How does an academic department decide on their courses?

Now that I am an assistant professor, I perform scientific research, teach formal classes to undergraduate and graduate students, and I advise undergraduate students, as well as a smattering of other administrative or organizing-based activities. While I have performed nearly all of these in past job positions, the advising is a completely new aspect which has provided valuable insight into my other activities. The University of Maine serves a large number of undergraduate students, and many degree programs are specifically designed as preparation for specific career fields. Undergraduate students in my department now ask for my advice on which courses to take to best finish their degree, and this has led to some interesting discussions on why certain classes are required or not, and why certain classes are offered or not. I realized that the mechanics of course development are not well known to students, or even to academics who haven’t participated in it, and I thought I would share what I’ve learned.

Deciding on content

At the university level, courses are created and designed to offer a certain level of core material made up of basic concepts to introduce students to different fields of information; courses like introduction to biology, or general writing techniques. These may be referred to as ‘general education‘ courses and are designed for student audiences from many different programs at once. GenEd courses are taken in the first or second year of study in order to fill in any gaps from the very different high school educations students have, as well as teach the basics of information-finding and collaboration skills that they will need in other classes. GenEds are usually required before students take high-level courses in specific areas of study. Often, GenEds or introductory courses cater to hundreds of students per year, and there are several instructors to cover all the course sections, as well as teaching assistants, who provide instruction. There are additional core University requirements that each department can decide how to handle, such as the UMaine Capstone Experience requirement for students, which requires students to create a senior project related to their major. Within each academic department or unit (for example, Animal and Veterinary Sciences), there are core course requirements specific to that field of student that all students enrolled in that program need to take (for example, these requirements for Bachelor’s of Animal Science with a pre-veterinary concentration).

One factor in the decision about course content is simply which skills or knowledge students will need in order to enter the workforce related to their field of study. For example, undergraduate students who are intending to go on to a veterinary degree are often enrolled in pre-vet programs designed to prepare students for that further degree and to meet those application qualifications. As such, they will need to learn everything from anatomy to physics. Any content which is required to make the degree meaningful will also be required for students to pass in order to graduate, and means that it must be taught often enough that students have an opportunity to take it. Thus, core or required classes might be held at least annually, and sometimes multiple times a year. If the usual instructor is unable to teach it for a period of time, or there is turnover in the department, a temporary or adjunct instructor can be brought in on a short-term contract to ensure that course can be offered regularly.

Another factor is the area of expertise of the faculty instructors, who are research and/or teaching faculty with long-term contracts, such that those classes will be offered for at least as long as that person is employed. Because areas of expertise change over time, and because faculty come and go, this often drives the evolution of an academic department’s curriculum focus over decades. For example, I have a 50% research and 50% teaching appointment over a 9-month contract, which equates to 12 credits worth of teaching or formal mentoring in my department over the academic year. While I do teach some courses which were already set by the department, I had enough room in that 50% appointment to propose and teach two classes of my own design, one of which has now become a required course for animal science undergraduates specifically because my area of expertise has grown in importance and popularity in the past few decades. Departments will hire new faculty or instructors specifically because of their area of expertise and which direction they want the overall academic program to go in.

A more minor consideration on course content relates to university budget models, and whether academic departments get additional faculty or instructor salary for teaching students from outside their department – essentially a question of where tuition revenue is spent. Departmental course content is tailored to the intended student audience.  If a course is popular across the university but does not have applicability or appeal to the students within that faculty or instructor’s department, it can be difficult to justify spending time on it because most instructors or faculty are contracted to specific departments or academic unit budgets. However, a course with broad appeal could be taught outside of our contracted time, such as during winter or summer sessions, or potentially during the academic year as “overload teaching” which is above the number of credits outlined in our contact. This usually pays on top of the 9 or 12 month salaried contracts of instructors, but is restricted by the lack of free time that most faculty face.

Theory or approach to teaching

After settling on what should be taught, how, then, does a department decide how a class should be taught or constructed? How broad or specific should the information be, and how will the assignments or course requirements assess what students have learned? How will skills be taught? Broadly, this is called pedagogy: the method and practice of teaching, and is something which many faculty find themselves responsible for knowing even if we have not gotten an opportunity to develop our pedagogy in previous jobs. Prior to being an assistant professor at UMaine, I taught several different courses, including ones with pre-set materials that I re-hashed and presented in my own way, and ones with materials that I collected and decided entirely how to present (taught as electives). It wasn’t until that I was a long-term member of an academic department that I was able to participate in setting the direction of departmental courses, and to consider what we teach and how.  As part of my application to my current position, and my tenure packet (application to get a forever contract for my job), I am required to explain my teaching philosophy and how I put those ideas into practice in the classroom. I have previously shared some of those working documents.

As an example: it’s important to learn about how microbes affect animal health. Do I need to spend all my time lecturing to provide that info, or is there another format of information sharing I can use? I certainly need to lecture some, to introduce new topics or walk students through reading complicated graphs. But, it’s important that I also teach students how to find this information and assess it on their own, because they will be doing that for the rest of their life after they leave the classroom. Thus, I need to design my class materials and timeline to provide information and empower students to develop those same skills that I learned to get where I am: reading graphs, considering multiple and conflicting study results, forming questions and how to go about finding the answer. I might start a class with some lecture, followed by an assignment where students have to identity a question they have about microbiomes, then write down the expertise or people needed to find the answer from multiple perspectives, and finally outline what they thought that team could get done in one year.

Getting courses approved

There are many steps in the course approval process and, naturally, plenty of paperwork. In addition to a draft syllabus, a course proposal form is required which provides the logistical details (how many credits, lab or lecture, in person or online, and more), and describes the goals and scope of the content (introductory or experienced level), intended audience (students in which departments and which year of study), and how it will provide necessary skills or info to them. Importantly, the proposal form must describe how the new course will complement current courses that are offered at the University. Being able to show that there is a demand for this specific course, or that it is needed for professional development of the students, will support the course proposal during the approval process. This last part requires the person proposing the course to communicate with instructors of similar classes who might have students that will want to take this class. Are there aspects that you could include in your new course to make this more relevant to them, or to connect this new class to existing classes?

Once the proposal form is complete, it gets sent to the unit or departmental faculty committee for discussion, and may be returned for revisions. This committee might be made up of senior faculty in the department, or all the faculty if it is a small department. Not only can other faculty help improve the courses, but the time you spend teaching a course is time you can’t spend teaching other things that the department needs. So, your colleagues need assess whether this course is a good use of time and effort.

If the course is approved by the department, the proposal goes to the college curriculum committee which is made up of faculty from multiple different but related departments (for example, one from each department in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture). Often, faculty sitting on this committee are Undergraduate Coordinators in their own department, and have a lot of input into the scope of what undergraduates study.  After that committee, the proposal then goes on to the university curriculum committee to make sure it complies with university-wide standards and formatting. There are different forms and committees for undergraduate or graduate courses, and if you create a cross-listed course which can be taken by senior undergraduates and graduates, you’ll need to submit both forms and talk to both committee sets.

If a course is approved by the university, it will be assigned a number and will start appearing on the course catalogue. If the course is going to be required for students, though, it will usually be offered as an elective for the first year or even two before it is required for incoming students (current students can take it as an elective). Courses may also fulfil multiple requirements at once. For example, my AVS 254 Intro to Animal Microbiomes is required core subject material for AVS students, but also fills a university general education requirement to take a course that includes population and environment-scale information. In learning about the microbial communities, students also learn about microbial transmission between individuals, lifestyle choices and impact on host microbes, and interaction with the environment and affect on host microbes.

Matching faculty expectations to student experiences

An important consideration for course design is matching faculty expectations with student experiences. For example, the course materials which faculty see describe the course, but those faculty do not attend the course and experience how that information is shared. Thus, faculty may think that students are receiving information or skills, but the way that it is presented is not approachable or pertinent for students and they are unable to reuse what was presented in the course. Even faculty did audit a whole undergraduate course, we don’t have the same perspective that students do in that we might already be familiar with the material and we would not be able to identify where a lecture left out general information that would be critical for someone who is new to this. The student perspective is also driven by their need to do well in the course, not only by receiving a high grade but also by absorbing as much information which can help them in other classes or in their future career. Thus, aspects of the course which students think are interesting or important are not necessarily the same aspects that faculty identify as important.

Aligning the faculty and the student perspectives requires regular assessment of the course to make sure it is providing the necessary training and information to students. Often this assessment takes the form of faculty input and opinions, or changing needs of post-graduation industry career needs. It also relies on end of the semester evaluations of student performance (grades), and student feedback and evaluation of the courses. Student feedback can be unreliable when feedback on the course is preoccupied with comments which come from a place of personal bias or outright hostility. And, most course evaluations don’t provide enough granularity in the questions to thoroughly assess student perspectives on different aspects of the course, forcing students to give overall ratings. However, student feedback can be valuable when combined with other sources of information or asks more detailed questions.

To that end, Samantha Coombs, an AVS senior undergraduate researcher and I are designing surveys to gather student and faculty mentor perspectives for the UMaine AVS program Capstone Experiences courses, AVS 401 and 402. These courses are required for undergraduates to take to earn their bachelor’s degree, and require students to propose, conduct, and present results on research – often for the first time in their time at UMaine. If this wasn’t stressful enough, students typically work on projects which are part of faculty’s research portfolio,  and both students and faculty can be impacted by mismatches in expectations versus the reality of those collaborations. While we won’t be fully sharing the results of those surveys, we will be sharing summaries, and how the responses impacted future course materials in AVS 401 – the course in which students are first launched into research.

Improving the Curriculum for Future AVS 401 Undergraduates

Authors: Samantha Coombs and Dr. Sue Ishaq

Affiliations: School of Food and Agriculture at University of Maine, Orono

Keywords: Capstone, AVS 401, Undergraduates, Faculty, Stress, Mentor, Curriculum

Abstract

AVS undergraduates are not prepared to complete the requirements of AVS 401, before taking the course. In the AVS degree program, it is expected that undergraduates will gain knowledge, experience, and ideas to create a research project of their own. In many cases, AVS undergraduates are completing their capstones with never having performed a research project on their own. This is stress-inducing due to undergraduates having to learn both how to complete a research project, and how to write and complete a proposal. Undergraduates are given the choice to join a research project guided by a faculty mentor, but this leads to striving to meet expectations. Others struggle due to not knowing what project or path to go down. Each student needs a different situation that best fits their needs; this project will assist in trying to create a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The question I want to figure out is, can we adjust the curriculum in AVS 401 to meet the requirements of all AVS undergraduates for them to succeed in their capstone research? I hypothesize that we can create a curriculum that meets the requirements of undergraduates by surveying both faculty and undergraduates on their different expectations and experiences. Methods of research that will be conducted are, surveying AVS and other degree professors, surveying undergraduates who have taken AVS 401, reading syllabi, and reading scientific articles. The impact that this research will have is to create a class that is a one-size-fits-all for AVS 401 undergraduates. The curriculum will be adjusted due to the responses from both parties. The results will be a class that teaches undergraduates what they need to know to improve: the quality, efficiency, and reduce the stress of capstone projects.

A clock with wings flying in the air, with another one in the background out of focus. The background is a blurry tan.

Reflecting on “suggested deadlines” for assignments

Over the Fall 2020 semester, I changed my assignment deadline policy, creating “suggested deadlines” instead of enforced ones. I altered the language to “suggested deadline” in my syllabus semester timeline (in which I provide due dates for all assignments), I left submission portals open in the online teaching software, and I did not manually penalize grades for lateness. I made the change out of practicality for the fall semester, and I was personally pleased by the results; however, I wanted to hear from students. After being able to formally obtain student feedback during course evaluations, I wanted to reflect on that change and how I will implement it in future courses.

Previously, when grading policies were up to me, I accepted late assignments with a possible -10% grade penalty reduction per day, although I would waive it for a variety of circumstances. It was easy to enforce using online teaching software which timestamped submissions. This policy seemed to motivate some students, but in retrospect, it made students feel like they had to share their reasons for lateness and justify why they needed an extension. Not only did this late assignment policy increase the number of emails I received and time spent replying that yes, I would still accept it, but it also meant that students were sharing more personal information with me. I suspect that students who did not ask for deadline extensions probably had a reason but didn’t want to share than information in asking for an extension, and really, it is none of my business what else is going on in their life.

However, I made the decision to allow any assignments to be turned in after the due date without a penalty, in part because the pandemic shifted the amount and type of work most students were doing. Many of them reported an increased workload, having to attend remote classes in their car, trouble with internet access with so many other users on their network, and of course, power and internet outages are common in Maine when trees topple utility lines. If I had enforced assignment deadlines, then a third to a half of my students were in danger of failing the course because of lack of work, but not because of poor quality of work. This was unreasonable to me, especially in my undergraduate research course where I would be effectively be penalizing students for delays caused by their research mentors or haled research on campus.

So, I made the decision to trust my students to manage their own motivations and time management. After all, they are legal adults, they are not first years, and they have chosen to continue their education despite the financial burden and other constraints. More than that, almost all of my graded assignments with significant weight in the class are essay based, which means I can get a feel for the students’ writing voice and it is really easy to identify plagiarism by the change in tone or maturity of the writing. If being able to turn in an assignment late meant students’ could copy each other’s assignments, I should be able to catch it even without the online plagiarism checking software.

I was concerned that I would receive all the assignments on the very last day, and was dreading the avalanche of grading that would unleash on me. Instead, assignments trickled in on a regular basis, several hours to several months late depending on the students’ circumstances, some of which were later disclosed to me. Instead of getting sloppy, thrown-together assignments, I think the quality of writing and the depth of student critical thinking were improved. Students later reported being able to spend more time on the assignment when they had control over when that time could be spent. And, despite having the most students in the most difficult semester to get through, I discovered no instances of plagiarism.

I think I will make the move to suggested deadlines semi-permanent (some deadlines will be enforced based on if it is time-sensitive). The online teaching software I use can be set to assign a 0 to missing assignments, to email me when submissions are received, and to add conditions to submission portals, such as having first submitted another assignment or having received feedback on a previous assignment (like a previous draft of a paper). I can schedule automatic email reminders about assignments, email only students who are missing assignments, and students can check their grades and assignment lists online at any time. Not only does this dramatically reduce the time I spend chasing after assignments, but it gives students more agency in being able to participate in the class on their own time.

Certainly not every class can be structured this way or allow for flexible deadlines. But, I think a lot of them could be, and I think in most cases it would improve student engagement and learning outcomes. Below, you can find the comments on my two fall course evaluations, and you can check out my previous posts on curricula development or my teaching statements.


For much of the fall semester, assignment deadlines were open ended. Do you think keeping open ended deadlines (as in, you turn in things when they are ready but [not] on a specific date) next year would make this class better? Do you think you would be able to keep up with assignments without deadlines? Or do you think the deadlines help keep you on track?

My question from the course evaluations for this fall

Comments

  • I think the soft deadlines kept me in check, however it’s nice to know that if things unexpectedly get crazy for me that I won’t be penalized for taking extra time to make sure that I submit quality work.
  • I very much appreciated the flexibility in deadlines for this class as many other classes ramp up at the end of the semester. I felt as though I could control my workload with the assignments set up like this, and would recommend keeping the deadlines as suggestions to where you should be up to date in the course, but the actual submission deadline remains later in the semester.
  • You could do once a month check ins or something to verify nobody is completely slacking off. Maybe have three major deadlines to force people to keep up – one at the end of October, end of November and then the final submission?
  • The deadlines really helped keep me on track. Dr. Sue Ishaq was more than lenient with due dates and the work load, so I do not think anyone would have an excuse to not do well in this course (although this was really helpful with the troubling times humanity is facing). I think being more strict would be more fair to her as a professor and would help students not take advantage of being able to put things off and not learn the material.
  • I think the open ended deadlines was really helpful. It allowed me to put the time in when I could rather than rushing to get it done and turned in for the due date.
  • I appreciated having the due dates so I could try to get stuff in at a reasonable time but also that the deadlines were flexible so if something came up I wouldn’t turn in something I wasn’t happy with. I had a different class with no deadlines and it was horrible, I need the structure to be there but to also have the leniency for when things aren’t going well.
  • In this new quarantined world, the open deadlines were essential to academic success. While I didn’t struggle in this class necessarily, I did struggle in chemistry, pre calculus and lab with out the aid of study groups, math labs, and lab partners. Having open dead lines in this course not only affected my academic success in this course, but it also snow balled in a positive way and helped my GPA overall.
  • I think open ended deadlines with a suggested deadline would be the most helpful, because it will reduce the stress of deadlines, and allow for leeway in the case of multiple courses having work do on the same day, but it also gives a time frame around when the work should be done
  • The lack of deadlines required self–discipline but also removed the daunting aspect of the due date, which I often find myself deterred by and ultimately more likely to put off the work. I felt that the assignments were more inviting this way.
  • I think that this semester it was very beneficial to have the open ended deadlines. For me personally, I prefer to have deadlines to keep me on track, but I appreciate the flexibility of the open–ended deadlines.
  • I think having the open ended, suggestive deadlines made for a much easier semester. It took off a lot of stress to know that I could have an extra day if needed. Sometimes we get peaks in the semester where we’re slammed with work and knowing that if I needed an extra day or two to complete an assignment was really reassuring.
  • Thank you for being understanding on deadlines as this semester has been crazy, although the soft deadlines kept me on track without penalizing me for taking extra time if needed.
  • I think ended open deadlines do help due to things become crazier as the whole covid thing continues
  • I feel that open ended deadlines next year would make this class better because due to recent events in the world it is sometimes difficult communicating with project mentors. By having open ended deadlines, I know when it is supposed to be due, but if I am missing some information from someone on the project I do not worry as much about getting in trouble for handing it in late.
  • yes this is hard to juggle long term projects with weekly class deadlines. So open ended is the best for this class.
  • I believe the structure of fall semester deadlines was great.
  • I feel like open ended deadlines are very helpful because you would be able create better quality work with your research. I feel like I would be about to keep up with work without deadlines or just create the deadline for the end of the semester and put reminders.
  • I think a more strict set of deadlines could’ve been helpful as far as tracking progress. Exceptions could still be made for those struggling on a topic, or who are unable to start for some reason out of their control.
  • This semester, while everyone has been adjusting to the new way of pandemic life, the open ended deadlines were extremely helpful and stress relieving.
  • yes I think there should be soft deadlines, there is a date that it should be done but we didn’t have to have it done by then
  • Having a general guideline about when things should be turned in has been helpful, but keeping the deadlines open ended has relieved a lot of stress and has enabled me to produce better work because I was not rushed.
  • The deadlines kept me on track and having no deadlines would have me just turn everything in at the end which is bad.
  • I liked the deadlines. I would have kept all the work till the last minute if we didn’t. However, the open ended deadlines meant that even if you were behind, you wouldn’t be penalized which really helped.
  • I think open ended deadlines are a great idea because it allowed me to not feel pressured to submit something that I did not feel was ready. Without that stress, I was able to submit all of my assignments on time with the open ended deadline and not during the later one, which was helpful!

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AVS 254: Introduction to Animal Microbiomes

My first official course at the University of Maine has been approved! Starting Fall 2020, I will teach AVS 254: Introduction to Animal Microbiomes!

This 3-credit course is geared towards undergraduates with a science background, with sophomore status or higher. Some familiarity with microbiology, genetics, mammalian anatomy, or microbial ecology would be helpful, but is not specifically required.

The working syllabus can be found here, with more information on lectures, assignments, workload, classroom policies, and more:

Description:  This course introduces students to host-associated microbiomes; the genomic collection of bacteria, archaea, fungi, protozoa, and viruses present in a host ecosystem. In each lecture, we will focus on an anatomical location, and discuss the host and environmental pressures which select for the resident microbial community.  The material is primarily in animals (mammals, birds, fish, amphibians) but includes some human-specific comparisons. This course will introduce ecological theories (e.g. environmental selection, neutral theory) in the context of microbial communities, the history of host-associated microbiology, and how technology has contributed to or limited our understanding of organisms and their critical role in our health and development. The skill-set objectives include group discussions, reading scientific literature, and scientific writing in a variety of styles and both technical and non-technical formats.