June 9, 2014

Using Your Syllabus as a Learning Resource

By: in Teaching and Learning

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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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Comments

Sherritta Hughes | June 9, 2014

These tips on using the syllabus as an actual learning tool is resourceful for students and teachers. This is a great way for building more unique syllabi as oppose to cookie cutter formats that are often used.

robbiepach | June 9, 2014

Practical tips! The strategies shared will help me restyle my course syllabus and improve its effectiveness as a learning tool. A focused effort to connect the syllabus with my learning activities will benefit my high school students as they prepare for college.

Judith Rau | June 10, 2014

These are great ideas. Getting students to read the syllabus is probably my biggest source of frustration for clinical. I will try these ideas not only in class but in post conference for clinical as well.

Evelyn B. Kelly PhD | June 10, 2014

These are three great ideas. I will implement them in an on-site class this fall.

J Goudy | June 10, 2014

I give a syllabus quiz. I set this up on my LMS and require a certain score. They can take it as often as they wish until they get the required score. I'll often throw in something outrageous in the syllabus and and ask about it as a test question. For example, in my syllabus I my say "Please ensure that your cell phone, computer and pet gorilla are silenced through all class lectures and tests". My test question my then ask – Please fill in the blank, what pet was referenced in the syllabus.

I do this to ensure they have read the syllabus and they aren't just guessing at the quiz questions.

Candice Barnes | June 12, 2014

These are great tips! Thanks for sharing. I just purchased a "It's on the syllabus" t-shirt that some may have seen featured on a few website. Faculty members got a kick out of it. Students might not find it so amusing!

@idbygeorge | June 12, 2014

Great article Joanne. I would like to invite your readers to check out the Salsa project at Utah State University: http://salsa.usu.edu


Trackbacks

  1. Read the Syllabus | Learning Technologies
  2. Using Your Syllabus as a Learning Resource | To Talk Like This and Act Like That
  3. Opportunity for active learning? It’s in the syllabus. | Augie Prof in Progress
  4. Pre-semester Teaching Tips: Resources for prepping fall classes | MCTC Center for Teaching & Learning


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