Choosing the Topic Wisely

Put yourself in the shoes of the student and ask yourself, what are the most useful skills to learn? Out of the vast Universe of possible topics, when choosing what types of course you should teach, pick those that you:

  • Love to talk about
  • Know a lot about
  • Value the insights, knowledge and skills they provide

What You Love

When preparing a new course, you might spend an obscene amount of time with the topic of the course. You will read about the topic, write about the topic, talk about it with your friends. This topic will follow you in your thoughts. 

But don’t worry - researching what you love, narrowing it down to the core and finding new ways to present it to the students is an exhilarating experience. But you do have to love it. Or at least find it interesting enough to fall in love with it. Because when you do what you love, students notice and follow you through this journey.

What You Know

Keep in mind that:

Explaining a topic as simply as possible comes only with knowing the topic as much as possible. 

If you are a novice at Java language, you’ll spend more time researching the language than actually teaching it. Experience matters. First-hand knowledge matters. 

There is a well-known piece of advice given to writers: “Write what you know”. The point is, readers can quickly feel whether the work is authentic or not. And if you don’t know something, you cannot write about it in an authentic way. 

The same goes for teaching. Teach what you know. And if you know something about a topic that cannot be found in textbooks, some secret essential skills to learn, teach them!

This advice is especially important when you are creating your first course. Find firm footing first. You’ll always have time to experiment.

What You Value

In this case, valuable is another word for applicable. Knowing the names of every Star Wars character may certainly seem fun, but you will hardly use this knowledge in the real life. That’s why we are talking about the insights, knowledge and skills the topic can provide.

When creating the course, always ask yourself: 

  • How will this help the student in the real world?

Will the student become smarter, wiser, more efficient in his chosen field? Will you provide him with the tools to succeed?

  • What can I cut down?

What can be skipped or covered sparingly? Narrow the topic down to the core. Teach what is fundamental and skip what is skippable.

Think like a student - what are interesting topics to learn about? Maybe you yourself have a wishlist of skills to learn? Let your desires and plans be your inspiration. Remember, valuable knowledge is applicable knowledge.

Pick the One

That's how to teach. That's how you begin narrowing down the Universe of topics to a single shining Star. But it is just the start. From all the topics that you love, know and value you have to pick the single one you will be working on. To accomplish it, you’ll have to (1) get to know your competition and (2) find a way to make your course unique. 

Know your competition (a.k.a. do the research)

When you pick what you love, you will have a sample of topics you want to work on. Start from your best idea and search the internet for courses/books/videos/documentaries/podcasts/etc. that cover them. Do not fall too deep into this rabbit hole, just deep enough to get the general idea of how the topic is usually covered. 

When researching, become a student. What are your most desired skills to learn? Why? Now think of your friends, colleagues, family. Maybe you've talked to them about interesting topics to learn about. 

Use no more than three sentences on each of these points to describe how the course was covered:

  • Content
  • Style
  • Reception

You will now be able to answer these two questions:

  • What stood out?
  • What was missing? 

The purpose of the research is to find the most promising types of course to cover - until you find the one. Repeat this process with at least two other topic ideas. Better yet, repeat it until you are sure you have found the topic that is ripe for a new take. Ideally, it should be a topic that stands out (valuable, stylish, well-received), but has a lot of room for improvement. 

Think back to your circle. What are their top skills to learn? And keep in mind: if a topic is not popular or is not covered at all, this may mean that not a lot of students are interested in it.

Make your take on the unique topic

Now when you know what’s out there in the vast Universe, it will be easier to make your course stand out. 

Content

What are the essential points you must cover? What can you add that’s not been covered elsewhere? And what can you drop? What’s not useful or interesting? Separate the things to learn from the things to skip.

Style

The saying is cliche but use your imagination. Or if you want another one, the sky’s the limit. Really. Think of what makes you You and how can you translate that into your course. Think of how to teach at your top shape. Introduce computer science by using examples from a hit TV show. Use origami models in your business class. Add humor, music, animation. Dress up your cat and call her Professor Mittens. The teaching comes first. Teach the best skills to learn. Teach useful skills to learn. But keep the student interested.


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