April 16th, 2012

A Syllabus Tip: Embed Big Questions


Much has been written about the course syllabus. It’s an important tool for classroom management, for setting the tone, for outlining expectations, and for meeting department and university requirements. It’s an essential document in a higher education course, but do your students read it? And if they do read it, do they see the real purpose of the course beyond the attendance policy and exam dates?

Here’s one strategy that will not only encourage your students to read the syllabus, but it will also allow you to stimulate discussion, create curiosity, and assess students’ knowledge on the first day of class.

Step 1: After you create your syllabus, go back to and take a closer look at your learning outcomes for the course. As you read through the outcomes, write a discussion question related to each outcome. For example, suppose you teach a political science course and one of your learning outcomes is, “Students will be able to discuss current issues in political science informed by popular media and scholarly evidence.” Now take that learning outcome and write a discussion question. Preferably, you want to write a question that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Think about the “big picture” questions that relate to the overall goals of your course and then try to write the question in a way that generates discussion. For example, a question related to our political science learning outcome example could be, “What are the differences between sources of popular media and sources of scholarly evidence?” Or, “What sources of popular media do you rely on to stay informed about current issues in the world?” Notice how the first question assesses students’ knowledge of course content. The second question assesses their behaviors. Design your questions to focus on the information that is most important for you, your course, and your students.

Step 2: After you have written at least one discussion question for each of your learning outcomes, think about which sections of your syllabus relate to each of the outcomes. Do you see places in your syllabus where you could embed one of your discussion questions? For example, suppose you have a section in your syllabus explaining the first research paper. Using the political science example, you could embed the question, “What are the differences between sources of popular media and sources of scholarly evidence?” as a springboard to a discussion on the appropriate types of resources for an academic paper. The goal here is to use “chunking” to divide your syllabus into areas for discussion based on your learning outcomes. Continue embedding discussion questions throughout the whole syllabus. Keep the text and font consistent with your overall syllabus. You may not want your discussion questions to stand out too much. Your goal is to encourage students to read each section and find the discussion question themselves.

Step 3: After you have embedded all of your discussion questions, you’re ready to share your course syllabus with your students. Think about how you want to integrate the discussion questions into your first day of class. You might decide to go through each section of the syllabus, stopping to discuss each of your questions. Or, you might want to assign the questions for homework, or create discussion boards online to encourage students to share their opinions, thoughts, and ideas about the questions. Depending on how you design the questions, their responses will also allow you to see any gaps in their knowledge, allowing you to create resources or assignments to help them build the skills they need to succeed in your course.

Not every learning outcome will be relevant for embedding as a discussion question in your syllabus, but every course has “big picture” questions that you can use to start a discussion. Think about how your course connects to those big ideas to help students see the impact of the course beyond the semester.

Dr. Barbi Honeycutt is the Founder of Flip It Consulting, which is designed to help presenters, teachers, and managers reverse the design of “traditional” presentations, classes, and meetings. She also serves as an adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Leadership, Policy, Adult and Higher Education and the Director of Graduate Teaching Programs at NC State University.

  • Hello Dr. Honeycutt:

    This was a very helpful post that reminded instructors about the importance of asking questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Would you agree that this promotes critical thinking? Would you utilize action verbs from the various levels of Bloom’s taxonomy as part of this process?

    Also, if a big picture question isn’t suitable for a discussion question, could it be developed as a written assignment?
    Dr. J

    • Barbi

      Hi Bruce,
      For some reason, I didn't get this comment in my RSS feed, so my apologies for the late reply! Yes, I agree these questions promote critical thinking, and yes, I used Bloom's Taxonomy to formulate all of these questions. When I use this in my "Teaching in College" course, the students are learning what Bloom's Taxonomy is, how to ask questions, and how to promote critical thinking which is exactly what I try to model for them.

      I think turning these questions into an assignment is an excellent idea. It could be a written assignment, a presentation, a demonstration…the possibilities are endless!


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  • Eirik Kaasa Eliassen

    Dear Dr. Honeycutt,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences. This was a great reminder about the fact that learning takes place when the present knowledge and attitudes are challenged. Our main task as teachers is to challenge the student's intellect and problem-solving abilities. I think this method also applies to practical tasks, f.ex. in vocational training, which is my field. Up to this point, I have used Bloom's taxonomy merely as an assessment-tool, not a design-tool. However, I see numerous ways "big questions" modelled after Bloom's taxonomy can serve the learning outcomes well. It can also serve as a supplement in formative "assassment for learning". Thanks again.

    • Barbi

      Hi Eirik,
      Thanks for your comments! I agree – Bloom's Taxonomy can be a powerful tool for planning, design and assessment. I use it for everything from planning meeting agendas to developing new programs. Using the taxonomy to embed big questions kicks starts the learning and raises students' curiosity about the course material. And you're right, it's a great way to build in formative assessment so you can make adjustments along the way.

      After the first day of class last semester, after we discussed the big questions in the syllabus, I literally went back to my office and tweaked some of the assignments and the lesson plans to accommodate the needs of the students. By generating this type of discussion on the first day, I found out what they already knew and what additional resources they needed to be successful in the course.

      Thanks for sharing!

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  • Dr.M. Youssef

    This confirms the concept of real-life experiences included with each chapter, from the instructor's part and projected to the students in the form a real-life occurrence that they have to critically think, before answering the big question aligned with the outcomes for each week/session. Blooms taxonomy is the best guide, if you know how to use it effectively which is sometimes a time consuming task, but worthwhile the effort. Great suggestion.

  • Barbi

    Thanks Dr. Youssef! Yes, both you and Eirik mentioned the power of Bloom's Taxonomy in developing questions that encourage critical thinking and application. One of the interesting outcomes of embedding questions from each level of Bloom's Taxonomy is that you and the students can quickly assess gaps in knowledge on the first day of class. For many students, that gap creates curiosity and interest, thereby enhancing their motivation.

    Thanks so much for your comments!

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