4 Approaches to Survey Courses

Decorative: A very full timeline of world history (as representative of the content of a survey course)


"How to Fix the Dreaded Survey Course" (post) outlines "four specific strategies to effectively reconfigure and revitalize a survey course in any discipline."

A. Premises

1. Survey courses which as "vast content dump[s]" are not particularly useful.

  • "[I]f the course design and dominant pedagogy are predicated on merely transferring chunks of content, then the class itself will be — to use a technical term — a dud."
  • "If a survey course is meant to inculcate habits of mind, trigger a desire for deeper study, and build an enduring foundation for subsequent academic work, then the course content is not the end in and of itself, but rather the vehicle to produce those outcomes." 

2. "The key ... is to see ourselves, not as purveyors of disciplinary content, but as curators."

  • "A good survey course is, most emphatically, not a content-driven information transfer; it’s more like a curated collection."
  • "Dare to omit ... less is more."

B. 4 Approaches

"Those suggestions represent only a handful of the possibilities available ... to rework a survey class."

1. "Structure the course around questions." 

  • "[H]elp students answer some fundamental question — or figure out how they might begin to answer it."
  • "Using a big disciplinary question as the backbone of a survey course can give it coherence, offering consistent signposts throughout the term by which students can organize and apply the material."
  • "[S]park their interest in our disciplines ... by wrestling with the same big questions that attracted us to our work."

2. "Pick a particular theme." 

  • "It could be one big theme (similar to the idea of a fundamental question), or you could divide your course into modules and assign each a different theme." 
  • "That approach helps students experience the complexity of a discipline — but in a manageable fashion."
  • "If there are skills or competencies that apply in multiple themes, students will have several opportunities to develop those proficiencies in different contexts."

3. "Offer the course as a 'disciplinary tool kit.'" 

  • If "developing certain skills or competencies the primary purpose of your survey course ..., us[e] those specific 'tools' to organize the class."
  • This "is especially well suited to more technical and preprofessional gateway courses, such as those in the health sciences."

4. "Employ a case-study approach." 

  • "[C]ase studies could stand in for larger course themes or competencies."
  • Case studies provide "a more manageable focus for students’ engagement with the broader areas of your disciplinary content."
  • "[P]roblem-based learning ... uses case studies and real-world applications as its central organizing feature and has been deployed successfully ... across a variety of courses."
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