April 16th, 2012

A Syllabus Tip: Embed Big Questions

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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.