Designing Economics of the Environment – Part 1 – General Principles, Backward Design, and Course Learning Objectives

~900 words, ~4 min reading time

Part 2 here.

So, next semester I’m going to be teaching Economics of the Environment for the first time. Because I think some people might find it interesting, I think I’m going to post some of my thinking process as I design this course over the break. So, I’m starting here today with some “initial thoughts”

General Principles

(1) I’m going to use Specs grading – I’ve been very happy with this so far. So, I’m going to stick with that.

(2) The Final is going to provide a “grade modifier” – where performance on the final will adjust the course grade based on other assignments by +1/3 of a letter grade to -2/3 of a letter grade. This gives the final a reasonable weight, but also ensures a clear “floor” to a student’s grade going into the final.

(3) The assignments are probably going to be a combination of reading responses, problem sets, and a research paper (for students who aim for an A). Also, need to ask metacognitive questions for all of these. (Even a simple “what did you learn while doing this assignment?” would work.)

(4) Deadlines scattered throughout the semester.

(5) I’m debating about giving the students the Final Exam on Day 1. When I heard Linda Nilson speak this year, she suggested this. For essay-based finals, I think this is pretty brilliant. As she pointed out, if you write a good final, you’re going to have students having the exact discussion that you want them to have over the course of the semester if you do this.

Planning Materials

While I believe very much that each of us needs to make a course “our own” in some fashion, I also believe that there needs to be enough commonality across instructors for a course that it can meaningfully be considered the “same course”. To that end, I have the following…

(1) Our Department has Course Learning Objectives for all courses. These have to be listed in the syllabus, and provide a good way too focus the course.

(2) Our Department also has “Basic Course Sheets”. This includes the Learning Objectives, the description in the catalog, and also a description of what in-class and out-of-class activities are used in the course.

(3) For courses that have been recently created or revised, we have “Course Information Sheets”. These add to the mix an example textbook or two, and a schedule with the amount of time spent on each topic in the course. Unfortunately, this course has not been updated recently, so getting one of these is extremely difficult.

(4) When I start teaching a course that someone else teaches or has taught, I often get whatever they’re willing to share with me – I usually just ask for a syllabus and thoughts on textbook choices, but often get more than that. The professor who teaches this course at the Kent campus was EXTREMELY generous, and provided syllabus, assignments, lecture notes, etc. I have LOADS of material here. Obviously, I’m not going to just use everything I was given – I have to adapt things to my style. But, editing a pre-existing course is much easier than reinventing the course from scratch.

Backward Design

“Backward design” is kind of the “state of the art” in course design. The idea is simple enough. While “forward design” starts with course activities/content, and then tries to figure out how to assess that, “backward design” starts with learning objectives, then moves to consider assessment, and finally designs the course activities with those assessments in mind. Now, the reality is that it’s a recursive process. Sometimes, when you’re teaching you realize that there are hidden learning objectives that you hadn’t thought about. Or, you realize that the assessments don’t *quite* assess what you wanted them to. Or that there are missing or extraneous course activities that don’t reinforce the assessed learning objectives. Alignment is a bit of a dance, and it takes a few iterations to get it right. (Example: when I taught stats this semester it was RADICALLY different than the last time I taught it.)

But, using a backward design, it turns out, works well as a first pass on the more realistic “recursive design” that actually happens. So, let’s take a look at my learning objectives.

Course Learning Objectives

Based on what I got from the Department, these are the three course learning objectives:

1. Students will understand economic concepts, models and tools for analyzing environmental and natural resource issues and problems.

2. Students will understand problems that arise in the efficient use of depletable and renewable resources, and understand potential solutions to these problems.

3. Students will understand problems that arise from the use of environmental resources such as air and water, and understand potential solutions to these problems.

When moving from learning objectives to assessments, the key is to look at the verbs in the learning objectives, as they hint at the kinds of assessments you should do. “Identify” is a different kind of assessment than “explain” which is certainly different than “apply”. (“Identify” often lends itself to a matching/multiple choice assessment strategy – though you can always frame these as short answer. “Explain” often lends itself to short answer or essay – but a well-crafted multiple choice question can do the same thing.)

As you can see, there’s a strong consistency in the learning objectives for this course – students will understand. It turns out that this is a particularly difficult verb to assess – but more on that in the next installment!

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