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This is how to design a super course! - 2

Last updated on 24 November 2022
Why do students find some courses so good that they leave a lasting impression even after graduation? While other courses hardly inspire and the knowledge is quickly forgotten, despite the best intention and commitment of the teacher? Ken Bain discovered that all super courses that make an impact, share the same characteristics. This is what he writes about in his new book "Super Courses: The Future of Teaching and Learning". In this second part of this didactic tip, we discuss the final set of four characteristics of super courses.

Curious about part 1? Check out the first five tips here.

What makes a course a super course? The quick answer is that the key messages from learning and motivation theories are applied in a practical course. Professor and author Ken Bain distilled a number of characteristics, illustrated with examples of such courses. For a super course, he says, you don't have to use all the characteristics, but you can improve each one over time. The characteristics give you a handle on opportunities for improvement for your course and for having a conversation with colleagues or the directorate. 

Tip 6: Activate prior knowledge by letting students make hypotheses and predictions 

Students relate new knowledge, concepts and beliefs to their existing knowledge and beliefs, building a knowledge network (constructivism). For this reason, it is important to activate prior knowledge. Students need to retrieve knowledge and experiences from their memory about what they already know and think about a topic. Only then engage with the new knowledge, explanation, instruction or other views or opinions. To activate prior knowledge, it works very well to have students formulate hypotheses and predictions. 

For example: a physics teacher can show a test set-up (may also be a drawing, question or formula) and ask the students what effects they expect to observe and substantiate them. Use one of the methods such as buzz-group or ConcepTesting where students first answer for themselves (few minutes), then discuss together with fellow students (especially with fellow students who arrive at a different answer), and then indicate to the teacher what they think is the correct answer. Only then, as a teacher, do you give further explanation. 

Another example: as an art teacher, lead with a discussion into what art is or is not, and why that question is important (again, apply explicit discussion methods). Only then proceed to discuss and explore established definitions of art according to well-known 20th-century artists, critics and historians. 

Tip 7: move from the concrete to the general and stimulate emotion 

You can increase your impact on student learning and emotion by starting from concrete examples and then moving to the general (and not the other way around). Example: start a lesson or module with an anecdote or a case study with a surprising outcome, before exploring terms or frameworks. As you introduce each new piece of knowledge, look back and apply it to the opening story to reveal how the case could have been predicted. 

VU top lecturer Erik Scherder always plays well into to emotion. He very often starts his story with a question for the audience about what their thoughts are on health and the brain. Usually, the unexpected answer is correct. 

Another example: a history teacher may open a lecture on an important battle by describing the two sides and asking students to predict the outcome. In doing so, they must then defend why they predict that outcome. Only then, as a lecturer, do you start outlining the actual course of events. 

Tip 8: encourage collaboration amongst students 

Learning together is a good incentive: students can motivate and help each other explore problems or persevere with practice to master procedures or complicated material. An example of collaborative learning is applying Team Based Learning or encouraging the creation of study groups. 

Example: a physics teacher might ask groups of students to work together on a complex physics challenge after a lecture. A research methods teacher may ask students to share where they searched for sources for their upcoming annotated bibliography. 

Also make use of the rich variety of backgrounds students can bring to discussions, visions and approaches. For example, use methods that fit VU's Mixed Classroom approach. For example: a journalism teacher, encourages students to share their interpretation of how an image affects the narrative of a news article and how their cultural background shapes this interpretation. 

Tip 9: Discuss what learning means in your course and misconceptions about it 

In Tip 5 of Part 1 on supercourses, as a teacher, you deal with the retrieval of opinions and learning of subject or procedural knowledge. But there is also a lot of information circulating or internalized in the students that is holding back their learning, opportunity for collaboration or development. It helps immensely to explore such questions with the students. 

Challenges for learning 

It’s important to be open to dialogue with students about challenges they experience that may prevent them from succeeding. Consider students who encounter obstacles in accessibility, language barriers among international students, personal circumstances, or neurodivergent students such as those with add and autism.  Show a belief in and commitment to the growth and abilities of all students, rather than giving the impression that for you as a teacher, the group of students consists of 'those who can and those who cannot', or 'the motivated and unmotivated'. Avoid direct comparison of students' work. Remind lower-performing students of the available support with encouraging feedback and offer emotional and physical help when they need it. Openly discuss what students hope for or fear in the class or their proposed subject area. 

Presumptions about learning  

Make sure to discuss presumptions about learning. For example, a maths teacher might ask the question: "Are some people inherently good or bad at maths?" Or: "Are boys better at maths than girls?" Thus, at the beginning of a maths course, you could try to identify and discuss fixed patterns of thinking in students. Or as a teacher, when working on a collaborative assignment, address the question: "Why is it important for everyone to work on all tasks?" And then also apply, for example, some of the tips on follow-along behaviour in students described here. Or consider how misconceptions around learning styles have a negative impact on students. For example, the common myths around learning styles, such as that some learners are simply visual thinkers and others are not. Or that some learn better in the evening and others in the morning. Or that some are better at thinking with the left half of their brain and others with the right. Check out this source on more interesting learning myths.  

Wat is the importance of learning? 

Finally, you can get into contact with the student's emotions more directly. For example, discuss the questions: "What is at stake if you do not know this material?", "What would a future employer expect from you?", or "Why are you actually here" (and observe a minute's silence). 

A prerequisite for this kind of conversation, however, is that you ensure a safe learning environment


This article is partly based on: Brendan Lake, D.M.A., M.Ed., a senior instructional designer at ASU Online and a instructional professional at the ASU School of Music: 18 Characteristics of Super Courses - Teach Online ( 

Bain, K. (2021). Super Cursussen: The Future of Teaching and Learning. Princeton University Press. 
Read more about his book:  


This tip is provided by VU NT&L