Syllabus Shake-Up Day Three

It’s day three of the 2022 Syllabus Shake-Up Challenge! If you’ve made it this far, you’re amazing. 

In today’s post, I am sharing a few examples of syllabus engagement strategies in action. Some of these are things that I have tried before, while others are strategies that I would like to try out sometime in the future.

As with the previous days, there is a prompt for you to work through on your own at the end of the post. Feel free to share your thoughts with the community by commenting on this post, or on social media by tagging @ApothekeBlog or #SyllabusShakeUp!

Just joining in? Here’s where you can find days one and two of the challenge.

2022 syllabus shake-up challenge

Co-creation in learning and teaching

Involving students in the creation of discussion guidelines.

Although this example requires the least amount of energy for the instructor, the tradeoff is that it requires some class time if done effectively.

The basic premise is this: rather than creating a list of discussion guidelines (or course goals, or assignments) yourself, you give students the chance to consider their own values and preferences, and then work together to formulate their own list of guidelines.

At minimum, there should be time set aside for you to introduce the assignment and explain why it’s important. You might then send students away to come up with 2-3 guidelines on their own, and then share them in the following class.

There would, of course, need to be some amount of discussion involved at this point in order to eliminate duplicates. This would also be the point where everyone would come to a consensus about the final list of guidelines. Alternatively, these activities could be split into two sessions: one for discussion and narrowing down, and then another for finalization.

In general, then, the amount of time required for this activity could range anywhere from 1-3 class periods at the beginning of term. 

Since this challenge is meant to be accessible to anyone, regardless of where in the term they are, there is a more pressing point to be made here. Discussion guidelines – whether co-created or instructor-generated – can only be meaningful if you are intentional about revisiting them at key moments in the course.

Some ways of doing this might include:

  1. Reminding students of the guidelines at the beginning of every discussion activity.
  2. Highlighting a particular guideline when it is broken.
  3. Revisiting the guidelines midway through the course, giving students an opportunity to reflect on how well or poorly they have been implemented and to make revisions. This could be a point at which the aforementioned process of co-creation could take place later in the term. It would require, however, that you as the instructor be open to student input and generally flexible.

Leaving some portion of the course open to student choice.

This example may require either a lot of time and energy or very little, depending on the approach you choose to take.

At one end of the spectrum, you would simply solicit ideas from students at some point in the term and then develop the lesson plan (including topics to be covered and readings to be assigned) yourself. 

One option is asking students to skim the syllabus or the textbook and pick out 1-2 topics that they would like to cover. This would be followed by a vote. Ideally, this process would take place at least a month before the proposed class period, giving you enough time to prepare.

Alternatively, a less-work-for-you option would be having students choose the topic and the readings. In some courses, students are even responsible for leading discussions. 

For a smaller course, this could be a team effort with everyone pitching in to the final product. 

In larger classes, set aside a few class periods or even a whole section of the term for this purpose. This way smaller groups are responsible for different topics on different days.

Aligning learning objectives with course activities and assessments

Here are some examples of how to think about the alignment of course objectives and activities and assessments. There are two major ways of approaching this. Either taking a course objective and determining its alignment with course activities and assessments, or vice versa.

Below, I have further divided these approaches according to how much energy and time is involved. For those of you who want to learn more about writing clearer course objectives, check out this website.

Take a course objective on your syllabus and determine whether it aligns with any of the activities in your course.

  1. Improve your understanding of the research methods employed by classical archaeologists
  2. Handling objects, completing in-class labs

Take a course objective > rewrite it so that it’s clearer > determine alignment with course activities.

  1. Improve your understanding of the research methods employed by classical archaeologists
  2. Critique research methods employed by classical archaeologists
  3. Participating in debates; hypothetical problem-solving; generating alternative approaches

Take a course activity and identify the existing course objective(s) that activity fulfills.

  1. Slide quizzes
  2. To discuss the cultural significance of selected major sites, structures, and objects

Take a course activity and write a course objective that the activity would fulfill.

  1. Looking for and evaluating the use of classical architectural features in modern architecture
  2. Compare and contrast classical and modern architecture; use knowledge obtained in class about classical architecture to identify and evaluate the use of classical features in modern architecture

Facilitate better instructor-student relationships

Rebrand ‘office hours’ as ‘student hours’ – and explain the reason for this.

The meaning of ‘office hours’ is obvious to many of us, but not to students who are unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of academia.

For them, showing up to ‘office hours’ may feel like an intrusion – and for good reason. I know I’m not alone in getting excited when no students show up and I can catch up on work. It’s no wonder students think that ‘office hours’ are really for you and not for them.

‘Student hours,’ on the other hand, puts more emphasis on the student from the very beginning.

Set up more informal methods of asynchronous communication.

Every now and then, someone on social media resurrects the age-old complaint about students not understanding how to format emails. My usual response is a question: Well, have you taught them how to do it?

The answer is usually no, making their expectations unfair and unrealistic.

It would take no more than a few lines in your syllabus and a few minutes in class to level the playing field. You might also add a low-stakes homework assignment where students practice what they have learned by sending you a properly-formatted email.

But if this approach doesn’t appeal to you, provide students with an alternative mode of communicating with you asynchronously. 

Discord and Slack have become increasingly popular over the past few years. This is primarily for their effectiveness in promoting the kinds of spontaneous conversations that were common in physical classrooms. But they can also be useful as repositories for student questions, either during class time or outside of class. 

My recommendation: set up a channel for students to submit their questions. Make sure you are explicit about when you will be checking and responding to them. 

This is also a useful way of flagging questions that come up frequently, so you can address them in the next class period.

Question of the day: It’s your turn! Choose one approach (or you can do them all!) and brainstorm at least 3 ways you could implement it in your course. Of course, the goal of all this is to develop approaches that can be implemented RIGHT NOW, but if you can’t think of many ways to do that, that’s okay too.
Comment below or share your thoughts on social media by tagging @ApothekeBlog or #SyllabusShakeUp!


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