August 24, 2009
Using the Syllabus to Create an Engaging Classroom Climate
It’s important at the beginning of a course for students and their instructor to find out about each other. This exchange of information helps to create classroom climates of respect and fosters a spirit of exchange that can encourage students to ask questions, make comments, and otherwise participate in dialogue throughout the course.
In the second (and significantly revised) edition of Judith Grunert’s book on syllabi (now retitled with two additional authors, see below), there are several examples of how faculty share introductory material about themselves on the syllabus. In addition to all the specifics about office location, office hours, and electronic contact information, a business faculty member includes details about his educational history, work experience, research foci, and outside interests. The information is shared in brief, and none of it is terribly revealing, but it still conveys a sense of the personal about the professor (p. 42).
Another example in the book does the same but with a wonderful sense of humor (p. 43). The professor’s name appears, after which is listed the customary PhD, but that is followed by “CNN, MTV, DNA, Professor.” He lists office hours as they appear on most syllabi but then notes that he is “open all legal and illegal holidays” but “closed Sunday for mental repairs.”
Sharing information about the instructor makes it easy to solicit information from students. Attached to the syllabus can be a form for students to fill out and submit as they leave class. Information requested there might parallel what the professor has shared or might ask other course related questions. There’s an example on page 44 in The Course Syllabus.
In a recent issue of College Teaching, Jan Armstrong describes how she asks students in her large human development and education courses to write her an informal introductory letter. She provides the paper and a bit of class time the first day for students to complete the letter. She lets them decide what to share, asking them to “tell me a bit about yourself and why you are taking this course. Tell me whatever you think I should know about you.” (p. 63)
Her follow-up is especially unique. She spends a few minutes at the beginning of subsequent class periods introducing students to the rest of the class. She draws on their narratives taking care not to reveal anything that might be personally private. She might share information about the student’s pet, job, volunteer activities, commute to school, hobbies, etc. “Judging by the smiles, students enjoy watching me play the talk show host, introducing some of my lecture hall ‘guests’ to each other.” (p. 63)
Reference: O’Brien, J. D., Millis, B. J., and Cohen, M. W. The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach. 2nd Ed. Jossey-Bass, 2008.
Armstrong, J. (2008). Write me a letter: Challenging anonymity in large-enrollment classes. College Teaching, 56 (1), 63.
Excerpted from Introduction Ideas to Foster Participation, May 2008, The Teaching Professor.