Use Course Archetypes to Diversify Your Design
By coursetune Team
December 9, 2021
Diversify your curriculum architecture

When a friend casually mentions taking a class called “Advanced Theoretical Squishy Field Notations,” you might initially wonder, what is that even about? And surmise that since it’s “advanced” it must be challenging and build on some prior course, possibly called “Introduction to Theoretical Squishy Field Notations.” 

Common knowledge tells us that introductory courses are the first time a student is introduced to new concepts. This distinction between introductory and advanced courses (no matter the subject) is an example of Course Archetypes. 

Course archetypes are five different approaches to course architecture. They’re based on the goals of the course. A course goal could be to teach the basics of French or to prepare a student with a skill they’ll need in the job market. Each course designed with goals in mind results in a specific course architecture; the writing of learning objectives, the structure of course objectives, and the design of learning and assessment. Courses can blend two or more archetypes, combining structural elements from each archetype.  

Let’s get introduced to each archetype, learn a few examples, and hear from an expert with a course in that archetype. There are five archetypes: 

  • Foundational Knowledge
  • Skill Maturity
  • Information Dense
  • Workforce Application
  • Analysis and Synthesis. 

The archetypes and their descriptions are the work of our CEO Dr. Maria Andersen (please give appropriate credit if you reshare this material).

Foundational Knowledge Archetype

Foundational Knowledge 

Courses with the archetype “foundational knowledge” cover a wide body of knowledge, but are not intended for immediate workplace application. The learner is acquiring a foundational body of knowledge primarily to support future learning. They’ll learn some vocabulary, formulas, or procedures in these courses, but it is not information-dense. Often these courses focus on learning and applying foundational knowledge in word problems or one-paragraph descriptions of real-world problems. First-year survey courses often fall in this category, as well as foundational major classes.

Expert webinar: Foundational Knowledge: Building from Basics with Erin Czerwinski – Video

Hallmarks of this learning architecture:

  • It is not uncommon for these courses to have 80-150 learning objectives stated for the course. When you dive into the list of learning objectives, it is often the case that some of the stated LOs are actually sub-learning-objectives.
  • These courses have often been taught with roughly the same content and course descriptions for decades.
  • Instructors often need to take a step back to find the 5-7 true skills they want students to gain in a course and have some difficulty parsing the difference between topics and course objectives. The course objectives truly need to be big picture goals. Watch a video on writing course learning objectives.
  • The sorting process for aligning LOs to course objectives is where the designer will truly begin to see whether the course objectives are correct and what is missing in the course.
  • Because of transferability, there is a lot of commonality in learning objectives for these courses between different institutions or organizations. Learning objectives may need to remain in the course even if the emphasis is lessened with something like ESIL. Watch a video on ESIL.
Skille Maturity Archetype

Skill Maturity 

Courses with the archetype “skill maturity” guide the learner to develop a major skill over a period of time (semester, year, term). A group of students will often begin the course with a wide variety of skill levels, so the learning objectives and course goals must be carefully written to look at progress and appropriate competency achievement. Guitar II would be an example of Skill Maturity.

Expert webinar: Skill Maturity Course Archetypes- Unpacking Pedagogical Approaches to Maximum Student Success with Martha Masters- Video

Hallmarks of this learning architecture:

  • The course objectives will be the facets that, when combined, comprise the overall skill to be learned. Watch a video about interleaving concepts.
  • The learning objectives should reflect a graduated approach to learning the course objectives. The designer will have to think about the milestones that bring the learner from novice to proficient for each course objective – that is where you will discover the true learning objectives. 
  • Fostering maturity in a skill involves deep and individualized feedback.
Information Dense Archetype

Information Dense

Courses with the archetype “information dense” require the learner to acquire new vocabularies or memorize lots of information. A key feature of these courses is that the learner needs to be able to recall large amounts of vocabulary or information (sometimes 500 items) with a high degree of accuracy. The course will typically have other goals besides information recall, but the information density requires a different course architecture than a course that focuses on learning background knowledge (like an Intro to Philosophy course).

Expert webinar: Information Dense Course Archetypes- Very Vocabularic! with Sara Marsh- Video

Hallmarks of this learning architecture:

Workforce Application Archetype

Courses with the archetype “workforce application” focus on teaching skills for immediate workplace or life application. The skills are typically reproducible skills composed of standard procedures or standard practices. Highly technical courses that require certification often fall into this archetype. Database Administration is an example of the workforce application archetype.

Expert webinar: Workforce Application Course Archetypes: Making Objectives Work with Julie Dirksen – Video

Hallmarks of this learning architecture:

  • There is a pattern that repeats for multiple topics: learn any necessary background knowledge, learn the steps of the procedures, and then learn how to apply the procedures in multiple scenarios.
  • It is important to write course objectives so that they’ll still work as the procedures and practices in the field change or are updated. Watch this video on connecting course objectives to program goals. 
  • Learning and course objectives are often aligned to outside standards, certification goals, or legal requirements. Watch a video about mapping sets for mapping to standards.
  • Students need to not only learn the workforce applications, but how to stay up-to-date.
Analysis and Synthesis Archetype

Analysis and Synthesis 

Courses with the archetype “analysis and synthesis” ask the learner to apply and synthesize the knowledge they have in order to perform analysis of novel real-world scenarios (think case studies or actual problems from the real world, not short textbook problems). These are often upper-level courses that rest on several courses with the foundational knowledge archetype. For example, a course in Chemical Reactor Analysis and Design relies on the knowledge obtained in Kinetics, Thermodynamics, Statics, and Chemical Processes (among prerequisites to those courses). 

Expert webinar: Analysis and Synthesis Course Archetypes-Thinking Like a Lawyer with Colin Seale – Video 

Hallmarks of this learning architecture:

What course archetypes are you using?

When you think about a course you teach, which archetype is it? If it’s hard to categorize, perhaps your course is a blend of them.  In reality, some courses have two course archetypes. For example, Spanish 1 may be a combination of the information dense and skill maturity archetypes. Spanish 2 may be information dense and workplace application. Art History may be information dense with foundational knowledge. Learning what archetypes your courses are can help you design with intention and ensure student learning is front and center.