The trouble with (most) courses

I recently did a session at the University of Brighton’s Learning and Teaching Conference on the trouble with modules – the name used for what are more commonly known as ‘courses’ in North America, ‘units’ in Australia and ‘papers’ in New Zealand. A couple of people who missed the session have asked for more details than what was shown in the slides that I posted from the session, so this post is a summary of some of the main points. It is mostly gleaned from my notes that accompanied the short presentation part, tidied up and slightly expanded on a bit for the blog.  I have not gone into much detail about what would happen if we did away with courses altogether, nor described the results of any of the reflective activities that were involved in the original session as I have no notes on those parts and not enough time to write them. It does contain a bunch of ideas and suggestions about how to overcome some of the innate weaknesses of courses though, that I hope will have some value to somebody. If anything is unclear or arguable, I’m very happy to follow up via the comments on this post!

Why (most) courses are a bad idea

The taught university course as we know it today started out as nothing more than the study of a (single) book, in schools in pre-university times and in the early days of universities, nearly a thousand years ago. The master or lecturer would read the book and, perhaps, comment on it and discuss it with students. This made a lot of sense. Books were very expensive and rare objects, and so were scholars. It was by far the most efficient way to make use of a rival good (the teacher and/or the book) to reach as many people as possible. Whether or not it was the best way to learn, without it there would be no learning about or from the book at all. These efficiencies remained significant for the next 900 years or so after universities were invented (first in Bologna and, later, Paris, Oxford and the slow-moving flood that followed over the next few centuries, right up to the recent trend in MOOCs). The course slowly evolved into more subject-specific areas that often drew from many books and, later, papers, and the printing press made books slightly less of a luxury, but the general principle, that knowledge was thinly disributed and the most efficient way to make it available was one-to-many transmission in a physical room, continued to make sense. As universities grew, it was equally sensible that processes and architectures were designed to make this still more efficient. Timetables were used to schedule these scarce resources, lecture theatres designed to reach as many ears and eyes as possible, desks invented to take notes, blackboards invented to provide a source for them, written exams invented to make assessments easier to mark (the first were in 1789) and libraries and classification systems invented to store and retrieve books and periodicals. And, of course, if students and teachers were not around, there was no point in scheduling classes, so courses naturally divided around the holidays of Christmas, Easter and during harvest time in the summer, when (perhaps – this is disputed) students were called back to work on farms. All of this made perfect sense and made the best use of limited means – perhaps the only means that could have worked at all. And this is what we have inherited, whether or not we observe Christian holidays, whether or not we have almost free access to a cornucopia of information on the web and mobile devices, whether or not we have sophisticated information systems that make scheduling and organization of resources more flexible, or tools to connect us with anyone, anywhere, any time around the world. Around it we have built innumerable structures – notions of course equivalence that are related to accreditation and assessment, replicability, resource allocations, pay structures, etc – that have become very deeply embedded, not just within universities but in society as a whole. Universities have become gatekeepers that filter students as they come in and warrant their competencies as they leave, not just to become academics but to work in many occupations. And the unit of measurement is based around the course. Courses are so deeply embedded that, when people attempt educational reform, they are seldom even noticed, let alone questioned. If people want to make things better in education, they normally explicitly mean ‘better courses’. Even open and distance universities like Athabasca, that dumped prerequisites, the schedule and traditional lecture/tutorial/seminar format, adhere to the broad pattern of course length (measured now in hours of study, like most of the rest of the world outside North America) fixed outcomes and assessments.  Likewise, companies unwisely create or purchase courses for their employees to go out and learn stuff, albeit usually with fewer institutional constraints on timing, accreditation and format.  But there is no pedagogical reason whatsover that it should be this way.

What this means

The trouble is that courses, at least as they have mostly evolved, are not pedagogically neutral technologies. This is pretty obvious to anyone who has ever created one. It is a completely insane idea that every subject can be taught in multiples of precisely the same period or requires the same amount of study as every other. Typically (varying from place to place but usually unvaryingly within a given institution) this means 10-15 weeks or some multiple of that, or 100-200 hours of student effort. Taught courses, as we know them in our institutions today, have objectives and/or outcomes, and assessments to match, which conspire to mean that the intent is that everyone learns exactly the same thing or skill, whether they already know it, don’t need to know it, or not. Courses therefore differentiate – you pass them or fail them. Maybe you pass or fail them well or badly. As an incidental peculiarity, the blame for failure to teach is transferred to the students – they fail, not their teachers. This has big implications for an individual’s sense of self worth and on their ability to seek employment, and it impacts society (and individuals who suffer this process) deeply. Another consequence of this is that, thanks to the need for economies of scale and/or fitting things into timeslots or with other courses that might be similar, typically everyone is taught the same way on a given course, and taught the same things, whether or not it suits their needs, prior knowledge, interests and aspirations. While the notion of teaching to learning styles is palpable nonsense, there is no doubt that people have very different needs and preferences from one another, so parts of every course will bore or confuse some of their students some or all of the time and nearly all will contain parts of little or no relevance to a learner’s needs. None of this makes any pedagogical sense whatsoever. Bloom’s two-sigma problem (based on the fact that there is roughly a two sigma difference between results for those taught in traditional classrooms and those taught one-to-one) is a difficult challenge to address because, quite apart from their innate peculiarities, these features of the typical pattern followed by courses lead to one extremely big and elephant-in-the-room: they are inherently demotivating. 

Courses and motivation

People love to and need to learn, constantly and voraciously. It’s in our nature. If someone wants and/or needs to learn something, you have to do something pretty substantial to prevent them from doing so. Enter the taught course.

The first way that courses stand in the way of learning is, at first glance, relatively innocuous. The fixed nature and form of the course combined with its length necessarily means that, for the vast majority of students, parts will be boring, parts will be irrelevant, and parts will be over-taxing. This means most students’ need for challenge at an attainable level will not be met, at least some of the time.  It means that course content, process, rules of conduct, expectations and methods are strongly determined by someone else, sapping control away. Self-determination theory, a powerful construct that has been validated countless times over several decades, makes it very clear that, unless people feel in control, are challenged with achievable goals and experience relatedness, they will not be intrinsically motivated, no matter what other factors motivate them. Though often supporting relatedness (connection to something or someone beyond yourself), taught courses are, by and large, structured to reduce two of those three vital factors. It is no surprise then that teachers have to find ways to get around the lack of motivation engendered by the course format. There are a few teachers, sadly, who positively relish the exercise of their power, who enjoy rewarding and punishing students, who like to apply rigid control over behaviour in the classroom, who take a kind of sick pleasure in watching students suffer, who make students do things ‘because it’s for their own good’. They need our pity and support, but should not be allowed to teach until they have overcome this sickness. Luckily, by far the majority of us do our best to inspire, to actively encourage students to reflect on and actively align their intrinsic hopes and desires with what we are teaching, to offer flexibility and control, to empower students, to nurture their creativity, and to give some attention to each student. That’s the pleasure most of us get from teaching. We certainly don’t all succeed all of the time, even the best fail pretty regularly, and we could all improve, but at least we try. However, it’s an uphill battle.

This leads to the second and far more harmful effect of taught courses on motivation.  Most of us who work in higher education are constrained by the nature of the course and its accreditation to apply extrinsic rewards and punishments in the form of grades, even though we know it is a truly terrible idea. The reasoning behind the use of grades as motivators is understandable. We can easily observe that extrinsic methods do actually, on the whole, to some extent work, in the short term. Depending on the context, the effect can last from minutes to months. Indeed, behaviourists (who only ever did short-term studies) based a whole psychological movement on this idea. What is less obvious, and the most crucial structural disaster in the way the vast majority of courses are designed, is that they invariably and totally predictably utterly destroy any intrinsic motivation that people may already have, often irreparably. A big part of the reason for this is that it creates a locus of causality for a task or behaviour that is perceived as being controlled by someone or something else, so it does again come back to an issue of control, but this time the effects are devastating, not just reducing motivation but actively militating against it. This crowding effect has been demonstrated over and over again in well-designed and hard-to-refute research studies for decades. In many cases, rewards and punishments don’t even achieve what they set out to do in the first place. For example, companies that offer performance-related bonuses typically get lower performance from their workers, and daycare that punish parents who are late picking up their children find that parents actually pick them up even later. Worse, once the damage is done, it is very hard if not (sometimes) impossible to entirely undo it. It’s like the motivation pathways have been permanently short-circuited. Worse still, how we are taught is often a major factor in determining how we learn, and we come to expect and (like addicts) even depend on extrinsic motivation to drive us. This is one of the reasons I sometimes describe my role as ‘un-teaching’ – there is often a lifetime of awful learning habits to undo before we can even start. 

If you are not convinced, do check out a few of the hundreds of papers at or read pretty much anything by Alfie Kohn, or Edward Deci, or Richard Ryan. There are plenty of studies from the field of education that look at the effects of rewards and punishments and find them worse than wanting.

Breaking the cycle

There are alternatives to typical institutional taught courses, some of them very common, others less so. The University of Brighton has a great program, the MSc/MA by Learning Objectives, in which students work with supervisors to develop a set of outcomes, a means of assessment, and a work plan to reach their goals. While there are a few time and process constraints here and there for practical reasons, they are not too onerous. Students on this program tend to pass it, not because its standards are low, but because everything is aligned with what they want and need to do. A few programs at Athabasca University have similarly flexible courses that act as a kind of catch-all to enable people to do things that matter to them.  PhD programs, of the traditional variety used in the UK, have (or had – the course-based American model is sadly becoming more prevalent) no obligatory courses and are entirely customized to and often by the individual student, with nothing but a few processes to ensure students remain on track and supported. They can take from 2-10 years to complete. This length can be a problem as our motivation usually changes over such a long time and extrinsic factors are often introduced that can affect it badly, but the general principle is a good one. Athabasca University’s challenge process makes it possible to completely separate accreditation from learning, which (almost) avoids the whole course problem altogether, though it does unfortunately only work if you happen to have the precise set of competences provided by actual taught courses. Its self-paced undergraduate courses, though still markedly constrained by a notional equivalence to their paced brethren, free students from the tyrrany of schedules, even if they do have other features that are overly limiting. PLAR/APEL processes that are common in institutions across the world separate learning from accreditation almost entirely. And that’s not to mention a huge host of teach-yourself methods and resources from Google Search to Wikipedia to the Khan Academy to Stack Exchange and hundreds of other fine online systems that most of us use when we actually want and need to learn something. And, of course, there are books, which have the great benefit of allowing us to skip things, re-read things, look up references and so on, so our paths through them are seldom linear and always under out control – unless we are forced to read them because of a course. 

But what about the run-of-the-mill?

Though there is much to be learned from existing methods that entirely or partially by-pass the harmful effects of taught courses, teachers in higher education operate under a set of ugly constraints that make it very difficult and often impossible for us to completely avoid their ill effects, especially when student numbers are large and things like professional standards bodies come into the picture. Until we achieve massive educational reform, which might allow us to provide multiple paths to achieving competence, that might separate learning from accreditation, that might be chunked in ways that suit the needs of learner and subject, we are mostly stuck with the offspring of a mediaeval system that has evolved to defend itself against change. Most of us have to grade things, we have  to make use of learning objectives/outcomes, and we don’t have much control over course length. Often, especially in lower-level courses and/or where standards bodies are involved, we have little control over the competences that need to be attained, whether or not we are competent to teach them. Moreover, many of the most effective existing methods of teaching without courses are very resource-hungry. It would be great to apply the (UK-style) PhD process to all of our teaching but it is economically infeasible. PhDs are expensive for a very good reason – many of the economic and physical constraints that drove the development of courses in the first place have not gone away, even though some have been notably diminished. Given these issues, I will finish this post with a few general ideas, suggestions and patterns to help reduce the ill effects of courses without destroying the system of which they are a part. 

Give control

Traditional teaching seems determined to take control away from learners, but we can do much to give it back. Amongst other things:

  • allow students to choose what they do and how they do it. For instance, I have a web development course that centres around a site that students build throughout the course, that is about something they choose and they care about, and a course process that encourages them to choose between (or discover for themselves or their peers) multiple resources and methods to learn the requisite skills along the way. It makes extensive use of peer support and encourages sharing of problems and solutions, so that students teach one another as a natural fall-out of the process. It uses reflection to support the process, and an assessment based on evidence (that the students select for themselves) of meeting specified learning outcomes. It’s far from perfect, and it does often cause problems (especially at first) for those who have learned dependence via our broken educational system, but it shows one way that learners can take the reins.
  • allow students to choose the learning outcomes. This is trickier to enact because of the rigid requirements we usually have to develop curricula and match them with those delivered elsewhere. However, if the outcomes we specify are not too specific, relating to broad competences, it is still possible to allow some flexibility to students to identify finer-grained outcomes that suit their needs and that are exemplars of the general overarching outcomes. I’ve found this approach easier to follow in graduate level courses in ill-defined subject areas – I don’t really have a way of doing this well for those that are constrained by disciplinary standards.
  • allow students to design their own assessments. This one is easier. Learning contracts are one way to do this, supported with scaffolding that allows students to develop their own plans for assessment. Similarly, we can ask for them to provide evidence in a form that suits them (one of the best computing assignments I have ever seen was mostly done as poetry, and I once had a great explanation of the ISO model of network management explained using Santa Claus’s elves). At the very least, we can offer alternative pre-written forms of assessment that students can choose between according to their preferences.
  • allow students to pick their own content. This is a trick I have used for several courses. I offer a menu of options that address the intended (broad) outcomes and negotiate which parts we/they will cover during the course. It takes a little more effort to prepare, but the payoff is large. For graduate level courses I sometimes encourage students to develop their own content that we all then use.
  • allow students to choose their own tools, media, platforms, etc. Where possible, students should not be limited in their choice of technologies needed to complete the course. This can be tricky where we are constrained by things like institutional platforms, but there are often ways to allow at least some flexibility (e.g. mobile-friendly versions, PDF and e-book formats, standard formats that allow the use of any editor or development tool, etc)
  • allow students to pick the time and place. This is the default at Athabasca University for most courses, but can be trickier when there are timetables and constraints of working with others according a schedule. Classroom flipping can help a bit, limiting what is done in the class to things that actually benefit from being somewhere with other people (feedback, dialogue, collaboration, problem-solving, etc), and leaving a lot to self-paced study. This is true online as well as in face-to-face teaching. Indeed, counter-intuitively, it is even one of the odd potential benefits of traditional lectures, inasmuch as they typically only take an hour of a student’s time once a week, between which students are free to learn as they please (not a completely serious point, but worth pointing out because of the important and universally applicable lesson it reminds us of, that teaching behaviours only have a tangential relationship with learning behaviours).
  • allow students to control social interaction. I am a huge fan of learning with other people but we all have different needs for engagement with others in our learning, and it doesn’t suit everyone equally all the time. Where possible, I try to build processes that let those that benefit from social interaction to work with others, but that let those that prefer a different approach to work alone, using evidence-based assessments rather than process-based ones. For instance, evidence can include help given to others or conversations with others, but can as easily come from individual work (unless social competences are on the menu for learning). I find it useful to build simple sharing (as opposed to dialogue) into the process so that even the least sociable of students share things and therefore support the learning of others.

Use better forms of extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation is not all equally awful and some is barely distinguishable or even a part of intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivators lie on a spectrum from bad (externally imposed reward and punishment) to much better and more internally regulated varieties, such as:

  • doing things out of a sense of duty, guilt or obligation (introjected regulation) or, better,
  • doing things because they are perceived as worthwhile in themselves (identified regulation, e.g. losing weight) or, better still,
  • doing things because they are necessary steps to achieve something else we are really motivated to achieve (integrated regulation).

See for more about these differentiations. There are plenty of ways to use this to our advantage. It can often, for instance, be useful to encourage reflection on a learning activity. This can be used to think about why we are doing something, how it relates to our needs and goals, and what it means to us. Reflection can kindle more effective forms of extrinsic motivation that are far less harmful than externally imposed rewards and punishments. It is also valuable to nurture community, so that students feel obligations to the team or to one another, and support one another when the going gets rougher. Also, seeing how others are motivated can inspire us to recognize similar motivations in ourselves. Shared reflections (e.g. via blogs) can be particularly valuable.

Grades are not always necessary. While getting rid of the need to summatively assess is seldom possible, we can often avoid the use of grades (pass/fail is a little better than a mark), and we can make it possible for students to keep at it without grading until it is right, thus reducing the chance of failure. My courses tend to have feedback opportunities scattered throughout but I explictly avoid giving any grades until the last possible moment. It can upset some students who have learned grade-dependence, so it is important that they are fully aware of the reasoning and intent, and that the feedback is good enough that they can judge for themselves how well they are doing (I don’t always get that bit right!). Of course, I am only suggesting that we lose the grades, not the useful feedback. Feedback is crucial to allowing students to feel in control – they need to know what they are doing well and what could be improved, and plentiful feedback can be hugely motivating, showing that other people care, contributing to a sense of achievement, and more. Good, descriptive feedback that focuses on the work (never the student) is a cornerstone of effective educational practice. Grades tell us little or nothing, while encouraging an extrinsic focus that is harmful to motivation.

Step outside the course

Making links beyond a single course can be very beneficial to motivation. I attended an interesting presentation (at the same conference this originated in) the other day by Norman Jackson who talks about lifewide as opposed to lifelong learning, an idea that captures this principle well. Creating opportunities for students to engage in external activities like (for example) clubs, societies, geological digs, competitions, community work, conferences, charitable work, kickstarters, Wikipedia articles, coding camps and so on can fill in a lot of motivational gaps, making it easier to see the relevance of a course, to feed new ideas into a course, to gain a greater sense of personal relevance and responsibility for one’s own learning, to expand on work done in a course in greater detail wihout the imposition of extrinsic motivation. Of course, students should be free to choose which of these they engage with and, better still, should find them for themselves. However, there is no harm in advertising such things, nor in designing courses that allow students to capitalize on learning from other activities within the course itself such as projects, show-and-tell sessions, flexible discussions and so on. There are also often opportunities for doing things across multiple courses, using outputs of one to feed another, or bringing together different skillsets for joint projects. Another way to reduce the harm slightly is to build multiple courses into a single overarching one, of lengths appropriate to the needs of the students and subject. 

Build learning communities and spaces rather than courses

Given the wealth of potential resources and people’s time that are available for free on the Web (not to mention in libraries) there is often no need to provide much, if any content (in the sense of stuff presenting subject matter). A couple of the most successful courses I have ever run have had no curriculum or content to speak of, just a set of broad outcomes, a very flexible and student-designed assessment, an approach to making use of the learning community and a responsive process to make it all happen. The process can take a surprising amount of time to develop, as it is important that it is both understood well by the students (including how it is assessed, expectations, norms, etc) and that it can be guaranteed to result in the intended outcomes (assuming these are not negotiated too). Getting that process and community right can be hard work both in the design phase and (especially) during the course but, when it does go right, it is very rewarding. I have often learned as much if not more than my students on those courses, and they are the only courses I have ever run with more than a couple of students where I have had nothing but grade A students (moderated by external examiners as well as by peers). The massive enthusiasm and passion that results from a rich learning community of learners who are in control of their own learning has to be seen to be believed. The essence of the method is to let go just enough but no more: a teacher’s role is to provide plentiful prodding, ideas, critical feedback and, above all, scaffolding so that students feel confident that they are making progress in useful directions (and get help when they are not). It is also a bit of a juggling act to make sure that even loose outcomes are met, especially as students tend to diverge in all sorts of different directions, some of which are brilliant and worth pursuing – getting those outcomes loose enough in the first place but sufficiently recognizable and relevant to academic careers is a bit of an art that I am still learning. It also takes a lot of energy and dedication to make it work so, if you are having a bad week or two, things can go topsy turvy pretty fast.  It is worth putting a huge amount of effort into the first few weeks, responding enthusiastically and personally at any time of day or night that you can afford in order to set the tone, show that you care, explain your approach and soothe any fears. Once you have established trust that you care, and have nurtured a strong learning community, students tend to help one another a lot and forgive you when you are less attentive later on. I try to design the process so that I can intentionally let go in later weeks too.

In conclusion

As an intrinsic design feature, traditional university taught courses and their attendant processes and regulations impose unnatural restrictions on both teachers and students, reducing control and stunting motivation. It would be great to throw off these restrictions altogether. We could make enormous gains simply through separating teaching from accreditation (at least, wherever possible – in extremely rare cases it really is true that there is only one person who can reliably judge competence and that person is the teacher). This may soon become a necessity rather than a virtue if MOOCs continue to evolve faster than the means to reliably accredit the results. Athabasca University already has the challenge process to cope with that, though is significantly fettered by the need to match competences achieved with those that apply to existing courses – our challenge process is insufficiently fine-grained to allow real flexibility. There would be equally great gains if we made courses the right size (typically though not necessarily small) to fit the needs of different students rather than shoehorning them to fit the needs of institutions. We have technologies than can take the hard work out of managing the ensuing complexity so traditional timetabling woes need not impede us, and it would make it much easier to mix and match, including to accredit learning done in different ways. However, there is plenty that can be done even within the constraints of a typical university course, as long as we are aware of the dangers and take steps to reduce the harm. I hope that this little piece and this smattering of suggestions has sparked an idea or two about how we might go about doing that. Perhaps, if more of us start to question the system and apply such ideas, it might help to make a climate where bigger change is possible. If you’re interested in finding out more, I have written about this kind of thing once or twice before, with slightly different emphases, such as at and at 


I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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