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Composing College Courses

Mahler. Mozart. Mendelssohn. What can they teach us about teaching? You may have a flash of genius for a particular course or lesson plan, but most artful teaching requires planning, revision, and contextualizing the lesson or course into the overall curriculum. Much like the composition of the great musical symphonies. Fortunately, most composers do not have to go into the composition blind – and neither do you as a teacher. When structuring the first movement of the symphony, many composers follow the sonata form: exposition, development, and recapitulation. This can also be a useful way to structure your lesson plans:


The exposition of a sonata introduces the major themes of the movement. It sets the stage for everything to follow and provides direction for the piece, and often contains the most memorable melody. In the classroom, it is helpful to start by introducing the major themes of the class. Start with the learning goals that you want to accomplish in the class and the major questions you hope to answer. Make sure that these are clear and memorable to the students, and use them to direct the remainder of the class. This means keeping the number of goals manageable and realistic to achieve in the time available.


Following the exposition, the composer begins the development of the major themes. The material is complexified and nuanced, building on the basic musical ideas set out from the beginning of the piece. Importantly, the themes set up in the exposition guide what happens in the development section. Likewise, as you teach, be sure that the course material relates to your learning goals. Plan the lessons around the main questions in 10-15 minute mini-modules or “chunks,” using active learning techniques to break up lectures and engage students. Research shows that this is the approximate attention span of college students, so using the structure of the exposition (learning goals) allows you to stay on message and accomplish what you set out to do in the class without losing students’ attention.


The sonata movement ends with the recapitulation, or recap of the exposition section. It reiterates and reaffirms the primary themes, bringing the movement full circle – back to where it began. After developing each of the main course ideas, just like the sonata, you should return to the beginning and assess whether the learning goals were achieved. Consider asking students to write down the most important thing they learned or what questions remain after the class. Remind students of the main takeaways and highlight what was accomplished during the session.

Moving from a Movement to a Symphony

Whether it is one movement of a symphony or a single class of the semester, it is important to consider how the part fits into the larger whole. Composers will often draw on the themes introduced in the first movement throughout the rest of the symphony; instructors should also draw on themes introduced at the beginning of the course throughout the rest of the semester. Consider how each class fits into the overall theme and the broader learning goals you have for the course. Structuring your course in this manner will help you organize your materials and ensure that your objectives are met.

Want to learn more about structuring and designing effective courses?

The Kaneb Center is currently offering a workshop series on the Fundamentals of Course Design, and offers private, individual consultations to those who are revising an old course or planning a new one. Contact us today for assistance in composing your next course!

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