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Course Roadmap: A Visual Summary of the Content of a Course

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By Sean Garrett-Roe, Chemistry

I teach a Physical Chemistry course, “Thermodynamics, Statistical Mechanics, and Kinetics”, to a class of about 35 senior chemistry majors. The course takes students through three broad areas of physical chemistry which, on the one hand, are conceptually very different from each other, but, on the other hand, are united by deep physical principles. “Thermo” courses (and “P-Chem” in general) have a terrible reputation — they have struck fear and despair in the heart of many an undergraduate chemistry major for many years and at many universities. Upon reflection, the reputation is not hard to understand — thermodynamics is really hard. It is challenging for several reasons: the material is the most abstract most chemists encounter; the mathematics is difficult, requiring proofs, multivariate calculus, and statistics; and the connections between the concepts are often lost in an avalanche of new ideas.

To address these challenges, I decided to supplement the syllabus with a course roadmap — a visual summary which introduces the content, structure, and goals of the course graphically by displaying how the topics of the course fit together. This teaching tool has been useful to me and to my students, so I would like to share how I use it, how it affects student learning, why I value it, the guiding principles for developing these instruments, and some tips on the practical issues of producing them.

Visual Summary WEB

What It Is
A course roadmap is a visual amalgamation of words, equations, images, and data which together constitute a sketch of the course. The course roadmap for “Thermodynamics, Statistical Mechanics and Kinetics” is an incarnation of “concept maps’’ or “mind maps’’ applied to the needs of my classroom.  For example, in my course, I show the thermodynamic equations we will learn to employ, interpret, and manipulate (upper left); the mathematical tools we will learn to use to perform those manipulations (lower left); data we will learn how to interpret using statistical mechanics (upper right); the models we will use to understand dynamics (lower right); and annotations which frame the discussion and hint at how these pieces interact (the text “the eyes of a thermodynamicist,” “the eyes of a statistical mechanic,” “the eyes of a dynamicist.”)

How I Use It
I provide this map as a handout on the first day of class along with a traditional syllabus. I spend the first lecture giving a guided tour of the course mostly based on the content in the roadmap. As the semester progresses and we reach the pivotal moments in the course, I return our discussion to the handout. Pointing at the handout I say, “Here is where we are. Here is where we have been. Here is where we are going next.” I highlight the connections to look for in our new material and note how new concepts will change how we understand the material we have covered already. Finally, at the end of the course, in my summary lecture, I briefly return to the map to remind the students of some of the highlights of our journey.

How It Helps Students
The course roadmap has proved useful to students. The feedback I get is that they value it for the framework it provides as they start to organize their own knowledge. The roadmap helps students in different ways at different points in the course. At the beginning of the course, the roadmap introduces a lot of new terminology, equations, graphs, and data displays. These are the seeds of the concepts which will grow through the semester. As the course progresses, students come to see the roadmap in a different way. As more ideas are fleshed out, the roadmap provides a scaffold for the students to organize their new ideas, skills and knowledge. At the end of the course, the roadmap reveals the sometimes hidden structure of the content — the ways that the ideas form a cohesive conceptual network.

There are two aspects of the roadmap that are integral to how it helps — permanence and parallelism. First, the roadmap is a permanent, lasting artifact that students can return to throughout the semester as they revise their previous understanding of its content. Chalkboards and overhead slides, on the other hand, are transient. They disappear at the end of the lecture, or at the click of a button. The roadmap does not disappear and allows the students a chance to engage the material at a deeper level for a more sustained period of time. Second, the highly parallel, side-by-side juxtaposition of content, i.e. adjacent in space on a single sheet of paper, is more helpful that a sequential, adjacent in time presentation, e.g. in many overhead slides. At the introductory stage, there are too many new terms and equations to remember them instantly. If the same content were in many overhead slides, the students would not be able keep the new terms in their heads from one slide to the next. On a piece of paper, however, the words are stable; they do not vanish as we go to the next topic. Similarly, as the students become more sophisticated, they see the spatial arrangement of the ideas as interconnected clusters of concepts in a way that is hard to fit into one or even a few overheads. Both of these features, permanence and parallelism, make the hardcopy of the roadmap a useful teaching tool in my classroom.

How It Helps Me
In all honesty, the course roadmap is as useful to me as it is to the students, if not more so. In developing new course material, the roadmap helps me to organize my thoughts for the content of the course and the sequence of topics. It helps me to focus on the story that I want to tell. By putting the whole story in one sheet of paper, I can see more clearly the parallels I hope to draw and the distinctions I want to emphasize.

Design Principles
My inspiration for the course roadmap comes from the work of Edward Tufte, and the design principles stem from his work. Especially relevant are his books Visual Explanations (Chapters 5 and 7 “Parallelism” and “Visual Confections”, respectively) and Beautiful Evidence (Chapter 3 “Links and Causal Arrows”). Here is a short list of the guiding principles for designing teaching tools like the course roadmap.

  1. Focus on the intellectual task of your course and optimize your content to support that goal. I want to show the connections between the concepts, for example, so I show the thermodynamic equations in one area, and I show the mathematical tools we use to manipulate those equations in an adjacent area. As another example, thermodynamics predicts equilibrium constants, while kinetics describes how fast equilibrium will be reached, so I show equations with annotations which emphasize that parallel. If the goal of your course, however, is to contrast different conceptual frameworks, then show the differences. If the goal is to show change over time, then consider using time as an axis in your handout. If you want to emphasize the discourse between different schools of thought, then consider showing these schools and how they interact with the material.
  2. Combine images, words, equations, figures, graphs — whatever it takes — to illustrate the concepts of the course. In my course, we actively work with all of these elements, so I put them all together. Most courses in the STEM disciplines and social sciences should be similar. I expect the Visual Arts to be analogous; show paintings and sculptures, names of the artists and schools, exemplars of the styles, and links between them. Courses which primarily use texts will need to adapt this concept somewhat. In the place of the many types of evidence that I need for my course, if you are preparing a literature course, you need different ways to use text to sketch the arc of your course. You might consider a display of the authors and styles and their relations (nouns linked by lines which are annotated with verbs that explain the connection); or consider showing primary and secondary sources, with the question, “Who is commenting on whom and when?”
  3. Provide rich content for the students to explore. A rich visual environment enables students to find what is most interesting to them, what they already understand, and what they are most comfortable with. Different students will gravitate towards different aspects of the material. All students use these initial sparks of interest as beachheads to begin exploring the alien landscape of the rest of the course. For further inspiration, Tufte provides many delightful examples of rich displays and how they engage readers in each of his books.
  4. Declutter. To get the maximum amount of content in your map without it becoming cluttered, make sure every visual element counts. Boxes, frames, grids, clip art, and the like are generally low content or content free, but they take up space. Eliminate them. The idea is the visual analog of the well-known writing principle, “Omit needless words.”
  5. Use visual layering. Find unobtrusive ways to separate annotation from what is annotated. Often something as simple as making the annotation italic or coloring the text a medium gray is sufficient to clarify what text is explanatory and what is primary.

Practical Issues
Think big: I print or copy the roadmap on 11×17 paper so I have enough room to spread out my course and juxtapose the concepts I will cover. I usually print to letter paper in my office, and enlarge the printout to fill an 11×17 sheet at my department’s photocopier.  Printers in the computer labs in Benedum Hall, the Cathedral of Learning, Hillman Library, and David Lawrence Hall are reported to have 11×17 paper available for direct printing. Alternatively, any print shop will know how to do the job for you. To make the graphic, I use Adobe Illustrator, but PowerPoint, Word, AutoCAD, and many other tools should work.

How I am Working To Improve It
The course roadmap I have described is a work in progress. There are many things that I am working to improve. I am trying to integrate what the students will be able to do directly into the visual representation of the course. I am also looking for ways to make the roadmap a more active experience. Perhaps my next version will have blanks that the students will fill in as we progress through the course. The challenge is to find material which can be eliminated without destroying the usefulness of the map on the first day when all the blanks would be empty.

Conclusion
I hope that this description of my course roadmap, how I use it, how I make it, and why, in some way helps you as you develop materials for your own courses.


DECEMBER 2012

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Course Roadmap: A Visual Summary of the Content of a Course