College of Pennsylvania (and a former adjunct professor). He is an award-winning author of 175+ books, including The Adjunct Professor’s Complete Guide to Teaching College (“[The author] covers all the bases, from designing your course and syllabus to first day impressions to course evaluation.” * * * * *)



To see more books by Dr. Anthony D. Fredericks or others published by Blue River Press, go to our Book Shop. If you have any questions, you can contact us here or call us at 317-352-8200



How to Become a Successful Adjunct Professor

Mind Matters

An Occasional Column by Anthony D. Fredericks

How to Become a Successful Adjunct Professor

Your effectiveness as an adjunct professor is dependent on much more than your knowledge of your specific discipline. In fact, your success will be driven by characteristics and dynamics that are as much a part of who you are as they are of your classroom instruction.

Conversations with scores of post-secondary colleagues around the country indicate that good adjuncts are effective because of the interaction of five distinguishing characteristics:

  1. Individual accountability
  2. Student orientation
  3. A critical learning environment
  4. Constructivist orientation
  5. Learning as a lifelong process

I invite you to consider these characteristics in terms of your own personality dynamics as well as in terms of your reasons for becoming an adjunct professor.

  1. Individual Accountability

The reasons you are an adjunct instructor are undoubtedly many. Who you are as a person and how you would like to share your knowledge with college students are significant determinants in why your chose this position. So too, will they be significant in terms of your success in the classroom. My own experiences with fellow college teachers has taught me that the personality of a teacher is a major and predominant factor in the success of students within that teacher’s influence. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Learn the Culture. Your success in the classroom may be determined by how much you know about the institution(s) at which you teach. Learn the culture of the institution – every college has its own unique set of traditions, customs and practices. At the very least, you should be aware of 1) the mission of the institution, 2) the long-range plans of the institution, and 3) the core values that shape the daily life of the institution.
  • Connect with Your Department. In your role as an adjunct professor, it is quite easy to feel “out of touch” with the institution as well as with the members of the department in which you are teaching. Working to establish and maintain good relationships with department members can go a long way towards ensuring success – both in the classroom and outside. Consider the following: 1) Whenever possible, talk with members of the department (full-time and part-time) in a variety of informal conversations. Talk about the weather, a recent political situation, or the status of students. 2) Ask if you can attend department meetings (if your schedule allows). Listen to the various topics and challenges under discussion. If allowed, volunteer your views and perspectives.
  • Get a Mentor. One of the most effective ways you can help yourself both as a teacher and as a colleague is to find someone who is willing to act as your mentor. Not only can a mentor keep you up-to-date on classroom procedures and institutional policies, that individual can also help you feel more comfortable in the academic community. Here are some ideas to consider:


  1. Student Orientation

If you were to walk into the classroom of any outstanding college instructor, irrespective of her or his discipline or experience, one thing will become immediately clear: students are respected, trusted and honored. These are classrooms where the professor is not lecturing from atop a marble pedestal, but rather down interacting on a personal level with students.

Students need to know that they will never be embarrassed or ridiculed. Nor will they be intimidated or shown excessive favoritism. The best teachers are those who have positive attitudes about everyone in course. High expectations abound for each and every student and successful teachers create a learning environment in which those expectations can be realized.

Good college teachers are listeners. Good teachers know that students have much to contribute to the curriculum and to each other and provide numerous opportunities for them to do so. Or as a colleague once told me, “Good teaching often means opening your ears and closing your mouth!” Another colleague put it this way: “The connection between students and the teacher is what makes a good class. Professors should always be looking for relationships between events in students’ lives and the course content. The event may be family, work, weekend parties, world news or a campus function. Strive to make the connection and you can always make an impact.”

  1. Critical Learning Environment

Good adjunct professors “pepper” each class with an array of higher-level questions that help students apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate content. They use questions to arouse curiosity, stimulate thinking and engage students in an active model of discovery. Rather than falling into traditional models of teaching in which all the answers are provided, effective professors make good questioning their instructional priority. In short, knowledge is never static, rather it is the dynamic process coupled with knowledge that makes lessons productive and intellectually stimulating.

Good teachers provide opportunities for students to generate their own questions for discovery. However, instead of falling into the trap of providing answers to those self-initiated queries, effective teachers help students discover the answers for themselves. Self-discovery has more lasting implications and effects than simply telling students the answers.

Good professors provide opportunities for students to relate the content to their personal lives. Having a “head full of facts” is considerably less important than the ability to use that information to solve problems in one’s personal or professional life. Good teachers ask students to draw their own conclusions and to defend the choices they make.

  1. Constructivist Orientation

Good adjunct instructors enjoin students in a process of discovery, exploration and inquiry. They eschew a transmission model of teaching – one in which students are merely vessels into which the professor pours all her or his vast amounts of knowledge. Rather, good teachers embrace a teaching model that provides students with responsibilities, challenges and a measure of self-determination.

Good teachers know that learning is not simply the accumulation of knowledge (which is passive), but rather how we make sense of knowledge. Constructivism recognizes that knowledge is created in the mind of the learner. Professors help students relate new content to the knowledge they already know. In addition, students have opportunities to process and apply that knowledge in meaningful situations (sometimes called “hands-on, minds-on” learning).

Good adjunct professors promote the idea that knowledge is never a product, rather it is a process. How we learn is intrinsically more important than what we learn. For college students, this is a critical factor in the academic success children they enjoy in a course as well as the intellectual experiences they can carry with them well after their course is over.

  1. Learning as a Lifelong Process

Good adjunct professors are those who keep learning, those who continually add to their knowledge base throughout their teaching career. My lifelong motto has always been: “Good teachers have as much to learn as they do to teach.” Your education doesn’t stop just because you have a graduate degree. It means that if you are to provide the best possible education for your students, then you need to provide yourself with a variety of lifelong learning opportunities, too.

Good adjuncts keep current, stay active, and continually seek out new answers or new questions for exploration. Your desire to find out more about effective teaching methods and dynamic new discoveries within your field can add immeasurably to your talents as a teacher and can also add to your students’ appreciation of your discipline in their own lives.

Your success as an adjunct professor can be ensured when you consider and plan long term goals. Whether you are teaching one course at a single college or a multiplicity of courses at several institutions, you need to devote some time to “career planning” strategies that will continue to enhance your teaching effectiveness as well as your personal growth and development as a college instructor.


Dr. Anthony D. Fredericks is Professor Emeritus of Education at York College of Pennsylvania (and a former adjunct professor). He is an award-winning author of 175+ books, including The Adjunct Professor’s Complete Guide to Teaching College (“It literally had everything you could possibly want to know [and] is written in realistic and relatable terms!” (5-star review)






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