The University of Iowa

Developing a Big Ideas Course


Big Ideas Courses are general education courses at the University of Iowa centered around large, intellectually challenging questions that cross-cut traditional disciplinary boundaries. The courses are team-taught across an array of disciplines, departments, and even colleges, and can be created around questions such as, how old is the universe? How is my life linked to global environmental change? Or, what it is the role of government in a democratic society?


For several years, Fred Boehmke, Professor of Political Science, and Paul Dilley, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, were members of a Center for Teaching-sponsored Faculty Learning Community associated with Big Ideas courses.


When they heard about the Learning Design Collaboratory, Boehmke and Dilley saw it as an opportunity to develop the Big Ideas course, “Introduction to Information, Society, and Culture”— the first introductory General Education course either of them has taught.


Beginning with Course Objectives


Participating in a Faculty Community of Practice and collaborating with a Course Design Team—both opportunities provided by the Collaboratory—the two faculty members began developing the course by identifying specific learning objectives  Boehmke and Dilley’s course development process began with identifying specific course objectives.


“Our course didn't exist other than a few words on a piece of paper and in our heads.” Boehmke says, “but then asked ourselves, what are the building blocks for this course, and how can we build assignments on that?”


Beginning with course objectives was a new approach for Boehmke and Dilley, but they say it provided essential structure for the course as well as a means for assessing student outcomes.

“Putting the learning objectives front and center is something I haven’t done before,” Dilley says, “but doing so was definitely the biggest takeaway I’ve had since working with the Collaboratory.”

Integrating Student Perspectives 

The Collaboratory also encouraged Boehmke and Dilley to think about their course from the perspective of a student. To gain better insight into how students are performing in their course, Boehmke and Dilley also work with the Collaboratory Learning Analytics staff to gather specific course data related to student outcomes.

“The Collaboratory has helped me to slow down and think about how students would understand what we’re saying,” Dilley says, “and that’s been extremely helpful.”

Final Thoughts

Boehmke adds, “For people thinking about doing something like this, it’s worth trying even if you’re skeptical. You’ll learn a lot of things you didn’t know about teaching.”