As director of our faculty support center, one of my responsibilities is to coordinate an orientation program for new faculty. Years ago we decapitated the “talking head” format of traditional orientation sessions and now try to provide interactive sessions that introduce our new colleagues to both our campus policies and our campus culture. While the transition of most topics to the interactive format has been easy, the session on the course syllabus has remained relatively dry—until this year.
On most campuses there are a number of required policy statements that must be included on all syllabi (e.g., disability accommodations, email policy, plagiarism policy, and classroom decorum). All these requirements, while necessary, support the traditional “contract” analogy of a course syllabus. To return the personal touch to the syllabus, our new faculty orientation session on the course syllabus now features a Voices of Our Students video.
The video, actually created by one of our student interns, provides a preview of student expectations through student responses to a variety of prompts such as, “What one word describes the most important characteristic for a professor? Who is your favorite professor and why? What advice would you give to a new professor?” Examples of student responses are provided below.
When asked to give one word to describe a great professor, our students replied:
When asked why a professor was their favorite, students offered a variety of reasons, such as:
- He motivates students every class meeting via video, lecture, guest speaker, etc.
- She incorporates open discussion after the lecture.
- She always makes the lecture entertaining and the class enjoyable.
- He is very straightforward—you know what to expect.
- He connects what we’re learning to the real world.
- She is available to help outside the classroom.
- He treats each student as a person, not a number.
- She takes a personal interest in students beyond the classroom.
- He provides study tips and helps students when they struggle.
- She provides detailed feedback when you miss points.
- She goes the extra mile to make sure you know what you need to know.
- She uses challenging assignments to push students beyond their comfort zone.
- He believes in students and helps them succeed!
Students then offered faculty the following advice on how to become someone’s favorite professor:
- Use real-world examples in the classroom.
- Show students that you value them as people.
- Recognize and accommodate different learning styles.
- Be personal—share your story with students.
- Get feedback from students.
- Be available.
- Help struggling students.
- Be relatable—students want to connect with professors on some level.
- Keep communication open.
- Offer virtual office hours if you teach online.
Do what you say and say what you do
Hearing students’ responses to these prompts provides a natural segue to many key elements of a course syllabus—office hours, course requirements, classroom engagement, and student-professor relationships—that we cover during faculty orientation.
We continue the conversation by stating, “Now that you’ve heard students’ expectations, let’s talk about how you will meet theirs and communicate yours!” The discussion is lively (and often amusing) as faculty rebut some of the students’ comments. They’ve even suggested we produce a Voices of Professors video and share it at student orientation! What used to be a session of reading through the requirements is now more of an open discussion on creative ways to communicate expectations and engage with our students. Ideas that surfaced during a recent discussion included:
- Using the first day of class to model expectations. The use of a content-based ice-breaker activity in which every student has to speak sends the message that students are expected to contribute in every class and that every class will be rich with content.
- Using the first day of class to model consequences. A colleague described an activity where one student is selected to leave the room and then asked to contribute to the discussion immediately upon returning to the classroom. Of course, the student has no clue as to what had been said, which serves as a powerful way to demonstrate the importance of attendance and the impact of missing class.
- Creating a short video or podcast and posting it on the course website in the learning management system (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.).
- Asking a successful student from a previous semester to share tips on what to expect and how to be successful—this could be via email, video, or guest appearance.
- Leading an open discussion on the first day of class to give current students some input on select syllabus items.
Repercussions of not “doing what you say” and failing to follow course guidelines also bubble up in the conversation and give credence to the university-required components of a syllabus. Potential repercussions include:
- Loss of respect from students
- Poor attendance
- Disengaged students
- Poor performance from students
- Poor student evaluations at the end of the course
- Student complaints that reach the department head and upper administration
- Grade challenges
- Poor annual evaluations from colleagues and/or department head
- Developing a “do not take this professor” reputation
Incorporating the Voices of Our Students video within the traditional session on course syllabi in new faculty orientation has been a big success. It has prompted rich discussions and helped faculty regain interest in and ownership of their course syllabi. Now the creation of course syllabi feels more like an opportunity than a requirement.
Tena Golding has been a faculty member in higher education for over 30 years and a faculty developer for more than 18 of those. She is currently a professor of mathematics and the director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Southeastern Louisiana University.