eCoaching Tip 90 Summer Course Wraps with Impact – What are the Big Ideas?

July 1 2011 Lightly refreshed June 3 2013

eCoaching Tip 90  Summer Course Wraps with Impact – What are the Big Ideas?

Adding Impact to Your Summer Course with Big Ideas

This tip offers some quick ideas about how to focus on big ideas and how to wrap up your course in a meaningful way with those big ideas.  Identifying the big ideas of a course is an essential part of all course designs, but never so important as in intense summer courses, where there is not much time for reflection, processing ideas, thinking or simply pondering essential questions. So as your course swings into its final days, here are some thoughts and exercises around big ideas that might prove useful as well as fun.

Don’t be put off by thinking that identifying big ideas has to be some huge new assignment, as this is definitely not the time to spring new tasks on students. Rather, see if you can find ways to weave your course’s big ideas into discussions, feedback, and presentations.

One Possibility – A Big Idea Challenge

What is a Big Idea Challenge? This challenge is similar to the word game that asks how many words a person can make using all or some of the letters in the word “stupendous.”  In this word game, there is usually a time limit that caps the effort. The person creating the most words wins the challenge.

In a Big Idea Challenge in a course, we challenge students to concisely summarize the core concepts or foundational ideas of a course in a single graphic or paragraph. In other words, we challenge students to summarize the course essentials and their personal understandings and see how many of the course ideas and principles fit naturally into a pattern. Simplifying and summarizing is what our minds do, as we integrate bits and pieces of facts into core concepts. If we do it explicitly in search of meaning, the knowledge is more useful and accessible.

The most successful responses to a challenge will be those that capture the essential ideas most succinctly while being powerful enough to capture the relationships and patterns of a course.  Consider customizing your challenge. You might ask which big ideas in the course echo, extend or expand big ideas from a previous course. Or you might ask which big ideas connect most directly back to their personalized learning outcomes from the course beginnings.

An alternative to a formal challenge event is to ask a focused question about big ideas  in a feedback forum at the end of your course. The question might be one of the following:  “When someone asks you, ‘What was your course about? What do you know now that you didn’t know before?  How will you make decisions armed with the knowledge that you now have?’

Focusing on Big Ideas

Why is a focus on big ideas so valuable?  Primarily, it is because we know that learners will only take away a small subset of all they have read, studied, discussed.  The purpose of a big idea discussion is to focus the dialogue of the last course interactions on just what big ideas, essential questions, and enduring understandings the learners will take away.

What is a Big Idea?

What is a big idea? How do we arrive at the big ideas and essential questions that we want our learners to use and think about? This is not as easy as it would seem to be.  Even experts have to stop and ponder what the foundational concepts of their discipline are, particularly when forming a foundation for novices.

For example, as I was writing this tip, I paused to consider what I think are the foundational concepts or big ideas in teaching and learning. After some thought, if I had to choose one concept, I would focus on Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development. This concept states that every learner has a zone that specifies his or her individual point of readiness for growth or skill in a field. This one big idea influences all design and practice in teaching from pre-K through life-long learning because it means  we must seek to customize and personalize learning experiences while creating a workable and practical design.

What is a big idea? In Grant Wiggins’ (2011) words, a big idea is similar to a “picture that connects the dots.”  Big ideas have magnetizing power with the ability to make sense of a bewildering set of discrete facts. Big ideas often are reflected in simple rules of thumb, such as “For every action there is an equal reaction.”

More simply, big ideas consolidate and make sense of a discipline.

Examples of Big Ideas

By now you really want more examples of big ideas. Here is a starter set to get you thinking.

  • Freedom always involves responsibility
  • Leaders inspire, challenge, communicate visions, care.
  • Literature is a creative act, situated in a particular time and place and from a particular point of view
  • Life is shaped by our attitudes and thoughts.
  • Form follows function.
  • Statistics provides ways to identify and interpret patterns.

Criteria for Big Ideas

Here are four criteria from Wiggins (1998) that can help you identify the big ideas in your field or course.

  1. Does the big idea have enduring value beyond the course? Is it universal and timeless in its application?
  2. Does the idea, topic, or process reside at the heart of a discipline? Does it provide a core conceptual lens through which to understand and grow the discipline?
  3. Does the idea, topic, or process require work to deeply understand and integrate into our knowledge structures?
  4. Does the idea, topic, or process have the power to engage students?

Asking Our Students

Why use big ideas to wrap up a course?  After an often exhausting, although exhilarating series of readings, discussions, projects and dialogue, it is common to wonder just what meaningful understandings the students have actually integrated into their knowledge structures? Big ideas questioning can help them shape those understandings and bring them into focus. Give it a try!


Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (2006)The Big Ideas Project. Retrieved June 3 2013 from There are pdfs here of big ideas from disciplines such as biology, computer science, literature, mathematics, speech and visual arts.

Wiggins, G. (2010) Great web links on essential questions.Retrieved June 3 2013 from

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. Understanding by Design, 2nd ed.; 2005; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Alexandria, VA.  An excerpt focusing on big ideas and core tasks (pp. 65 to 75) is available at

Wiggins, G. (2011) What is a big idea? Retrieved June 3 2013from

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998) What is Backward Design? In Understanding by Design. 1st edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.  pp. 19. Retrieved June 3 2013 from resource includes a section on backward design and a discussion of the four criteria for help in identifying big ideas.

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher