10 Habits of Highly Effective Unit Designers
Unit design involves planning and developing a unit of study for delivery, whether that is online, on-campus or blended. It involves making choices about what, when, where and how to teach while maintaining a focus on supporting students through the best possible learning experiences.
There are a series of steps to designing or redesigning an effective unit and some ‘habits’ to being an effective unit designer. We’ve provided guidance on each step that you can explore through the links but first look over the graphics “10 habits to a highly effective unit designer” and see which you identify with and those that perhaps you could develop more of.
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Habit number 9 is they align everything. Biggs and Tang called this constructive alignment and it is an essential approach when planning your unit. At the basic level this means your learning outcomes, assessment and learning experiences are aligned and each works to support the other.
“In constructive alignment, we start with the outcomes we intend students to learn, and align teaching and assessment to those outcomes. The outcome statements contain a learning activity, a verb, that students need to perform to best achieve the outcome, such as “apply expectancy-value theory of motivation”, or “explain the concept of … “. That verb says what the relevant learning activities are that the students need to undertake in order to attain the intended learning outcome. Learning is constructed by what activities the students carry out; learning is about what they do, not about what we teachers do. Likewise, assessment is about how well they achieve the intended outcomes, not about how well they report back to us what we have told them or what they have read.”
Listen to Dr Peter Cook discuss a unit design case study and his approach to Unit Design:
- Review existing unit details (UCMS) to establish unit design and philosophy
- Identify essential curriculum components, big ideas, key questions – using mind mapping
- Unit blueprinting to map out a learning design, including formative and summative assessment
- Backwards design approach to align assessment and learning activities to learning outcomes
Part of the responsibility of designing this type of a unit that it has some elements of online activity is also about materials themselves. Yes, it’s possible to go outside of Southern Cross University for example and find fantastic websites and opportunities there, but at times those don’t actually speak in the way that you’ve decided the voice of this unit needs to be heard, and so what happens there is that you’re faced with the decision that ultimately it’s about creating your own resources. One of the ways that I’ve been able to do this with a degree of success is to create video snippets, especially when it’s about describing or defining a term or a concept, or one of those things, which happens all the time in creative arts. So I would actually go about creating a short clip that would be able to describe, define, an element or a concept in the arts in a really efficient way, and I think that that’s important because what sometime may take a lot of a long-winded approach is actually done in a fairly succinct and edited way, so it’s efficient for all. The post editing process of all of that is also a way of furthering the fact that these students are listening and really have limited visuals, to respond to, so for example there might be a word or a topic or some sort of graphic that is actually embedded onto these videos to make sure all these clips, I should say, to make sure that the students have been hammered home a particular message, a particular point or a particular concept. The other trick about using this resource that you’ve created is that you’re allowed to then introduce the resource and also debrief or unpack the resource in whatever way you want. So I go back to, for example, in creative arts that we would create two of these per topic and yet there was a lot of padding around those that where we’re able to explain to students what it was that they were about to see, and how that fitted into the bigger picture of their unit development and what it is that they were being asked to understand. Those clips also had significance for students because they were able to go back to and stop and start and pause the recording and revisit any information that they may need to clarify. If it was that students also were faced with, for example, an unpacking of an assignment, I would actually create a clip for those sorts of opportunities as well. I felt like this was a way of me engaging given the fact that this particular unit currently was, or at the time of creation, was sitting across three different campuses, one of which I very rarely got to, but it’s also in preparation for external delivery as well. So to be able to actually find uniform ways of delivering message, an important message about the intricacies of an assignment, this actually worked in a really manageable way and an efficient way. Likewise hopefully when it comes to the next duration of this particularly unit, maybe I can actually just use that particular clip again and so I actually used the online tools as a really simple way to disseminate a lot of information. When it was that we started to concern ourselves with syllabus documents which are sometime very ugly, boring documents, we were able to actually find interesting and engaging ways to use those documents as well. This also provided another access for our tutorials staff. Tutorial staff were able to watch all of this material and to be able to engage with the material at the same time and in the similar way to the way the students were. Obviously that’s going to make a very sound way that our tutorial staff then approach the students when they do get to work with them.
If it is that you were going to approach a fairly hefty document, for example in our case it would be a syllabus, those documents are filled with information and it’s probably the responsibility of the unit design team to actually articulate what the important parts are for students at this moment in time. Whilst the document might be sixty pages, the relevance to this particular unit may only need to explore, in a very thorough sense, some aspects of it. Sometimes it can also be the most confusing or sometimes it could also be the most complex that you actually want to explore. Having said that, the way that you actually approach this it to really think through what are the vital messages that are being said in this document. It’s not a simple case of reading the document for the students from front to back, it’s actually a case of identifying the key chapter headings or the key milestones within this particular document to be able to say to them ‘These are the things that are actually being said in this particular part’. It also might be the case, and one of the techniques that I think I’ve used quite a few times in designing units, would be to tell students, that they can stop the recording and have a read of a section. I think that that also gives students, and they certainly commented on this to me, it gives them the opportunity to feel like you are actually working with them and you’re actually being quite direct in your instruction. So for example it might be ‘You can read the rest of the outcomes on page 42 of this document. I am going to suggest that you pause the recording now to do so’. So that type of a comment is a really easy way of giving them permission to stop the technology at that moment and to change focus into the written text which most of them would have in front of them and to work their way through.
In starting the design process the first thing that I think is quite an important thing is to understand the philosophy of what this unit is about. So where does the unit come from, why is it in existence, and then to work from that place. The philosophy is also a really important thing because I think that it is a checkpoint for us to always work out whether or not we're doing what we set out to achieve. The biggest part of that was the blueprinting process. So the aims of our unit were very clear that we needed to escalate students' confidence and competence in the creative arts. But how do we actually do that? So before approaching the blueprint process, there was a fairly significant mind map of what it was that was going to be involved in each of the four art forms in this particular unit. Having done that we were able to recognise both from our accreditation process which has a whole pile of information about what students are going to be covering, we were able to dump that into these chunks of learning that were being designed, making all of those steps become more fluid, and it aided both the blueprint process but also the end result.
So there was quite a lot of work that went into me sitting at home with a whole pile of butchers paper and being able to actually understand what was essential and what was needed to happen then. The next thing that occurred was that I undertook the heavy blueprinting process. This particular process, even though it has a formalised template approach, that the School of Education uses, that we were able to look at all of those individual components and be able to understand how all of those things would influence the students' learning. The interesting thing for us is that, still, we went backwards, saying 'Here is when the summative assessment needed to occur and let me now make sure that the outcomes were being addressed through the learning activities, prior to that'. So it all aligned very neatly and went from one to the other. The reason why I actually am quite a fan of the blueprint process is, for us, that it didn't work. I say that, at that moment in time we're able to say that the unit as it had existed previously, was not actually going to be achievable in the new structure. So we were confident that we had the right material, it just was in the wrong order. So when we looked at the blueprint that all we needed to do was to take the second five topics and put them first and in essence that made this unit achievable.
Having done that process we were also able to see that there was a very strong need for a flow-through both for the formative assessment tasks that would happen online and also for the summative assessment tasks. So we were able to go back to our original philosophy and say 'Here is our online material, here's what going to happen either in our weekly workshops or as external students in an intensive workshop and here is how it's all going to be assessed'. This was quite an important document for us because it actually limited, structured and gave sound advice to a whole pile of philosophy and ideas.
The following documents can help you with unit design:
- A Guide to the Unit Details (UCMS)
- Designing for accessibility
- Learning Activities
- Learning Outcomes
- Sequence, connect and recycle for success
- Unit Blueprint (6 week teaching mode)
- Unit Blueprint (12 week teaching mode)
- Unit Site Design in Blackboard
- Unit Writing Milestone Guidelines (Undergraduate)
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