Designing a new course in and beyond COVID-19 times

By Patrick Bijsmans

PBL course design is a recurring topic in academic literature, but also in staff development. This concerns, for instance, applying general PBL principles to assignment design, but also the need for varying assignments. The design process is always limited by variables such as available resources and place in the curriculum and. These past twelve months the pandemic created more limitations, but also opportunities to move beyond more traditional course design.

The BA European Studies is currently going through a revision of its curriculum. One of the new courses concerns a new skills training course that revolves around training students in writing what Booth and colleagues call “research problems” (consisting of a topic, a research question, and their relevance). Working with Research Problems includes components from previous BA skills courses, but also introduces new topics. The course takes place in period 2 of the first year.

Course design

From the start, I wanted to design a course that included both synchronous and asynchronous elements – which actually allows the course to be taught on-campus and online. There are lectures and tutorials, as in a regular course. Lectures are 60-75 minutes long, with most of them accompanied by videos, for instance on interdisciplinarity, concepts and methods. The tutorials last one hour and focus on the post-discussion, with students being responsible for arranging their own pre-discussions.

Coherence was created through a linear, weekly structure, which has for instance also been used in Kirsop-Tayler and colleagues’ course on political ecology. In addition, I recorded a weekly podcast to introduce each week’s topic, which also included contributions by colleagues Pablo Del Hierro and John Harbord, and BA ES alumna Mareike Müller. Adding audiovisual material to the course helps to cater for different learning styles, but also builds on work that stresses that using a variety of material makes for a richer learning experience.

Working with Research Problems, weekly structure

Time to reflect

Last week I handed in the grades from December’s first sit. With 75% of the final research proposals having received a passing grade, overall the course seems to have prepared students well for writing their first piece of research. Lecture attendance hovered around 190 students per lecture, with students asking interesting and important questions. The audiovisual material was also widely watched and listened to, with podcast episodes and videos having on average been played around 200 times each.

But not everything went as planned. In addition to some smaller intended changes, there are a couple of things that I particularly want to address.

  1. During spring and summer 2020 I’ve had some great experience with combining videos with shorter lectures. But the one-hour opening lecture was a mistake. This lecture came without a video, but with a podcast. While lots of course characteristics featured in this podcast, the lecture didn’t pay enough attention to outlining those characteristics. This resulted in quite a number of questions during week one that I could have easily avoided. So next year, I will pay more attention to outlining the course during the opening lecture.
  2. A related problem concerned the presentation of information. Following my Canvas training, and the advice given there, I decided to split up the course manual in a separate shorter syllabus with course background, accompanied by assignments and hands-on tasks that I placed in weekly Canvas ‘modules’. The result was, quite frankly, that information was more scattered than I had intended it to be, leading to a sense of information overload. So, next year I’ll go back to having a syllabus that will combine all key documents. This worked much better in the past.
  3. A final problem concerned the idea to have students do their own pre-discussion. This was partly based on BA revision efforts to enhance PBL training for students and design an accompanying learning line. What I had under-(or over-?) estimated, was the nature of PBL training provided in the run up to period 2, which, partly for obvious reasons (#COVID-19), was more limited than I had anticipated it to be. One student even told me that they had very few discussions in their previous courses, which did not help them in feeling comfortable to discuss research now.

    BA ES PBL learning trajectory

    Interestingly, when I decided half-way through the course to include learning objectives in the podcast and to no longer ask students to do their own pre-discussion, quite some groups decided to go ahead anyways. Sometimes because it allowed them to meet more regularly – which is as good a reason as any. I have great confidence in our students and believe that they can do this – emphasising the intended self-directed nature of PBL. But to make this work, I plan to include a pre-discussion training in the first week of next year’s course.

Work in progress!

PS A follow-up blog with data on student performance is available via Active Learning and Political Science.

About the author

Patrick Bijsmans is Associate Professor in Teaching and Learning European Studies and faculty coordinator for Continuous Professional Development. While he tries to make most of the current opportunities to innovate, he misses the energy he gets from on-campus teaching and can’t wait to enter a classroom or a lecture hall with 250 students again.