Reflections on course design


A commenter wonders how I would define practical:

I’d be interested to hear your operational definition of practical (not just examples, but the actual criteria by which you decide one subject is ‘practical’ and another is not).  Even in talking with you on this blog so far, I haven’t really seen a usable definition;  it’s more of a Potter Stewart ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ affair.

I realize I haven’t been clear on this point. When it comes to course design and pedagogy, practical is not an input criteria. You shouldn’t start by asking what is practical for students to learn. You should instead be backwards designing your instruction. Start with specific learning goals for the course and work from there. You’ll probably end up with reams and reams of possible content and many ways to assess learning. At that point you can whittle down based on practical considerations. Maybe you only have 2 months to teach. Maybe it’s a general education class not intended for specialists. Maybe you fall behind early in the semester and have to decide what to drop later on.

All of these types of decisions should enter after you’ve done the up-front work. Even trying to have an “operational definition” wouldn’t be helpful. What’s practical in one class for one set of students might not be for another. Evolutionary biology is not only practical but an absolute necessity for ecologists. Not obviously so for medical doctors. In either case we are not making a global statement on practical knowledge. It’s highly contextualized.

I initially used the word practical because it’s from my favorite paper on public science literacy. Please forgive me as I quote myself:

You can spend a lifetime reading the scholarship just on [public understanding of science]. My personal favorite is a 1975 article by astrophysicist Benjamin Shen. Shen outlines three categories of science literacy: practical, civic, and cultural. Science in the first category helps people in their daily lives, and includes topics like nutrition, health, and agriculture. The second would help people make informed civic decisions, while the third is in the same spirit as Shakespeare or Greek mythology.

Although you can’t just jump from this theory paper to a curriculum, I found it useful to reflect on. Why exactly do non-scientists need to learn science? What purpose should science education serve for them? What should they learn to meet those goals? I’ll try to gather some more links and references. But if you want to read more, start with George DeBoer’s (long!) discussion on how the definition of science literacy has changed over the years.


  1. Nice post. I showed it to my wife, and we discussed it, and she agrees that that’s largely how she designs classes when she teaches as well. But you still didn’t answer my question. Let me try it a different way to make it clearer. You made this statement:
    “Evolutionary biology is not only practical but an absolute necessity for ecologists. Not obviously so for medical doctors.”.
    I’m asking you to explain the reasoning that justifies this statement. Why is evolutionary biology practical for ecologists? Why is it not practical for medical doctors? The first part of the question is just as important as the second. You’ve given an example, but you haven’t given a useful set of rules for deciding – in context – which subject / topic / idea is practical to teach in one situation and not another. If I challenged your decision, how would you defend it or justify it? As I said, so far I haven’t received great answers to this question, and it more often than not devolves into either ‘because it just is, we just know it is’ (Potter Stewart), or ‘because I like / don’t like / love / hate’ that topic (ideological bias) or even ‘that’s not my problem’.

    1. Hey. Good question as always. I suspect we’re not going to see eye to eye on this because I don’t think we should have an up-front definition. Even stronger, I think two people can legitimately disagree on what constitutes practical even within the same class! I guess you can say that I’m inferring practical each time based on the data at hand instead of (what I think you want) imposing a strict criteria that I can use across all situations.

      So for the example above, my thought process is something like this:
      1. What are the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) all ecologists/doctors need to have? To first order, you can infer this by asking experts currently in the field and over time. You can look at things like the academic job market and which sub-fields have been trending over the past year/5 years/10 years. You can also consider (off-the-cuff example) how medical technology has been changing diagnostic practices over similar timeframes.
      2. To what extent do I believe can classroom instruction impart these KSAs?
      3. How much time do I have with these students?
      4. What are their incoming proficiencies/gaps in knowledge?
      5. Given point 1, what types of knowledge are more/less relevant?
      6. etc.

      This is *not* a super-rigorous approach, and I’m fine with it. But I would also say it’s a far cry from a Potter Stewart. It’s trying to be analytical. And I think it does help you get somewhere. For example, I would argue the theory of evolution is not practical/ useful/ relevant for space plasma physicists, and would exclude it from being a required course.

      There are two larger points here. One is that people can legitimately disagree. I once co-taught graduate plasma physics with a labmate. Even though we were in the same lab, we still disagreed on what is “important”, “practical” and “relevant.” I can imagine that as the topic gets more general (science education), the disagreement gets stronger. Two is that this type of analysis can lead to a different conclusion based on the data. I suspect it might be similar to what your wife does if she encounters a very gifted student who already knows a lot. She might have a wonderful course plan but have to adjust it to meet his needs.

      I hope this clarifies where I’m coming from. If not, keep the questions coming!

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