Finding the ‘Red Thread’: How to Revise an Inherited Course.

Most lecturers have experienced inheriting a course to teach, often at short notice or with limited ability to overhaul the structure. Increasing use of short term contracts and high staff turnover makes this an increasingly common reality at many universities. But after multiple lecturers and revisions, courses can begin to loose their conceptual thread.

How can we address this? How do we adapt courses to reflect our own interests within syllabus boundaries? Can we future proof our courses to enable colleagues to take over our courses with ease?

In Vol 11, No 2, of Teaching Anthropology, Rachel Irwin described her own experience of inheriting a course and the steps she took to revise its structure and content. She proposed looking to update course material to reflect contemporary social movements that have called attention to power, privilege and inclusivity in the classroom, but also, importantly, to find its narrative coherence, what she described as it’s “red thread”.

“In the German and Scandinavian languages, this sense of coherence is often referred to as the “red thread,” or röda tråden in Swedish. In the pedagogical context, it refers to a narrative progression through the course, similar to the German leitmotiv. Each lecture or session should build upon the previous one, and there should be a sense that the course is coherently structured, held together by a unifying set of themes.”

Rachel Irwin, ‘How to Take Over and Revise a Medical Ethnology Course in the Post-Everything Era’, 2022

Rachel’s full Developing Teaching report is available open access. In the Appendix she shared a guide for thinking through revising a course. It is shared here in the Resources section in the hope others will find it useful.

Taking Over and Revising a Course
Congratulations – you are now the course convenor of an existing course. What do you do next?
Assess what, if anything, needs to change about the course
1.      What works well about the course?  If possible, discuss with previous lecturers and/or review student evaluations.
2.      Can you – as the lecturer – easily identify the ‘red thread’ of the course?  That is, can you identify the narrative coherence in the course material and structure?
3.      Do you – as the lecturer – understand why individual topics are covered? Do you understand why specific readings are on the reading list and how they relate to the lectures? Do you understand how the course ideas and themes progress over the term?
4.      Is the material up to date? Is it still in print?  Does it need to be supplemented or should certain readings be taken off the list? Is there new or emerging research to discuss? Does the material reflect current societal issues?
5.      Are the course materials and sessions sensitive to disciplinary considerations?
6.      How can your own research strengths and interest be incorporated into the course – without making the course too dependent on you?

Making and Implementing Changes
1.      Make a list of key themes, concepts and empirical examples in the course material.  Do these need to be re-arranged, combined and/or separated?
2.      What changes do you want to make? What is the rationale behind the changes?  What deficits are you trying to address?
3.      How will the changes contribute to student learning?
4.      How will the changes contribute to your classroom experience?
Evaluating Changes
1.      Do you feel that your changes have had the intended outcomes?
2.      Are the intended outcomes reflected in student learning? This can include, but is not limited to, formal or informal course evaluations.  It may also be reflected in the content of exam answers.
3.      Are the students able to clearly identify the ‘red thread’ in the course?
Documenting Changes and Course Material
1.      How easy would it be for someone to take over the course from you?
2.      Is the course too dependent on the research interests and strengths of one or two people, or is it flexible?
3.      Is there an easy-to-read document in which your changes are clearly described and their rational explained

Image: Photo by Akwice from Pexels

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