CIPs Teaching Tips – Spring 2013 #8 “A simple architectural design for a good class”

What makes a successful course or class session of a particular course? Here is one simple design to consider…

The FOUNDATION pillar – this pillar represents the foundational knowledge or skills upon which the course is based.

This knowledge or skill is cogent, widely recognized, accepted, juried, or reviewed.

The FOCUS pillar – this pillar represents the focus of exploration.

This focus provides an engaging and intelligent lens for exploring identified concepts or skills within the foundation pillar.

The METHODS arch – this arch creates a “way into” the focus concepts.

These methods provide experiences and explorations which help students to connect focus concepts to foundational knowledge in interesting, meaningful, available, useful, and lasting ways in terms of their future career, habits of mind, daily life, and perhaps their global citizenship.

So what?

Sounds like one feasible and possibly useful way to structure a course or class session, but what does it have to do with teaching and with course design?

Class Session

When you create a learning activity or lesson for a particular class session, remember the foundational information your lesson is based upon, but do not merely convey that particular foundational information. Instead, identify your “engaging and intelligent” focus – what are the specific concepts or skills you want students to connect back to the course’s foundational knowledge? The focus should be something which excites you and hopefully your students as well. Then, design a class activity or experience which enables students to use your chosen focus to explore your course’s foundational knowledge. Keep in mind that students often need to first “see” concepts in an arena that is well-known to them, and quite possibly outside of a specific discipline, before they can fully comprehend it within a given disciplinary setting. The methods you use to create this student learning experience should make the relevance of what they are learning impossible to miss. Design learning that helps students to discover and understand the connections between: what they are doing in class and the focus of your course; between the focus of your course and the foundational knowledge; and between all of these things and their careers and lives.


A good course design identifies and addresses the two pillars and the arch mentioned above. Problems arise when any one component outweighs the others. A great foundation with no focus; fruitful methods with no substance; or an exciting focus which is not well-rooted in a strong foundation are all recipes for disaster. Arguments over course design often arise when individuals are concerned that one of the pillars is missing. This concern is often valid; however, the answer is not to focus on the foundation at the expense of the other components. And, while good methods make a course come together and help deliver learning to the students, methods alone are never enough. Different instructors excel at designing different components. Designing a good and effective course requires a mix of minds that represent skills in creating each of the components. The final skills needed are the ability to see the usefulness of what other colleagues have to offer and the willingness to collaborate to erect a strong course out of all the components needed.

Here’s to strong pillars and graceful arches,


CIP, Center for Instructional Practice

Resources and support for every cycle of teaching…

Contact Director Cinse Bonino for a one-on-one CIP instructional design session:

Email: or Phone: 802 651 5965 Skype: cinse.cip


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