Course Design: Building around your big rocks

You may be familiar with the Big Rocks analogy. It goes like this…let’s pretend we are trying to fit big rocks, little rocks, and sand into a jar. If we start with the sand, then the little rocks, and then the big rocks, we cannot fit everything in. There is simply not enough room and the big rocks never make it into the jar. However, if we start with the big rocks first, we can fit in the smaller rocks in the empty spaces, the sand trickles through the cracks and, voilà! Everything fits!

This analogy has been used for life coaching, for emotional wellbeing, and for work and project management. Personally I have used it for many years as a very valuable visual analogy for course design.

When we design our courses, it is so tempting, and perhaps even the norm, to start with the more granular content – the sand. After all, it makes sense that students need to know ALL the foundational knowledge and develop baseline skills before they can actually DO something with that material.

So what’s the problem with focusing on the sand first?

  • First, this approach assumes that there is a set body of knowledge that is mandatory for students to learn first. Now this certainly may be the case in some disciplines that hold a more linear and hierarchical content structure. However, in many instances, maybe more often than we think, it’s also quite possible to learn the material in different order, and may in fact be more memorable to students if the material is learned when they have to apply it, as opposed to learning/covering all the content first, and then going back to apply and use it later on.
  • Second, this approach also falls prey to our expert blind spot. We, as instructors who have spent years in our disciplines, often have exceedingly high expectations of what content is absolutely necessary. I have yet to meet an instructor who didn’t feel that their course could realistically be broken into 2-3 courses. We always want more time to adequately cover the content. Yet as much as we love our courses, our students may not be aiming for absolute expertise in our course material. We may need to question if ALL the sand is absolutely necessary.
  • Finally, the simple message of the Big Rocks Analogy is that we can never fit our big rocks into the jar unless we make room for them first. I’ve heard many faculty lament that they would love to have their students to do an application project, or to present their own work on a novel problem, or engage in community-based work, but there is no time – we have so much to cover! If we have to ‘cover’ everything first, we don’t get to the big projects, the real-world application, the wicked problems, which is often what our students — and we — enjoy most about our disciplines.

Dee Fink’s Integrated Course Design approach and most backward design models allow us to define our Big Dream for student learning and determine what will be the most significant, impactful learning experiences that they take with them long after our classes have ended.

To accomplish this, we need to start with our big rocks — our significant learning experiences. What would happen if we built a course around a student-led project? If we truly structured the course so that they had the time to be successful and implement something on their own? Could we still have time to fill in the spaces with the foundational sand and necessary skill development, albeit in a different order or timeline than originally expected? Maybe there is some sand that is not necessary for everyone? Or maybe students have to fill in the sand themselves in a more independent manner?

There are no easy answers, but one thing is for sure. If we only focus on getting all the sand in first, we don’t have time for the big rocks.

What are your big rocks? How can you build them into your course design first to assure that they are achieved?