Opportunity for active learning? It’s in the syllabus.

As we prepare our course syllabi for the upcoming academic term (sometimes joyously, more often frantically), many of us reflect on a vexing irony: “After all the painstaking work, will my students actually bother to read this thing?” The commencement of questions we receive about course matters clearly delineated in the document, clustering during the first few weeks and then maintaining, slower yet steady, throughout the fall, appear to answer our question in aggravating fashion.

Image from Inside Higher Ed

Image from Inside Higher Ed

So what do we do? Is a snarky T-shirt the answer?

Or perhaps we should consider the advice provided in Faculty Focus by Joanna Marciano Crossman from Saint Leo University. She suggests we leverage the syllabus not merely as a course schedule and policy document, but as an opportunity for student learning that promotes topical inquiry and self-ownership in the class. If nothing else, students will be required to interact with the document on a regular basis, and end up with a much closer relationship to the treasures that lie within.

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JUNE 9, 2014

Using Your Syllabus as a Learning Resource

By: in Teaching and Learning

We know students do not take it upon themselves to read the syllabus. Yet syllabus indifference still bewilders me after teaching for 25 years, given that my syllabi are conveniently available online and in hard copy, and are replete with information virtually assuring success with my courses.

Tired of asking students to “read the syllabus for that information,” a number of years ago I decided to incorporate my syllabus into each class meeting as a learning resource. Three strategies have proven quite successful.

First, like most professors, my syllabi provide an index of recommended websites. These well-credentialed and pertinent resources would be largely ignored were I not to require an assignment. Therefore, throughout the semester I feature one or two websites from the index that correlate with each class session. During our second class, students sign up for a website per their interest in its topic area or convenient presentation date. Their assignment is to review their selected website, and to present a web tour relevant to the learning activities scheduled for class that day. The web tour presentations must include a brief overview of current research, interactive tools, FAQ’s, and the like. The central purposes are to engage students in consulting reputable online resources, and to invite initial discussion about the session topics.

For example, when we discuss nutrition in a wellness class, students may provide a web tour of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website or the National Dairy Council website. When we study immunology, students may offer a web tour of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases or the CDC. This assignment contributes to the course grade as “collegial contributions.” At the very least, my students are introduced to more than 20 websites of which they would generally not be aware. These recommended websites also serve as resources for class projects, making it less likely that students will simply “Google” information and use whatever comes up first.

The second successful strategy for using my syllabus as a learning resource is to integrate its detailed daily agenda into each class meeting. Because I require students to bring the syllabus to every class, I begin each lesson with an announcement to consult page xx of the syllabus, and we preview the session together. This daily agenda is dually essential for traveling student athletes and those who miss class for other reasons. It clearly notes learning activities, links to resources housed in LearningStudio (our CMS), assignments, and reminders.

Third, I require students to use the assessment table embedded in my syllabus. This graphic provides an at-a-glance preview of each assignment that contributes to the final course grade, its learning outcomes, and our university’s core values of Excellence, Community, Respect, Personal Development, Responsible Stewardship, and Integrity. Students can see specifics regarding assignment requirements, assessment, point value, and date due. While common in most syllabi, students often overlook assessment tables. Although I post grades to the CMS gradebook, I also require students to handwrite their grade into the assessment table after they have reviewed the graded assignment and its corresponding rubric. Chronicling their progress or lack thereof can be a great motivator for students.

The assessment table correlates with assignments, each featuring the following statement: “This assignment will provide the opportunity for you to demonstrate course outcomes xx and core value xx. It will contribute up to xx points towards your final grade.” My syllabus features this statement: “Each assignment will be accompanied by a rubric. Students are expected to use rubrics to prepare each assignment, and as instructive feedback of their assessed work.” Taken together, these notices help students to understand the alignment of course outcomes, see relevance in assignments, and take ownership of their learning. These statements are standard in every section’s assignments and syllabus.

We are likely well versed in designing functional syllabi that invite students to understand our course framework, serve as a “contract” with students, and provide logistical information. We should also consult checklists provided by our centers for teaching excellence to be certain we have included requisite components in our syllabi. However, we fail to use the syllabus to its full potential if it does not guide students toward building skills and competencies essential in the course. Our syllabi themselves are a viable learning resource.

Reference: Harvard University (2010). Function and Components of a Syllabus. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. http://bokcenter.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?pageid=icb.page29695

Dr. Joanne M. Crossman is a professor of Education at Saint Leo University in Florida.

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