My learning edge with teaching has always been organization. I was brimming with enthusiasm about my content area, and my interest in educational psychology had me eagerly applying almost any new strategy that I read about. Nonetheless, the feedback I received from students, though lauding my strengths, always had a “but.”
- “Great class but instructor was a bit disorganized.”
- “She’s enthusiastic and warm but gets easily frazzled.”
- “Fun and interactive class but it could be better organized.”
I cringed every time I read the feedback. I was late to the realization that I had ADHD. The disorder was not frequently diagnosed when I was a child, let alone among young girls. Hyper-focusing is great at getting you through graduate school, not so great when it comes to teaching. I was well known for my attempts at organization. I developed all sorts of systems that I was horrible at maintaining. My disorder increased my sensitivity to these critiques of my organization as well as helped me have empathy for students who shared my difficulties in executive functioning. I was also of the opinion that most help offered for people with ADHD is along the lines of “develop a schedule, stay organized, write down deadlines in your planner,” without any real understanding that if we could do these things with regularity, we probably wouldn’t have been diagnosed.
One of the blessings—if we can call it that—of the pandemic was that it further brought into educators’ awareness the concept of cognitive load and its effect on students. Students and educators alike were getting burnt out trying to manage all of the learning systems and tech tools. Around this time, I somewhat coincidentally had decided to try an “interactive syllabus” as a form of a graphic syllabus. I had attended a workshop on graphic syllabi and found myself thinking, “Why not go one step further?” While watching the examples of graphic syllabi pop up on the slides, I had wanted to click on the headings. “Wouldn’t it be cool just to click on it and go to that section?” I thought. So off I set to create a syllabus that students could interact with and before I knew it, I ended up with a syllabus website that basically supplanted the LMS in my course. The basics were all there: Click on “Grading” and see how your grade will be calculated; click on “Student Expectations” and see the related content. Additionally, though, with just a click students could select a given date the class met, say March 3rd, and be transported to a page on the website that included what was due that day, the slides for the day, as well as the classwork, and a link to what would be due next class. Students loved it! It kept them on track! I found that it helped keep me on track, too. “But she’s disorganized” went completely missing from my evaluations. I also received some unexpected feedback; at midterm of the second use of the syllabus, I asked my students how aspects of my teaching had enhanced their learning (i.e., active learning groups, course mapping, readings, review strategies). On a whim, I added the syllabus to the list. When I looked at the feedback, I did a double take. The syllabus received the highest ranking in terms of helpfulness to their learning. Students saying a syllabus was the most helpful thing?! I have to admit I was a tad disappointed. All those empirically supported educational strategies that I had put to good use and it was the syllabus that they thought was most helpful? Albeit, I was also impressed. Students were actually using the syllabus!
Upon reflection, the feedback that it had impacted learning made sense given the increased cognitive load students were experiencing. As stated earlier, students were stressed out with the pandemic and having difficulty managing everything. My students (as well as I) had found that by having everything right there within a click, they could easily find what they needed. It was also colorful and cheery looking. My own experience with our institution’s LMS is that it seemed overwhelming. It looks very “college-level” but very uninviting—a lot of tiny type and font. What I realized was that the interactive website syllabus that I created not only made it easier to find things, but it also seemed to give off the appearance of being manageable. So, in addition to reducing students’ cognitive load by helping them quickly find things (and to have more available for actually learning the material), making the course seem “doable” may have increased the students’ motivation to engage with the course, which can enhance their sense of competence around the material.
As professors it is often easy to forget to pay attention to how we present our courses. Isn’t it the content that matters? Why do we need to make it easy for them? Sure, the content is important but so is students’ learning. Creating the syllabus website had me thinking, perhaps we should be asking a different question. “Why aren’t we presenting our courses in a fashion that decreases their cognitive load and increases their motivation to learn?”
Below is an image of what my interactive syllabus looks like from the Home page.
Additionally, here are image examples of some of the main pages and the information included on each page, which include grading, resources for students to use, classroom expectations, and an introduction of myself.
Dr. Kathy Glyshaw is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County where she teaches in the psychology department. She has also taught at Loyola University of Maryland, American University, and the University of Delaware, where she received her PhD in clinical psychology. Dr. Glyshaw worked for nearly 20 years in the field of college mental health before devoting herself more fully to teaching.