How to Apply the Carry-Out Method to Your Course Content

restaurant worker at computer
Course Design
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Adam Barragato is Assistant Director of Partnerships at Purdue University and former Teaching and Learning Consultant


I never liked eating carry-out growing up. My mom and dad would often go out to dinner and not invite me (for good reasons). Still, they would always ask if I wanted them to bring home carry-out, and I’d seldom oblige because of my distaste for it. Fast forward 25 years (and a pandemic) later, I can’t get enough of it. And I’m not the only one. According to the 2021 State of the Restaurant report, 68% of the population is more likely to use carry-out than before COVID. What changed? People (including me) learned to appreciate what carry-out offers: Convenience and comfort. Who doesn’t want to occasionally snuggle up on the couch eating food in their pajamas? And that’s just one benefit.

If we extrapolate this idea a bit further, we see other examples of how COVID has increased demand for carry-out in other industries as well. For example, look at major production companies like Warner Brothers and Disney who are simultaneously offering in-theatre showings as well as streaming at home. And then of course there’s our industry as well. Didn’t we also offer carry-out in higher education over the last year?

Indeed! Just like restaurants and production companies, we offered carry-out course content to students during COVID even though this idea existed long before the pandemic. In fact, a lot of new research shows that a high percentage of students liked the way instructors shifted gears during COVID and would like a hybrid approach. The question then becomes: How can we continue to provide carry-out content even if we reach a new sense of normalcy in coming semesters?


Defining Carry-Out Course Content

There are two important distinctions to make before I explain how we can utilize carry-out course content. First, while many people are more likely to take advantage of carry-out at restaurants and movie theatres, they’ll still utilize the “in-person” experience from time to time. In higher education, I believe this is also true. Moving forward we should consider offering both dine-in and carry-out options for our students. We should become more deliberate about how and when we offer carry-out content to our students, making the classroom “dining experience” all the more special.

Second, we should offer a variety of options for students just as we see at restaurants. In other words, we shouldn’t rely on the same menu items (recorded lectures or Zoom calls) that students have likely lost taste for. We should utilize a variety of resources to help students engage in our content, including but not limited to the textbook, podcasts, and other resources.

Let’s explore what we can learn from restaurants when we deliver carry-out course content—starting with the menu. The menu provides organization for our learners. It helps them make sense out of the different courses (in our case, content), what their options are, and reminds them to save room for dessert. Second, we have to think about portion control. How can we provide just enough content to fill our students up but still leave them hungry for more? This is difficult especially since we have much more content to cover than time to cover it. Finally, how do we package the content so it stays H.O.T. (higher order thinking) so they not only enjoy the meal but get out of it what we hope they will?

Let’s dig in.


The Menu

Most menus are organized by course, starting with the appetizer. By definition, the appetizer is supposed to whet our appetite for what’s ahead. Think about how you can create, reuse, or share content (using whatever resources are available and helpful) to get students excited about your content. Is there a hilarious commercial on YouTube? Is there an intriguing news story to share? Do you have a case study that showcases the value of your topic? These are all savory appetizers to consider.

Next, let’s think about the main course. Hopefully students have not filled up on bread and have room for the meat and potatoes. The problem is that the main course has to provide just the right amount of “meat” but still leave room for “dessert.” This is where you should trim the fat (which I discuss in more detail in the next section). Too often, we overwhelm students with content (inside or outside of class) too early in the process and as a result, they get stuffed. Not only are they eagerly awaiting the bill, but they also don’t want to hear about dessert.

Speaking of dessert, this should be the sweet stuff that we don’t always have time for in class. How can we provide a tasty treat for students to satisfy their content craving? I like to think of this as real-world application. Every student wants to know “How can I use this content in my life?” We tend to forget about this part in our courses because we end up covering too much content.


Portion Control

Portion control and the menu go hand in hand. However, the key difference is that portion control is the amount of information you dish out in each course. This is where we begin to cut the fat. There are a few ways to do this. First, start with the large takeaways either for your entire course or unit. It helps to look at the course outcomes and objectives when making these decisions. Don’t be the over-eager chef who wants to put everything on the plate. Instead, think about the key ideas that students need to know, do, and/or appreciate.

Next, look at the parts that are most confusing for your learners. Where do students get hung up? Finally, get rid of the fluff. Remember that even though restaurants serve bread, it’s not always worth the empty calories. It just takes up space. In class, we see a lot of space getting taken up very quickly between housekeeping items, answering unrelated questions, and the shuffle in and out of your class. I’m not saying we need to cut content—but we need to think about what content can be strategically placed inside and outside of class to ensure it all gets ingested and enjoyed. This can be difficult to conceptualize, so I created this worksheet (with examples) to help you work through this process. However, this process falls flat if we don’t consider higher order thinking, or keeping the content H.O.T.


Keeping Your Course Content H.O.T.

Nobody likes soggy, cold food. To ensure that carry-out content stays hot, restaurants use packaging techniques (and I must say they’ve improved since I was a teenager). However, in our courses, we have a different fear: whether students will open the package and engage in the content! In order to ensure students get the most out of our content, we have to check in with them and make sure they’re comprehending the big ideas.

There are many ways to do this. One way is to have students take a quiz before class (after engaging in the content) to test their understanding before class. While this doesn’t necessarily promote critical thinking, it helps them pinpoint critical parts of the lecture and check their understanding. It also helps guide our in-class time. If I know where the confusion is before I meet with students, I can hone in on those areas in class.

Another thing you can do is to ask students to bring something to class that showcases their understanding. I like to tie homework into bigger assignments as a scaffolding device. For example, at the end of each unit, students share a deliverable that showcases they understand the big ideas in their own words. To prepare students for these large deliverables, I have them bring an “entrance ticket” to class. This is usually the first draft of the larger deliverable or a small part of the deliverable that is tied to the out-of-class content they explored. This showcases to me and their peers how they digested the content and simultaneously prepares them for our time together. It also provides an opportunity for me to see how they are progressing and if I need to add more “salt” or “pepper” to the items on the menu to spice things up.


Carrying on with Carry-Out Course Content

As an educator, instructional designer, and father of two young girls, I recognize that learning is a difficult process that takes time, varying strategies, and lots of patience. But often, it boils down to convenience and comfort. If students feel that learning is convenient for them (within reason) and in a comfortable atmosphere, they are more likely to engage in the course and get the most out of your content. Not everyone learns at 8 am in the morning on Friday.

With that said, I propose the best of both worlds as we (hopefully) return to a new normal soon. First, we need to recognize that our learners’ tastes have changed. Instead of simply going back to what we used to do before the pandemic, let’s adapt our menus and continue to experiment with carry-out content when it makes sense, and ultimately, find new ways to feed our students both literally and figuratively. Maybe our students aren’t the only ones whose palates have improved—but there’s only one way to find out.


To learn more about carry-out course content and more ideas to satisfy your learners’ appetite, watch the webinar on boundless teaching. Bon appetit!