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This is how to design a super course! -1

Last updated on 13 January 2023
Why are some courses so good that they leave a lasting impression on students even after graduation? Other courses hardly inspire, and the learned knowledge may be quickly forgotten, despite the best intentions and commitment of the teacher. Professor and author Ken Bain discovered that super courses that have impact, have the same characteristics and shares his insights in his new book ’Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning.’ In part one of this teaching tip, we will discuss the first five characteristics.

What makes a course a super course? The quick answer is that key messages from learning and motivation theories are applied in a practically implementable course. Such a course does not rely on learning from a book, completing required assignments and receiving grades. Rather, a super course fosters intrinsic motivation to learn in a way that produces lasting, substantial and positive change in the way the students think, act and feel.

Professor and author Ken Bain distilled a number of characteristics, illustrated with examples of such courses. Bain indicates that to create a super course, you don't have to use all of these characteristics. However, each characteristic can be improved over time. The characteristics give you a handle on opportunities for improvement for your course and for having a conversation about this with colleagues or the board of education.

Global structure of the course

Tip 1: Center your teaching around big questions that spark interest

Center the course around big, interesting, open-ended questions that spark interest rather than topics or facts. This way, you encourage the students' natural curiosity and authentic applications of the content. A biology teacher might, for example, begin Module one with the question: "Can we grow food in space or in other environments outside of Earth?" And then explore plant structures and cells to answer this question. The biology teacher could take this approach as opposed to the more traditional beginning: "This week we will talk about plant structures", and move on to define plant terms and concepts.

Other examples of big questions:

  • "Inequality in Dutch society is constantly increasing. How can we solve this problem?"
  • "At the top of the list of annoyances of Dutch citizens is litter. How can we solve this problem?"
  • "The demographic of the Netherlands is ageing rapidly, causing a huge increase in the financial burden on younger generations. How can you solve this problem?"
  • "Ever larger groups of people distrust science, how can we solve this?"
  • "The supply of lithium is limited, what other methods can help meet the global demand for energy storage?"

Big interesting questions are for example the starting point of A Broader Mind courses at VU, Little Big History courses at UvA or the VU Dream Teams. Big Questions and Challenges is an example of challenged based education.

Tip 2: Make the questions and outcomes as relevant as possible

Questions that spark interest work even better when there is an actual group of people that needs solutions or new insights for it. This could be administrators or directors, grandparents, refugees, neighbourhood organizations, social institutions or human resource departments.

It's best when the newly developed knowledge is presented and discussed directly with this group. See this example from teacher Jos Akkermans of SBE or teacher Christine Moser of SBE. This makes students feel that their efforts produce immediate results and fulfil an actual need. This, of course, is also the case with Community Service Learning at VU, for example.

Interesting big questions for students also often include asking them to research how they might go about pursuing a job or further education (e.g., a Master's degree or PhD track) related to the course. Have them make a list of knowledge, skills or competencies needed for their future career path. 

Finally, make everything even more interesting by having them create final products and authentic assessments that can be included in a portfolio.

Tip 3: Give students a sense of meaningful control over their own learning

Motivation theory indicates that students are more motivated when they have a sense of control over a process. Therefore, explore how to give students freedom to choose and execute their own approach. For example: Give students a goal and multiple paths to explore a topic or problem, without explicitly prescribing a particular path to reach the goal. Do offer help and resources for the different paths. For example, welcome alternative sources or assessments if needed. Do be clear about the nature of the required result; after all, it should not become a quest. See also this tip on time-effective methods of teaching.

Challenge based learning and project education are preferred teaching concepts within which students have a great deal of freedom and can determine their own learning path (provided they meet deadlines and know the criteria they must meet).

Consider including an explanation in your syllabus that your course is not intended to waste the time of your students. If your student feels that certain activities aren’t productive, invite them to stop by to find ways to modify or replace them.

Tip 4: Student trial and experimentation is an integral part of your course

The course sees student trial and experimentation as part of the learning process. Even in teaching methods that involve direct instruction. After students have done a serious part of learning or have created an assignment, you must give them feedback on their progress and the opportunity to change direction or improve. A final judgment is not made until the last moment.

For example, create opportunities for students to submit drafts of essays, papers or projects solely for constructive feedback (then they are actually formative tests) and without giving grades. Consider an approach where students give each other feedback first, explained in a prior didactic tip about peer feedback. Another possibility is ending a lecture with a quiz or discussion, or give practice assignments that are discussed in small groups or plenary. But even the practice of solution procedures of real-world problems (e.g., solving physics or statistical problems) is a form of trial and error.

It is important, however, to ensure a safe learning environment because it can be scary to appear to fail at first. Discuss the human characteristic that every learning process involves research and adjustment of beliefs and knowledge and ingraining of procedures.

Tip 5: Evaluate students' work fairly and transparently

Students find it important that their work receives attention and a judgment that can be followed up. This can be done, for example, by providing good sample papers, by discussing the learning objectives and quality criteria in the study guide, and by working with rubrics that clearly describe which quality criteria are used. The content and format of the testing and assessment should fit the determined learning objectives and other learning activities (constructive alignment).

If needed, apply methods in which you assess anonymously so that any student concerns about evaluation bias are avoided. If necessary, provide multiple (anonymous) assessors. In Canvas' Speedgrader or FeedbackFruits' assignments, you can set this up.

If possible, make sure you build time into the course to provide clarification and feedback on assessments. Welcome conversation with students about how the work was created and how your judgment is established. Don't be afraid of students trying to talk up a point to their final grade. Stand by your judgment or adjust it when well argued.


The follow-up didactic tip on super courses can be found here.

Text partly based on: 18 Characteristics of Super Courses - Teach Online (

Bain, K. (2021). Super Cursussen: The Future of Teaching and Learning. Princeton University Press. See here for a discussion of his book: 

This tip is provided by VU NT&L