“Dear course coordinator, I can do this better than you”

By Yf Reykers

We have all been there, working under the coordination of someone we think is not acting efficiently. It is easy to believe that we can do something better than someone else. Until you face the challenge yourself.

Educated and trained in a traditional lecture-oriented system, I had just one year of tutor experience in Problem-Based Learning (PBL) when I had to face the test of being a course coordinator of multiple courses in the FASoS European Studies programmes. I decided to look for best practices and advice. In the end, I was about to prove that I was actually capable of doing it better, right?

But it quickly became clear to me that while there is a ton of inspiring writing on how to create active-learning atmospheres, give engaging lectures, or develop good PBL assignments, there is little reflection available on course coordination. What does coordination entail and what are the challenges that coordinators face in PBL settings?

For all of you who think you can do it better, mind the challenge of coordinating the 3 E’s!

Coordinating the E’s

First, you will face variation in Experience. Not all students are equally familiar with, or skilled in PBL. Neither is all teaching staff. Education at FASoS builds upon a large teaching staff with considerable turnaround, including a yearly influx of new tutors, not necessarily equipped with PBL teaching skills. Just over a year ago, I noticed myself how stressful it can be to be thrown in at the deep end. In addition, not all lecturers feel comfortable applying active learning techniques. As a coordinator, you can act as their coach by pro-actively reaching out to them, by acting as their sounding board and offering help.

Second, there is the issue of Expertise. Not all of your tutors may be trained in course content. But this applies even more to yourself, the coordinator. Coordinating a course does not mean that you have to be the expert on this topic. Sometimes it is even better to admit that you are not – a challenge to many academics! And – probably the hardest pill to swallow – course coordination does not mean that you own the course. While your research agenda might be Disneyland for you and research-led teaching is an often-praised skill, most students actually do not aspire to an academic career. Push yourself and your colleagues to connect to the students’ daily life, to what speaks to them, even if it lies outside your area of expertise.

Finally, there are differences in Expectations. Reaching a consensus between the different PBL interpretations is not easy. Some teachers stick to the canonical seven-step approach, while others prefer a looser interpretation. Students likewise develop different expectations about how to implement PBL, including expectations about their own role or the role of their tutors. As a course coordinator, you have to anticipate this variation.

Feedback, communication and flexibility!

Based on my recent (and early) experience, I have two key takeaways for future course coordinators who are confronted with these three challenges.

First, create regular feedback opportunities. Remember, feedback is not criticism. And it is definitely not personal. Ask students regularly whether the course meets their expectations. When coordinating a team of tutors, organise at least one mid-term tutor meeting, so that they can voice concerns about the course structure or content, about the performance of students or even about their own PBL experiences. Your tutors are your eyes and ears. Even better is to act as a tutor yourself, to keep track of student expectations. This will allow you to revise the course’s focus whenever needed. Use course evaluations actively to reflect upon course design. Constructively build upon them to improve the course. Take them seriously. But as expectations might differ, don’t take them too seriously.

Second, communicate in a timely manner. This obviously implies offering information about assessment methods and criteria during the opening lecture to manage student expectations. But also apply this to your tutors. Organise an extensive pre-course tutor meeting to coordinate about intended learning outcomes, to get to know their different teaching experience and (research) expertise, and to communicate your expectations. Relatedly, distribute constructive but comprehensible tutor instructions at the start of the course period rather than throughout. Why not even provide them with exam questions from previous years before the start of the course? It can help them in steering class discussions and will give new tutors something to fall back on.

In sum, what I learnt is that flexibility is an indispensable asset in an active learning context. That is the case for students and tutors, but that is even more so for course coordinators who face the challenge of balancing between varying experiences, expertise and expectations.

Oh, if you still think you can do it better, to use the slogan of an unspecified sports brand: “just do it”!

About the author

Yf Reykers teaches in the BA and MA European Studies and in the Research Master European Studies. He joined the Department of Political Science at FASoS in August 2018 as an Assistant Professor, at that time new to PBL. When he is not teaching, Yf studies the international and domestic politics of military operations, with a particular interest in questions of accountability.