Continuous improvement (also referred to as continuous quality improvement) has been adopted at some higher education institutions as method of implementing “quality concepts and practices throughout the organization,” however this page will focus on the benefits of developing a personal practice of continuous improvement. Most instructors are in the habit of making small improvement or changes to their courses each time they teach them, so this concept is likely familiar.
Developing your own practice of continuous improvement can help you to spread out the time and effort needed to make necessary improvements to the courses you teach. This can help to maintain the high quality of these courses without requiring the large investment of time necessary for a complete course redesign.
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At its most basic, the continuous improvement cycle has four stages: Plan, Implement, Collect Information, and Analyze. It’s important to spend time on each step to ensure that the process will be effective.
You may already know some changes you’d like to introduce into a course. You might also know that you want to make revisions but feel unsure about what to change. Remember that this step comes after analyzing information in the cycle of continuous improvement, so look to previous iterations of the course for ideas.
You can also prompt ideas by asking yourself these questions:
- Do the student learning objectives meet your goals for the course?
- What assignment had the lowest average grade the last time the course was taught?
- What topic have students struggled with in the past?
- Do students have the opportunity to meaningfully engage with the content and each other?
- Is the anticipated instructor workload manageable? Are you planning to utilize TA resources effectively?
- If you taught this course in the past, were there any parts of the course delivery that you wished were better at the time?
- Are there any additions or changes to the teaching technology or tools that you wish to make?
Try to avoid making substantial changes to a course that is already running. Significant changes are best introduced at the beginning of a semester.
Teaching is an opportunity to see what works and what you want to do differently next time. Go ahead and implement the changes identified. It’s helpful to be transparent with students when trying something new so they are prepared if things do not go smoothly at first. Let them know you are making a change and that their input is valuable.
As you are implementing a change, keep notes about how it is going that you can refer to at the end of the semester. It’s easy to lose track of how something felt in the moment by the time you reach the end of the semester.
Keep any assessment scores or feedback from students as well, as these can help you assess the effectiveness of the changes in the next stage.
You may also want to collect learning analytics to give you quantitative data and identify trends.
Set aside some time at the end of the semester to review the information you collected and determine if the change was beneficial. You can also then think about the course as a whole and look for other areas for improvement. Here are a few example questions that may be appropriate after implementing a change.
After collecting information, you will want to contextualize it and look for patterns, trends, and opportunities for improvement. You may want to ask yourself these questions, some of which you likely considered during the planning stage as well:
- Do you feel more confident in the quality of course materials or instruction?
- What were some areas of confusion for students?
- Are the students engaging with the content and each other as much as was anticipated?
- Are there any assignments where a large number of students turned in work well below the level you were expecting?
- Are assessments accurately measuring the learning objectives?
- Is the instructor workload about what was expected? If not, what could be changed without sacrificing the quality of the course?
- What changes could make the class more authentic, relevant, or engaging?
- Did the technology work like you expected?
- What feedback did students have about the course?
If it becomes clear during this process that substantial revisions to a course are necessary, you may want to implement them slowly over several semesters or work with an instructional designer.
Finally, the key to a continuous improvement practice is to repeat it! Setting aside time during each semester to continue this cycle will lead to lasting benefits.
References and Additional Resources
 Rice & Taylor (2003). EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. "Continuous-Improvement Strategies in Higher Education: A Progress Report."
Hai-Jew (2010). Educause Review. An Instructional Design Approach to Updating an Online Course Curriculum.