Modular course design (utilizing the ”fail faster” principle)

Learning Outcomes

The student learns not to focus so much on the final performance (i.e., a presentation), but learns that the outcome is dependent on the processes of preparation and practice. By having thresholds at the various modules, we can better ensure a certain level of familiarity with processes by the end of the course, in all the practiced modules.

The idea is to not focus on end-products or outcomes, but to identify sub-processes that lead to successful outcomes and to practice those to a set level before allowing the final task to be begun.

Here the idea of algorithmic thinking (i.e., breaking a complex process down into separate subprocesses) is applied to commonly performed language tasks, such as presentations. In so doing, students are supported in their development of metacognition and critical thinking.

The digital aspect of the course design comes more with the capacity of tracking students or groups of students who are at different stages of proceeding through “modules”, as well as the ability for students to use cloud-based services to better co-operate and collaborate on projects.

The ability to easily record and share productions of various form of communication further makes a more asynchronous approach to course design.

Ways of working and activities

The various modules (which may contain submodules) need to each have been constructed and hosted on some kind of learning platform (e.g. moodle) before the course starts. The instruction provided should be enough for students to create first iterations (based on the assumptions they hold upon entering the course) without needing much input from the teacher.

Between iterations, the teacher then focuses their attention to problematic issues that would cause problems further down the line. Students create further iterations, trying to demonstrate their ability to take in feedback and recalibrate.

(Note from experience: the students are first a bit shocked that the task instruction do not simply tell them how to complete a module, but describes a scenario and targeted intentions.

For example: In a meeting task for positioning, students will first be very direct, and focus on getting their opinion stated, instead of considering what the others at the table might want, and how they can utilize that to align their positions with the interests of other parties. It is important that this “comes out” so that they can reflect on the contrast of applying other strategies.

However, by letting them use their own assumptions and previous knowledge, as well as giving them a chance for asking for advice before performing, the points for development that emerge are always relevant. By highlighting the option to ask for advice, you can incentivize them to seek verification and instruction when and where they feel they needed, instead of pushing unsolicited instruction.)

How are students supported?

Students are encouraged to be proactive, by offering support during the process of preparation. There is an attempt to wean off them waiting for final “judgement” after a completed task. The idea of “fail faster” is to identify problems as close to the source as possible, and to lower the threshold of scrapping an attempt early when issues are detected.

Students are encouraged to share ideas, and watch other students/groups and take on what works for them.

Efforts are made to show that how students approach the work impacts the outcome. Meta-level skills and effects are pointed out, when necessary (use of digital services to collaborate, effective accessing of materials, time management, interaction with peers and teacher, etc.)

What kind of feedback do students get as their work progresses on their own skills and the development of their skills?

The feedback focuses on clarifying where efforts need to be made to reach the goals of the (sub)module in question. Also, good use of collaborative techniques, approaches or similar things are paid attention to.

How does it end? What happens next? How is the learning process and experience discussed and reflected upon?

It is useful if the submodules lead up to a larger project or performance, where the sum of all parts are put together, letting the student see how the various subroutines, if applied well, come together as a functioning whole. This could be a presentation, a report, a meeting etc.


Throughout the course, students should be allowed and encouraged to reflect on the various modules, stressing that thinking about what issues contributed to either success or failure is useful to develop a stronger metacognitive ability, which, hopefully, can help them develop stronger processes in the future.

For a presentation about an example in practice, find my presentation on this kind of approach in business communication teaching on the FinELC website.