Category Archives: Course Development

The Need for Cognition

Psychologists define the intrinsic motivation to engage in cognitive activities as the need for cognition, or NFC (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982; Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996; Cacioppo, Petty, & Kao, 1984). Students with a high NFC have greater intrinsic motivation to engage in learning activities and will therefore engage in activities such as completion of homework. Students with low NFC are less motivated to engage in learning activities; therefore, they will be more likely to take the path of least resistance, spending the minimal amount of effort on homework.

Some researchers have found a link between the need for cognition (NFC) and performance expectancy (Dickhauser & Reinhard, 2006, 2009, 2010). Students with a high NFC develop performance expectancies based on self-concept related to a specific task, while students with low NFC develop performance expectancies based on a more general self-concept. Therefore, there is an expected relationship between NFC and Performance Expectancy. Students with a low NFC tend to exaggerate their likely performance, which could negatively impact their study habits (they are more likely to think they have studied enough and quit studying before they are adequately prepared for a test). Additionally, students with low NFC are less likely to adapt their study habits in order to enhance their performance.

This research and my previous research on cognitive development raised the question in my mind “Can the Need for Cognition be improved?” If cognition is developed through experiences, can experiences also improve one’s intrinsic motivation to engage in cognitive activities? Do students have a low NFC because they have little experience or success with cognitive activities? I have been researching this topic and have not found any studies on this. I think it would be interesting study.


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Learning Theories – Building a Foundation For Your Course

Before we can begin building a course, we must first consider how we expect our students to learn the concepts covered in the course. Application of tested learning theories will help to strengthen the course. In this post, I will review two learning theories: (a) cognitivism and (b) subsumption theory. I will also provide examples of how these theories might be applied to building a course.

Cognitivism states that the learning process is internal, active, and creative, and that memory plays an important role in the learning process. What we learn is stored in our memory. According to cognitivism, new material is placed into memory (learned) through three processes: (a) attention, (b) encoding, and (c) retrieval. New information is received (attention) and processed (encoding) to make sense of it. Learning takes place when new information is connected to existing information so that it can be stored for later use (retrieval). The instructor should present new material in a way in which students can relate to it. This helps in the attention and encoding processes. When students receive new information that is foreign to them (they have no frame of reference), they tend to reject it; however, if the information is presented by comparing it to something they already understand, they will be able to pay attention and accept it. Giving students a frame of reference for new information allows them to be able to process (encode) the new information and to store it for later use (retrieval).

Somewhat related to cognitivism is the subsumption theory by Ausubel, who states that learning occurs through superordinate, representational, and combinatioral processes (subsumption). When new ideas are presented in a way that relates to ideas in one’s existing cognitive structure, the ideas can be processed. One’s cognitive structure is the sum of all ideas that have been presented, understood in a context, and combined in a way that makes sense and adds to the existing cognitive structure. The role of the instructor is to provide the organizers that allow students to add new ideas to their existing cognitive structure. This is done by presenting the most general ideas first, then providing the details, being sure to bring it back to the “big picture”. New material is presented by comparing it to the “big picture” or other ideas already presented and understood.

An example of the application of cognitivism and subsumption theories in an accounting course is to begin by discussing financial statements (the “big picture”). Because financial statements are likely to be a foreign concept to students, it is helpful to explain them in terms in which a student can relate. For example, it’s helpful to begin with the balance sheet, explaining what assets, liabilities, and equity are. Have students develop their own personal balance sheets, listing the assets they own, any debts they owe, and then to subtract the debts from the assets to calculate their equity (net worth). Then, give examples of “transactions” that would impact their balance sheets, such as purchase of a car with a loan. Have them record the changes to their balance sheets for each transaction. Next, move on to the income statement. Explain that their earnings from work are their revenues and that the costs of working (interest on car payments, gasoline, professional clothing, etc.) are their expenses. Have them calculate their “net income” from working.

As you begin developing a course, start with the “big picture”. This is the major course outcome. Think about it as the one big concept or skill set that you expect students to grasp by the end of the course. Develop the course to present the “big picture” first, then tie every new concept back to the “big picture”. This way of looping back to the major concept helps students to process new information in context. I like to “chunk” my courses into units or modules of related concepts. At the beginning of each unit, I discuss how the unit is related to the “big picture”. Then at the end of the unit, I provide some activity that helps students to tie the unit concepts back to the “big picture”. In my Introduction to Financial Accounting course, unit one covers the accounting cycle. I begin the unit by looking at the end result of the accounting cycle, the financial statements. We then spend time covering each of the steps in the accounting cycle. At the end of the each step, we discuss how it relates to or changes the financial statements. At the end of the unit, students complete the accounting cycle for a small business. We also discuss (either in class or in online discussion forums) the impact of the steps to the financial statements. Students compare the beginning financial statements with the ending financial statements and discuss what took place to make the changes.

Once the course is structured into units, you are ready to begin writing lesson plans. For each new concept you will introduce, consider what knowledge of the concept students are likely to have. For example, in an Intermediate Accounting course with a Principle of Accounting prerequisite, you might assume that students would have a basic understanding of financial accounting. You might also provide an overview of the principles course as a review just in case some students completed the prerequisite course several semesters (or years) ago. Introduce new concepts within the framework that students can recognize, either from previous courses or from a personal perspective. Begin with the “big picture”. For example, when I teach Cost Accounting, I begin by explaining that we will be examining reports that are not designed for external users. While the reports help to provide information for the financial statements designed for external users, the information is provided in a way that is useful to management. I also introduce the concept of unit cost the very first class by using an example to which students can relate. One example I use for traditional-aged college students is to have them plan a party. We list all the things we would purchase for a party and total the cost. Then we write down the expected number of people who will attend the party. We can then calculate the cost per attendee (unit cost). This introduces the new concept (unit cost) in a way that is familiar to them (a party), which allows them to accept the new information, process it, attach it to the example to remember it, and retrieve it later.

By developing the course backwards, starting with the outcome(s) and making sure to tie new concepts to the outcome(s), you will help your students to receive and process the new information. If you provide learning activities that require students to manipulate objects, numbers, etc., they are more likely to remember the concept later as they will be able to remember the activity. The more learning opportunities you can provide in a context familiar to students, the more successful your students will be.

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Learning Model

I am reading The Innovative University by Christensen and Eyring and am totally fascinated by the Learning Model example provided in the book. In the Learning Model, students are held responsible for their own learning. They are given some type of assignment prior to class that requires them to learn about a concept. This might be reading an article, researching a topic, reading a textbook section, working some problems, etc. Students also might engage in conversation about the topic prior to class to share what they have learned about the topic with each other. Class time is then devoted to application of the concept to the real world. After the class session, students are asked to reflect on what they have learned.

I’ve been using this type of model for a while now with some level of success. Once students get past the shock of a class that doesn’t conform to “normal”, they tend to enjoy the class and learn the topics more deeply. The trick seems to be in changing student expectations about the classroom. It seems as if BYU-Idaho has done a great job of changing student expectations. They provide both faculty and student orientation and training on the Learning Model and have a culture of accountability, both for students and faculty.

Reading the book and researching the model is causing me to think more carefully about lesson plans. Absent the culture shift like that at BYU-Idaho, how can I move students toward a shift in expectations about my class and then about their future classes? If I can move students toward accepting responsibility for their learning in my class, will they apply this to future classes, even when it’s not a requirement of the class?


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Creating Lesson Plans

In last week’s blog, I talked about developing course outcomes and learning objectives. For a quick review, the course outcomes are the skills I expect students to have upon completion of the course. These should be stated in the form of action verbs that are measurable. For example, a course outcome for one of my accounting courses is that students should be able to analyze the financial performance of a firm.

Learning objectives provide the roadmap for how I will help students gain the skills. These should provide the plan for the cognitive development of students. Using the course outcome example in the previous paragraph, the learning objectives would help students to develop the underlying skills needed to analyze the financial performance of a firm, such as calculating financial ratios.

Once I have developed the outcomes and learning objectives, I begin to create lesson plans for the course. The lesson plans should map to the learning objectives. If I have determined that students must be able to calculate financial ratios in order the analyze the financial performance of a firm, I would want to create lessons that would build and reinforce the skill. The number and complexity of the lessons are dependent upon the skill I am trying to develop. More difficult skills sets require more practice. I might want to create multiple  lesson plans that start with a basic skill, then create more complex lessons to build higher-level skills.

Let’s  consider the example  that I provided in the first blog of my grandson learning to ride his bike. The outcome is that he can ride his bike without training wheels (and without wrecking and getting hurt). I would develop learning objectives like (1) peddle the bike with training wheels; (2) steer the bike with training wheels; (3) peddle and steer at the same time with training wheels; (4) balance without training wheels; (5) balance, peddle and steer without training wheels. The lessons would begin with teaching him to peddle the bike with the training wheels on while I steer. Then I would build to have him both peddle and steer the bike, etc. The message here is that the lessons should map to the learning objectives which provide development of the skill.

When courses are developed in this fashion, students can more easily see the connection between the lessons and the course outcomes. Additionally, because there is more focus on the development of skills, students are more likely to build and retain the required skills.

In next week’s blog, I will discuss building assignments that reinforce the lessons.

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Building Course Outcomes and Learning Objectives

In my previous post I said that developing a course is like planning a trip; it is important to know where you want to go before you start driving. Once you know where you want to go, you can better plan how to get there. I have to admit that when I first started teaching, I fell into the same trap as many college faculty – I developed my courses around a textbook. Luckily, I have realized the error of those ways and have adjusted my strategy accordingly.

The best courses are developed by first considering how the course helps to meet the program outcomes. For example, if one of the outcomes of the entire degree program is that students will be able to communicate effectively, I should consider how my course fits into the program to build that skill. If my course comes early in the program, perhaps I should address the use of proper grammar and spelling to help build communication skills and build a course outcome and learning objectives accordingly. Once I have a clear picture of how my course helps to meet the program outcomes, I can begin to build the course outcomes.

As stated in my previous blog post, the course outcomes provide the road map for the course. They state what students should be able to do upon completion of the course. It is important to state these using action verbs that can be easily measured. When the course has clear and measurable outcomes, it is easy to assess student learning in the course. Going back to my road trip analogy, if I have a clear outcome for the trip (I am going to Disney World, for example), it is easy to measure if the trip was successful (Did I make it to Disney World?).

The course outcomes should be the big, over-arching skills that students should build during the course (there should be somewhere around 3-5 outcomes). I usually divide my courses into units based on the outcomes. For example, in an introductory financial accounting course, the course outcomes might be that the student should be able to: (1) complete the accounting cycle for a service-based business; (2) complete the accounting cycle for a merchandising business; (3) prepare financial statements for a sole proprietorship, partnership, and corporation; and (4) analyze the financial performance of a firm. My course would then be divided into four units with one of these major course outcomes as the theme for each unit.

If we consider the trip analogy, the outcomes are the major checkpoints during the trip. These are the points at which I will stop and assess whether I am on the right road, making adequate progress, and on target to arrive as expected. These provide opportunities to assess student progress through the course. They provide the opportunity to stop and make sure everyone is still “on the bus”.

Once the course outcomes are developed, I begin to write the learning objectives for each of the outcomes. The learning objectives provide more detail about how I will help students to build the skill identified in the course outcome. I must consider the cognitive development of the skill. For example, are there lower-level skills that build up to the major skill set? If one of my course outcomes is that students should be able to analyze the financial performance of a firm, for example, I must add learning objectives to build that skill, such as students should be able to calculate financial ratios.

Building the course outcomes and learning objectives is time consuming, but worth the effort. Without a clear roadmap for the course, it is easy for a course to veer off track.


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The Art of Teaching

I have been teaching Accounting to college students for about 15 years now.  I have to admit that I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning and am still learning about teaching. While teachers at the k-12 level are required to be licensed, we don’t require a license to teach at the college level.  We work under the assumption that an expert in the field should be able to teach others.

I have been fortunate to have taught at institutions that value faculty training in the art of teaching and provide opportunities for faculty to develop themselves in the field of teaching. Many of my colleagues have not been so fortunate. This seems to be a topic of conversation at many of the conferences I attend. There appears to be a need for faculty training on the art of teaching; therefore, I am providing this blog as an avenue for us to share our thoughts on the subject and to educate each other.

In my early years of teaching, I didn’t fully understand the importance of course development. I basically planned class activities week-by-week based upon the next chapter of the text with no thought as to how to tie the concepts together or assess student learning. When I started developing courses for online delivery, I realized the importance of planning the entire course in advance of the beginning of the semester. I quickly realized the value of applying this principle to all the courses I teach, regardless of the venue or format.

I liken the course development process to planning a vacation. I wouldn’t get in the car and start driving without a plan for my vacation; it’s equally ridiculous to start a semester without a clear plan for each course. The first step in the vacation planning process is deciding where to go. I can’t really plan the trip until I know where I’m going. Likewise, it’s crucial to know the course outcomes before planning any lessons. According to the American Association of Law Libraries (2004), “Learning outcomes are statements that specify what learners will know or be able to do as a result of a learning activity.  Outcomes are usually expressed as knowledge, skills, or attitudes.  Learning outcomes should flow from a needs assessment.  The needs assessment should determine the gap between an existing condition and a desired condition. Learning outcomes are statements that describe a desired condition—that is, the knowledge, skills, or attitudes required to fulfill the need.  They represent the solution to the identified need or issue.  Learning outcomes provide direction in the planning of a learning activity.”

This definition of learning outcomes leads to my next point. In order to plan a trip, you must first know where you are going, and then you must consider your starting point. In order to plan the learning activities in a course, one must consider what students should be able to do upon completion of the course, as well as the skills students are expected to have when entering the course. The gap in the skill set is the foundation for all activities within the course.

Once the beginning point and the final destination have been decided, one can develop a plan for the trip. Plans can be made for rest stops, refueling stops, etc. Key signs and landmarks along the way can be mapped so that one can make sure (s)he is still on course. Before starting a long trip, I calculate the distance between the starting and ending points then use that to determine when and where I intend to stop. Knowing how far I’m going allows me to calculate the number of stops I will need to make. This is also important when developing a course. It’s important to determine how far the students will need to “go” to master the skills. This is also helpful in determining the checkpoints along the way to make sure students are meeting the learning outcomes. I find it helpful to build my courses backwards. I begin with the skills I expect students to have gained by the end of the course, then work backwards to build the next level until I reach the level of skill that I expect students to have when they begin the course.  Let’s consider a simple example; assume that I want to teach my five-year-old grandson to ride a bike without training wheels. In order to ride his bike without training wheels, he must be able to balance himself while peddling and steering. Since he knows how to peddle and steer, my lessons would focus on balancing himself.

In future blogs, we will further explore course development. We will also tackle issues such as cognitive development, learning styles, and other topics related to teaching. I hope that you will join in the discussion and we can all learn from each other.


American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), 2004, Developing and Submitting a Program Proposal to the AALL Professional Development Committee, ‘What are learning outcomes?’


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