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Part 3: Key Program & Course Design Considerations

Thinking about program and course design involves grappling with the relationships between teaching and learning, discipline, student, and an appropriate level of support.  The question at hand is not just what we should teach, but how we can best teach that content to our students and how those pedagogical insights might inform our program design.  Section 3 of this guide provides an overview of some of these considerations.

Many faculty members are aware of many of the items listed and referenced below and have used them in their work in the past; we provide them here to collect them in one place and provide some resources, and to help highlight them in our transformative work. The professional development opportunities offered in conjunction with TRC throughout the Q2S process will also support the development of many of these ideas and their application to our program and course design.

Disciplinary Considerations

When we think about our disciplines, many of us think of a combination of content (ideas, concepts, skills, and so on) as well as ways of thinking.

Disciplinary ways of thinking

For most of us, ways of thinking in our disciplines are intuitive, and in doing the work of our discipline we don’t necessarily consider how we think. However, these ways of thinking are often foreign to our students, and they don’t necessarily pick them up “by osmosis.” To complicate matters, students are required to learn ways of thinking in different disciplines at once and it isn’t always clear to them that these may differ or how they might differ. It falls to us to help students learn disciplinary ways of thinking and to help them see connections and differences between ways of thinking in different disciplines. In determining the content and design of a program, it is helpful, therefore, to identify ways of thinking and practicing in the discipline and to consider how to foster these ways of thinking and practicing the discipline among students. These practices are often invisible to expert practitioners in the field so it requires a non-trivial effort to make them explicit.

The resources below provide some insight on these disciplinary ways of thinking and may serve to support thinking about disciplinary differences and similarities, as well as ways of thinking in one’s discipline.


Threshold Concepts

No matter how much time we have, it seems that we never have enough time to teach all the content we believe students need to know. In an effort to select the most important content, many of us think about “big ideas” or “core concepts.” One such term that has gained traction in recent years is that of a “threshold concept.” Briefly, a concept is considered a threshold concept if it shapes a discipline’s ways of thinking and practicing and is therefore considered central to a student’s potential mastery of the field. According to Meyer and Land, the originators of threshold concept theory, a concept is a threshold concept if it is:

  • Transformative: involves an ontological and conceptual shift
  • Irreversible: once we understand, we are not likely to forget it (even if we eventually refine, modify, or reject it)
  • Integrative: exposes hidden interrelatedness of phenomena
  • Bounded: defines a bounded space; according to Meyer and Land “any conceptual space will have terminal frontiers, bordering with thresholds into new conceptual areas”
  • Troublesome: possibly counter-intuitive, alien, contradicting “common sense”

Determining threshold concepts or big ideas in our disciplines and subdisciplines is hard conceptual and collaborative work - but we believe that it is well worth the effort. Once we have determined the (relatively few) main ideas or threshold concepts in our disciplines, we may use these as anchors around which we design our programs. This kind of work can help us design coherent programs, with courses that align well with each other, and with a less “stuffed” curriculum.

For more information about threshold concepts, please see:

Big Ideas & Essential Questions

Similar to threshold concepts, a big idea is a way of helping students organize facts and information under a thematic umbrella that explains the “bigger picture.”  It creates unity out of what may once have seemed to be disparate parts and therefore helps students to understand the connectedness and relationships between and among the facts.  For example, the “Food Chain” demonstrates how plant and animal life are intertwined and mutually dependent.  The “Water Cycle” explains relationships between evaporation and precipitation. 

Essential Questions are another dimension of the Big Ideas promoted by Wiggins and McTighe.  Essential questions help to orient and engage learners by asking them to discover and participate in disciplinary inquiry.  The questions are used to stimulate students' discussions and promote a deeper understanding of the content.  An essential question has the following characteristics:

  • Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  • Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  • Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  • Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  • Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  • Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  • Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.

For more information about big ideas and essential questions, please see:

Student Considerations

The process of learning

Learning is a complex process marked by  both general and individual learner experiences. The following insights into how people generally learn come from a variety of resources; some of them are listed below. Their articulation in this guide has benefited from discussions of this literature with participants in the TRC institutes on Principles of Program Design; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and the TRC/CNS Hybrid/Online Institute.

  • Learning is an acculturative process: Learning  involves overtaking the materials, information, methods, and  ideas of our disciplines and classes, along with the ways of seeing, thinking, and doing that our disciplines enable and require.  In this way, students are potentially changed through the learning process.
  • Students are not blank slates: Students come to our classes with preconceived ideas about the world and our disciplines. These ideas may counter or they may complement disciplinary knowledge; in either case, such ideas must be engaged and put in conversation with disciplinary knowledges to create bridges to meaningful and inclusive learning.
  • Teaching and learning are never neutral activities: Power relationships are always at play in scenes of teaching and learning. At a simple level, the exercise of expertise is powerful and potentially threatening to the newcomer, especially in contexts where a lack of expertise feels unwelcome and failure may be costly. At more complex levels, all disciplines embed their own value systems and ideologies and these may sometimes conflict with those held by our students.  In these situations acculturating into a disciplinary community may demand uncomfortable or unwanted personal negotiations and philosophical changes for the student.
  • Learning is a recursive process.  Learning does not unfold in a linear progression. Students must be repeatedly introduced to concepts and methods, along with the kinds of thinking and expressing that we are asking for, and allowed to practice these across time.  Moreover, as students engage new concepts or more advanced aspects of learning in any domain, their “earlier” or more foundational knowledges or abilities may temporarily regress or become shaky, as they grapple more advanced ideas and activities.  Students benefit from time and support as they work their way through such moments, as these are necessary and inevitable stages in learning growth. In short, students do not “get it” and hang onto it--  until they do.
  • Metacognitive thinking is important.  Metacognition is the ability to think about how we think and how we know and to use those insights to promote ongoing learning and knowledge creation.  Metacognition is not the same as reflection, but can be aided (taught) through reflective activities and assignments.  
  • Students need to organize facts/knowledge around concepts.  Learning involves sense-making and organizing knowledge around concepts. As such, “what” and “how” are insufficient; understanding “why” is central to a student’s ability to construct knowledge and to apply it in new contexts.
  • Students need to see how new knowledge that they are acquiring fits with and shapes who they are and want to become.  In civic and personal senses, this means students need to recognize new knowledge as informing their ability to make decisions about their lives beyond professional and disciplinary concerns.  In disciplinary and professional senses, this means that students need to recognize that they are acculturating into particular professional discourses that will shape their professional identities.
  • Students’ desire to learn must be engaged.  Students are inquisitive, but often do not know enough about the new disciplines and communities they are entering to know what can be asked. Activating curiosity is essential to beginning the learning process.  Students benefit when they can see why our subject matters interest us, how they connect to people’s lives, and what these subject matters allow us to ask and try to answer.
  • Students need to see themselves as creators and discoverers of knowledge. In the best of circumstances, learning is an active verb and an acculturative process of apprenticeship in the practices that allow us to use and create knowledge.  Students, however, often expect that knowledge is something to be absorbed or memorized. This misunderstanding needs to be explicitly addressed in pedagogy and curriculum.
  • Students need space and time to practice “doing” the discipline with feedback and reflection.  Providing students with opportunities to act as “doers” in our fields -- to think and do as a biologist or a criminologist, for instance, can lead to powerful learning.  Students in these circumstances benefit further from meaningful feedback from a more advanced mentor or coach who models disciplinary thinking and doing and can not only point to near-misses but who can explain the distance and difference between the miss and the win. Reflective activities during and after these activities can help students activate metacognition and consciously create metacognitive understandings of the processes of knowledge-making.

For more information about the process of learning, see:

Diversity, equity  & inclusion

Multiculturalism, equity and inclusive instruction

Narrative forthcoming.

For more information about multiculturalism, equity and inclusive instruction, see:

Universal Design and Accessibility

Universal design for learning is based upon three guiding principles intended to ensure that all learners have access to education:

  • Multiple means of representation:  learners (regardless of their abilities) are presented with various ways of acquiring information and knowledge
  • Multiple means of action and expression:  learners are given the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in various ways
  • Multiple means of engagement: learners are offered various contexts and environments for engaging with contents

In a nutshell, this means that the curriculum of a program recognizes that each of our learners is different-- with different abilities and different needs-- so providing a curriculum with varied pedagogical strategies and learning activities will creates an atmosphere of inclusiveness by acknowledging the diversity of our learners.

Accessibility is a subset of universal design by considering specialized support tools, physical space requirements and other accommodations that learners may need to be successful.  Accessibility of curriculum ensures equitable access for all learners.  The Services to Students with Disabilities Office (E-mail:, 909-537-5238) work with faculty to help support learners in the classroom. ATAC, the Assistive Technology & Accessibility Center (Email:, 909-537-5079), is a specialized computer lab with assistive technologies with specialists who can help faculty with creating accessible resources.  TRC and ATI also are working to develop a more comprehensive UDL resource center for faculty.

For more information about universal design, see: