University Classrooms: Difficult to Escape or Tempting to Engage?

University Classrooms: Difficult to Escape or Tempting to Engage?

It’s unnerving that I have been teaching for 4+ years at a University level but was never taught how to teach. I certainly am competent enough to google “tips for effective lecturing”, and yet that never crossed my mind. Until now. It is with great wonderment and delight that I experience the philosophies and principles of pedagogy for the first time. In this blog post, I’ll be experimenting with teaching frameworks for undergraduate course design in digital scholarship. I’ll predominantly cover the “getting started” floundering about, and then move onto the organizational tools and ideas that have gotten me out of that rut. Let’s begin!

Building a Course: Where to Begin?

When designing a course, the syllabus may seem like an intuitive place to begin. The syllabus provides a framework for the course, conveys expectations, and communicates what the students will learn. However, I quickly discovered that one must have a framework in mind before codifying it into a document. It seemed deceptively straightforward at first, I have taken 30+ university courses, surely from all that experience I can assemble and recreate the most effective ones? [*My own naivety is now endearingly laughable*].

Despite all those attended courses, I never once critically consumed them from the instructor’s perspective. I never engaged in meta-learning, and certainly never thought about how or why assessments were constructed. And thus, I had no preliminary ideas in response to the question: “What is the most effective course framework?”. However, what I could answer from personal experience, was: “What were the most memorable qualities?” (Fig 1). In recalling the practices that stuck with me over the years, I at least had a starting point to define my personal teaching philosophy. But since I have little interest in inventing a radically new approach, my next task was to find an established framework upon which I could start scaffolding content.

Katherine Eaton's chart of what made a course memorable. Far left column reads "Desirable quality" with columns to the right explaining "Description" and "Examples." Qualities include 'cultivated high level skills', 'disrupted lecture stagnation,' 'learner autonomy over pacing,' 'in-class attention management,' 'captivating and engaging resources,' 'continual sense of accomplishment,' 'learning by teaching,' and 'inter-personal engagement'
Fig 1. 8 Memorable Qualities of University-Level Courses

Selecting a Frame

A framework for teaching design that particularly resonated with me was Constructive Alignment (suggested by Dr. Cathy Grisé, and explored in discussion with Dr. Mica Jorgensen and Samantha Price, all to whom I am extremely grateful!). The principles of Constructive Alignment (Biggs, 2003a; Biggs, 2003b) argue that there should be three main components in course design: intended learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and assessments (Fig 2). All three pieces must be aligned and if one component is changed, the other two must be readjusted to ensure cohesion is maintained. If you have ever written an exam in which a topic appeared that your instructor forgot to cover, the breakdown in cohesion became startlingly apparent.

Image of cycle: three blue circles have arrows pointing in both directions between them. Categories in the circles are Learning Outcomes, Teaching and Learning Activities, Assessments
Fig 2. The 3 Components of Constructive Alignment Design

In this system, the student is responsible for their own learning, while the instructor crafts an environment that best supports learning activities and assessments.  In Biggs view:

The learner finds it difficult to escape without learning appropriately.” (2003b, p.1)

Thus in an aligned system, the student who would otherwise struggle to grasp concepts (or is resolute to not learn them) appears to excel due to the harmonious nature of the course. While humorously put, this deterministic view also invokes ideas of entrapment, with students locked into a hyper-structured system in which they have little control or input. Instead of thinking about the learning environment as difficult to escape, I’m going to put my own twist on it and state that my ideal learning environment is where students are tempted to engage. While this may seem like a meaningless positivist spin, its purpose is to highlight my openness to creative student directions and iterative re-design in response to feedback. And thus the seed of a personal teaching statement is born!

Refining the Blueprint

With a framework in one hand and some philosophical musing in the other, I was ready to start scaffolding content. But, onto what blueprint? I first tried annotating a mock syllabus and produced a long-winded and ill-focused document. Although university courses appear to proceed in a linear and chronological manner to students, they are certainly not designed that way. I would suddenly realize that an activity demanded some pre-requisite knowledge that I had overlooked. And in following that thread back to the introductory lecture, I would remember this pre-requisite knowledge would also be needed for a different activity much later in the course. While this may be revealing to my scatter-brained nature, it also alludes to how a network of knowledge lies at the core of course design (Fig 3). Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found a google docs template that would facilitate organizing information in this manner (maybe Perhaps I’ll put a pin in this idea as a visualization and software strategy for a later date. But in keeping with the architecture metaphors, it is apparent that I had jumped too far forward in the course construction phase and tried to wire (network) rooms together before I’d built a satisfactory frame.

Flow chart of "Transcription Activity Network." The chart begins "Recognize audio files" then moves through options like audio cleaning, assisted transcription, Recurring themes database, word frequency, sentimental analysis. The chart features red, blue, and green tiles.
Fig 3. The Knowledge Network Underlying a Series of Audio Transcription Activities.

Instead of my overly-eager network idea, I backed up and began looking through blogs and social media posts that dealt with the earlier stages of course design. One in particular caught my attention, Dr. Steve Ford’s adaptation of the Business Model Canvas into the “Teaching Model Canvas” (Ford, 2019). This organizational tool is adapted from business and is meant to touch upon key considerations one should account for when planning a small-scale unit such as a lecture or a workshop. I found it relatively straightforward to extrapolate those considerations beyond the lecture-level and so I set up a google docs template to start mapping content (Fig 4). And so I now have a blueprint for the course, and it almost looks like it could be a literal blueprint for a building, how interesting. 

Screenshot of The Teaching Model Canvas with categories 'Learning Outcomes,' 'Questions,' "Teaching Models,' 'Activities,' 'Structure,' 'Content/Examples,' 'Assessments,' 'Possible Weaknesses,' and 'Risk Mitigation'
Fig 4. A Course Blueprint – the Teaching Model Canvas. Constructive Alignment Components Outlined in Blue.

Decorating the Rooms

As I began crafting the large-scale intended learning outcomes (teased in Fig 3), I realized I had not sufficiently considered learning depth. What level of critical thinking and synthesis should be expected of students, if at all? The Bloom Taxonomy of Verbs wound up being a visually appealing and highly effective way to ask myself these hard questions (Fig 5).

Chart of higher order thinking skills. From the bottom up, these categories are Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation. Verbs for each category are depicted in a lightbulb with six sections in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple
Fig 5. Bloom Taxonomy (image credit: Fractus Learning)

I found it very tempting to set high expectations of students, as the higher order thinking skills (analysis, synthesis, evaluation) are often perceived as the most interesting and valuable. However, the fact remains that I am designing a foundations course for a field in which students have had little to no opportunities to gain experience. I have now readjusted my current expectations to orient this course towards independent learning in the three foundational skills of knowledge, comprehension, and application. While I still plan to include activities that invoke the higher order thinking skills, these will now be instructor-guided exercises designed to provoke discussion as opposed to a critical piece of submitted work. Of anything in this blog post, this last exercise in pedagogical thought was the most important, as I’ve found myself re-evaluating expectations of depth across all content generated thus far.

Moving Forward

Next time, I hope these efforts pay off with the following:

  • A fully filled-in Teaching Model Canvas
  • Learning Outcomes tightly linked to the 3 foundational skills.
  • A preliminary knowledge network for a digital anthropology learning activity.

Till next time!


Biggs, J. (2003a). Aligning teaching and assessment to curriculum objectives. Retrieved from

Biggs, J. (2003b). Aligning teaching for constructing learning. Retrieved from

Ford, S. (2019, Jan 26). Teaching model canvas – update [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Fractus Learning (2017). Bloom’s taxonomy verbs. Retrieved from

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