Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Situational Factors

Know Your Audience(s)

Like all good writing, a course should be designed with its audience in mind. Before you develop objectives, assessments and activities for your primary audience – your students – you should give some consideration to who your students are, how they’ll be engaged with the course, and how the context of their engagement is shaped by institutional and program factors.

Along with considering the context of learning for your students, it is useful to identify the external audiences for your course – namely, colleagues, administrators, employers, and other members of the community who might have a stake or vested interest in your course. Considering such factors does not mean looking over your shoulder. Rather, it means being mindful of how your course fulfills specific university requirements, fits within a degree program (or doesn’t), lends itself to internships and service learning opportunities, or addresses material that is controversial or well established.

Identifying the situational factors for your course and its audiences will help with the articulation and alignment of appropriate learning objectives and the planning of course activities. Often the very act of identifying a situational factor will produce rich language that can be integrated into specific learning objectives and course lessons. It will certainly help you to plan more efficiently and pragmatically. A large lecture course cannot be conducted in the same manner as an upper-division seminar. Likewise, a course that meets once a week will require different in-class activities than one that meets three times a week. Identifying these factors and a host of others will help with the overall course design.

Situational Factors

In Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (2003), L. Dee Fink offers a useful checklist of potentially significant factors that influence course design. Feel free to use the attached planning guide based on Fink’s checklist to identify situational factors and pedagogical challenges. This guide will enable you to write clear and focused learning objectives for your course.  Additional information about Integrated Learning is also available under the CTLT's A-Z Resources.

The Pedagogical Challenge

Perhaps the most important question on Fink’s checklist is the concluding one:

What is the special situation in the course that challenges the students and the instructor in the desire to make this a meaningful and important learning experience?

Such a question asks you to focus on your larger aspirations for the course as well as your concerns about the obstacles to learning. Identifying the specific pedagogical challenge -- a  key situational factor -- can be a powerful impetus for course planning.

Some examples of pedagogical challenges:

The pedagogical challenge in a statistics course: "Demystifying the perception that statistics is only understandable to mathematicians and getting students to see how statistics is a systematic way of doing the same kinds of calculations they do everyday" (Fink, 72).

The pedagogical challenge in an Introduction to Psychology course: "Getting students to understand that psychology is not a field of everyday common sense, that there are lots of unexpected phenomenon and that theories, experiments and research provide insights contrary to popular beliefs" (Fink, 72).

The pedagogical challenge in a Modern German History course: "Getting students to see that 20th-century German history includes other figures besides Hitler and other events and aspects not related to WW II, the rise and fall of Nazism, and the Holocaust"(Fink, 72).

The pedagogical challenge in a first-year writing course: "Getting students to grasp how a written argument is developed in response to a question at issue, not by following an essay template such as the five-paragraph model."

The pedagogical challenge in a literature course: "Getting students to understand that there is not just one reading, one authoritarian meaning of a work, but that if one can support an interpretation with evidence from the text and rational, sound warrants for that evidence, then a "reading" may be seen as a valid one, though not all may agree."

The pedagogical challenge in an Intro to Women's Studies course: "Guiding students through a thoughtful process of recognizing the current and historical patriarchal oppression of women without creating a simple and fixed dichotomy of women vs. men and right vs. wrong."

What is a pedagogical challenge in your course? Feel free to share your pedagogical challenge here.


Fink, L Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integreated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.


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