Inspired by his interactions with chemistry professors who advocate for evidence-based teaching practices, James Shepherd, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, got hooked on active learning. 

Shepherd started at the University of Iowa in 2017 and has since been an active member of the Early Career Faculty Academy, a Center for Teaching initiative that supports early-career instructors in balancing teaching with research and employing effective and rewarding teaching pedagogies.

Transforming a Core Course

His commitment to student learning led him to participate in the Course Design Institute (CDI), an intensive, multi-day institute for instructors who want to learn how to design or substantially revise a course. During the institute, Shepherd redesigned a physical chemistry course on quantum mechanics and spectroscopy, a core course in the department.

Impact of a Redesigned Course

Before the institute, Shepherd worked with the Office of Teaching, Learning & Technology’s Research and Analytics team to gather statistics and background information about the students who had previously taken the course he hoped to redesign: Were they chemistry majors? What were their grades in other classes? What direction did their academic experience go after taking the course? Using this information, he hoped to decrease the rate of students who received Ds and Fs, reduce the number of students who withdrew from the course, and increase attendance.Thinking back on his experiences during the CDI, Shepherd says the workshop reflected the principles and modeled the practices of backward course design, making it easier for him to understand the effectiveness of those pedagogical approaches. It was, he says, “a perfect model of how active learning works.” Shepherd especially valued how the facilitator, Anna Flaming, an associate director at the Center for Teaching, showed participants the backward design process she implemented to design the curriculum and materials for the workshop.

Apply for the 2019 Course Design Institute, which will be held from Sunday, May 19, through Wednesday, May 22.

Applying principles he learned in the CDI, Shepherd carefully constructed his syllabus. He chose a workbook that allowed students to create their own textbooks over time by answering questions that would guide them through the material. He also separated the mathematical reasoning component of the class from the conceptual part to facilitate student learning.

In fall 2018, he taught the course with his graduate students, Tina Mihm and Hayley Petras, who also designed their discussion sections based on active-learning principles. Shepherd reported an increase in attendance and a considerable decrease in the drop rate.

“Learning different ways of teaching challenges your preconceived notions of how students learn and how students experience your classroom,” Shepherd says, “but it also is important to understand how students learn best.” He adds that every instructor “wants to teach better, to have students pass their classes, to have students learn, and there are a lot of evidence-based practices to help that.”

Interested in the CDI? 

Please direct any questions to the Center for Teaching at or 319-335-6048, or you can apply for the 2019 Course Design Institute