How should we design a course?

What does it take to design a course?

One fine morning in March of 2016, I took over the Michael Polanyi College. I’d been involved with the college for a couple of years and loved it. Its premises included a wide and breezy terrace that overlooked the green mall at Universidad Francisco Marroquin (UFM). Breathing in the clean forest air while having a dialogue on topics ranging from philosophy to technology and economics has been by far one of my favorite professional experiences. It has also led me to question my educational journey and what the future of education should look like.

Over the past few years, I’ve given a lot of thought to how to design the ideal learning experiences. That was a key element of my job at the Micheal Polanyi College, after all. After four years of designing learning experiences, reading and reflecting, I think I have a good idea of the main components of what that ideal learning experience is like. I want to write these principles down and then provide a few examples of what they would look like when applied to a learning experience.

In short, these principles[1] are:

  • Learning happens when we create a concept or chunk in our long-term memory. Chunking is a slow process.
  • The first step to learn something is to look at a problem and try to solve it without having the tools to solve it. That is, learning is very problem-specific (which makes sense because the brain evolved to help us survive and learning is a key aspect of survival). It is difficult to learn something that has no meaning for us or is taken out of context.
  • When learning, we need to repeat a concept to ourselves from memory several times, with a day or two in between. This is called spaced repetition using recall (not rereading notes or a textbook).
  • Exercise, particularly cardio-vascular exercise, is extremely important to learning.
  • Interleaving: mix learning one subject with learning other subjects at the same time.
  • Socializing: learning must happen in some sort of social context. This context changes in nature depending on the person who’s learning.

These principles are crucial to designing effective learning experiences. They’re also the key to understanding what’s wrong with “traditional” education.


[1] A Mind For Numbers, Barbara Oakley

Make It Stick, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel

Brain Rules, John Medina

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