Custom course packs give university instructors enormous freedom in course design. Unlike traditional textbooks, course packs can take any shape, and can be tailored to fit almost any subject matter, teaching method, or educational goal. These qualities, combined with their reasonable cost, make course packs very popular among university instructors. Cost aside, however, many university students see course packs in a very different light. To students, many course packs are an intimidating maze of texts that are highly confusing and difficult to navigate. If the course pack is a collection of undifferentiated articles or discrete book chapters without organizational signposts, clear reading guidelines or chapter headings, students must struggle to build the contexts necessary for comprehension.
Carefully constructed, course packs can perform several different functions, depending on the instructor’s goals. Here are three basic types of course packs, along with brief descriptions of how they might fit with course goals.
In disciplines where research produces new information at a rapid rate, as in the health fields or the natural sciences, it may not be possible to cover in one semester as much as the fast-changing subject seems to demand. In these situations, particularly in graduate level courses, the instructor often needs to ask students to buy a collection of materials taken from the latest published research. Instructors generally treat this type of course pack as a research tool to which students refer as needed, perhaps even after the course has ended.
If you plan to use a course pack as a reference, you should carefully weigh the utility of the contents to students in six months or a year, especially relative to its cost. It might be more appropriate to use the reference pack as a tool to teach students how to read and evaluate similar material and how to find more current materials on their own. It may also be better to use portions of articles rather than articles in their entirety. Not only does this reduce the volume of material and clarify your purpose in providing the materials to students, copying small sections of articles may not require copyright clearance or payment of royalties.
A professor in a research design and applied statistics course divides the course pack into sections. She presents problem statements and hypotheses from several studies in one section of the course pack, several different designs for different research problems (and for similar research problems) in another section, and study results and conclusions in other sections of the pack. Thereby, students see the application of design and methodology theory, learn to critique current research in the field, and master the forms and protocols of research writing. This kind of course pack is more valuable to students when they undertake research outside the classroom.
Another good use of the reference pack is to provide diverse materials for different learning groups or “tracks” that students in the course may choose to pursue. In a Health Policy Law course, students may choose to study case law applicable to regulatory agencies, hospital liability, nursing home administration, patient rights, etc. The course pack contains case law from each of these areas, and students use different sections of the pack to complete course assignments. Since students in the course have materials from all of the topical areas, they may refer to other topics later as their interest or needs change.
An Anthropology professor has developed six issue-oriented field projects as a central component of his course. The six projects together represent a discrete set of cultural features of the region studied. In the course pack, each of these six field projects is described in depth, including an overview of the topic and its related themes and issues in a regional context; a descriptive project goal including strategies and ideas to guide the field work; expectations and suggestions for reporting; and an annotated bibliography. While each student pursues only one field project during the semester, the course pack provides extensive information and resources on all six topic areas, allowing students to read about the issues and strategies involved investigating all six cultural features of the region.
In subjects where textbooks do not offer adequate coverage of topics, the course pack can supplement the central text. The most limited form is simply an anthology of articles, individual chapters from other texts, stories or relevant documents. This kind of course pack can also provide an opportunity for students to read rare materials not available in commercial publications.
In extended form the companion pack adds a new dimension to a traditional course. An instructor might use the pack as counterpoint to lectures and textbooks, with the goal of challenging the students to consider different perspectives and sources of evidence. In economics, for example, an instructor lecturing on one theory of stock market analysis could with careful planning and presentation use the course pack to present rebuttal based on alternative models.
One business administration professor includes copies of all overhead transparencies that he uses in class, but he leaves out selected portions of the lesson (including solutions to problems) from each print, so that students learn by adding to the course pack handouts in class. Students are constantly engaged in the course in meaningful ways and have a format for note taking which perfectly matches the instruction. This technique also allows students to listen and interact in class because they are not frantically copying notes from the transparencies.
Another strategy complemented by the use of a companion pack is a redirection of class time from presentation of material to discussion of ideas and critical thinking. By creating a course pack that contains photocopies of all the instructor’s notes, media and other support materials that would normally be presented in lecture, instructors can devote class time to discussions related to higher educational goals, such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
In its most integrated form, the course pack is designed to be the primary source of course materials and a guide to the content. It often consists of a selection of readings, a detailed syllabus with instructions for assignments, study questions, problems to solve, collections of charts and diagrams for analysis and practice exam questions.
A course based on the case method, where students learn by applying abstract concepts, theories and principles to real or simulated events, can be greatly enhanced by integrating source material and class process information. The course manual serves as a guide and resource for exercises in problem-solving. In addition to outlining assignments and study strategies, the course manual supplies materials from various printed sources, such as newspapers, legal documents, company statistics, government data, photographs, court records, network data, manuscripts and diaries. The students use this information to reconstruct specific issue-based controversies, and are required to propose ways to resolve them.
For example, a professor of public policy analysis created a course pack that contained case studies of local public policy issues, such as the dispute over the construction of a dam to improve the area’s water supply and a controversy involving the grades and graduation rates of University athletes. He used official reports, newspaper and magazine articles, and photographs, and each case study was accompanied by a set of questions that students had to address to prepare for in-class discussions.
This type of integrated course pack is gaining popularity with faculty and colleges nation-wide. An instructor in Mental Health Nursing has developed a course manual that contains course policies, goals, daily lesson plans, objectives, and teaching strategies fully integrated with reading assignments, handouts, articles, study guides, case studies, guidelines for group work and group assignments. The results of her student evaluations reflect how much the students appreciate her efforts; ratings for course organization, use of teaching materials, in-class exercises, and integration of reading and lectures, etc. have risen significantly.
Principles of Course Pack Design:
– Consider the number of articles you include judiciously. A limited and focused selection of articles will be more useful to and appreciated by the students than a massive collection.
– Provide a context for the materials. A table of contents, consistent numeration of pages and a general introduction are very useful to communicate the structure of the course pack. Individual introductions for each entry can show the relationship of the entry to the section in which it appears and cover background information that would help the student understand the context for the material.
– Define terms and concepts. Providing a glossary of technical vocabulary and brief explanations of new concepts will supplement students’ prior knowledge of the subject, greatly increasing their reading confidence, speed and comprehension.
– Include a reading strategy. The forms of discourse within a discipline demand unique reading strategies, and the average student entering the university needs guidance to read articles from academic journals meaningfully. An introduction for each reading assignment that explains the objectives and procedures of research in the discipline, the purpose of journals in the disciplines, how journal articles are structured to serve that purpose, and how to use an abstract if one is available, can accelerate the learning process and expedite student progress through the material.
– Use clear and legible images. Production quality affects readability, interest in, and utility of the course pack. Cut away large black borders from photocopies of text to save ink and space for note taking. Avoid radical format changes from one page to another. Where possible, cut and paste to ensure that layouts are neat and easy to follow. Do not shrink more than two pages of text to an 8 1/2 x 11 page. Visual images, like overhead transparencies and slides, with low contrast between the figure and background (as with dark backgrounds) don’t reproduce well in course packs.
– Provide study questions for the material. Study questions will help students focus on what you intend for them to learn from a particular assignment. If students are new to the material, you might need to organize the questions to move from simple ones that elicit facts, descriptions and definitions complex questions that require analysis, synthesis and judgment.
– Refresh the course pack frequently. Because you will republish the course pack each term, try to take advantage of the opportunity to review the material for timeliness and to revise it based on student comments about the pack and the course. You might also use this rhythm to build your course pack over several semesters, and add new features, such as the syllabus and other handouts, with each term.