When Planning a Learning Project, Start With Yourself

The question came up in a meeting with colleagues yesterday: when you set to work to develop a new course or training project, where do you start?

Our consensus was to start by defining the learning objectives to be achieved in the course. From a practical standpoint this makes sense. The best way to achieve the desired outcome is to begin with a well-defined set of goals and then structure all your subsequent actions around fulfilling them.

In my process, I have a prerequisite step: I begin by adjusting my own attitude. I am a believer in active learning, but have to recognize that I have been conditioned by a lifetime of passive learning experiences. I need to take a few minutes to frame my thinking around the students, their needs, abilities, hurdles, and goals. Only then am I ready to do my best work.

One of my favorite “boot-up” exercises is to reflect on this quote:

Imagine yourself teaching in a perfect situation, where the students will do anything and everything you ask of them. They will read everything and write everything you ask them to. They will do it on time and do it well. In this special situation, you can do anything you want as a teacher and have any kind of impact on students that you desire. The only limitation is your own imagination. (Fink, 2003, p. 9)

This might seem idealistic, and it is to some degree. We know students are human and will often fall short of perfect execution. I nevertheless find it useful to aim high, then build in safeguards and fallback plans to handle issues like inadequate preparation or motivation when they occur. Not doing so shortchanges our students of their highest learning opportunities.

Just as active learning places increased responsibility on the student, designing an active learning experience requires us to exert the extra effort to move away from our internal default options. What do you do to get in the right mindset?


Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.

Thoughts on “A Lecture From the Lectured”

On Chronicle Vitae yesterday, a group of fifteen writing students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published a thought-provoking essay on the value of lectures from their perspective. At the risk of oversimplifying their point of view, I’ll summarize the article as follows: lectures can be effective when done well, but are overused and…