Make your course documents visually engaging

Joe Hedges, Northern Kentucky University and Miami University Hamilton

I teach beginning art and design students who are inundated with black and white rubrics, assignment information sheets, syllabi, etc. Most of these documents look like they were prepared for a fax machine, rather than pdfs for distribution online. Take a little time and redesign your course materials to be more interesting with dynamic layouts, images, and COLOR. Not visually minded? Consider finding a graphic design student and offering them their first paying job.

Creating my syllabus in the style of a contemporary magazine or reference book rather than in the style of a legal document sets a positive mood for the course. Good design engenders interaction and interest in students, while showing that I care enough about the course material to invest the time to present the content in a way that is enjoyable to read. Books are judged by their covers, and syllabi indicate expectations for a course; an aesthetically pleasing, professional-looking syllabus indicates that the course itself will be interesting and professional. Particularly with art and design students, who are continually working with the elements and principles of design, creating a visually engaging syllabus is good modeling, engendering confidence in me as a visual thinker. Additionally, designing a syllabus rather than simply writing one forces me to more carefully consider the hierarchy of information I wish to present; certain text may benefit from larger or smaller fonts, in a side column, et cetera. Delivering content in this way ensures that the students know what is most important to remember in order to have a successful course, and ensures that all the information in the syllabus can be found quickly and easily. The first day of class, students sometimes remark that the syllabus looks nice. I tell them that I have tried to make a document that I myself would enjoy reading, in the hopes that they will too!

Get students to read the syllabus with Jeopardy

Lake Mathison, Rutgers University

The most well-crafted, engaging, comprehensive syllabus on the planet isn't of much use if the students never read it. Putting a contract at the end might help, but it's too easy to just sign without actually reading (like we all click "Accept" on the "Terms and Conditions" page of a download). Rather than a monotone recitation of something they all could (but won't) read on their own time, turn key syllabus points into a game of Jeopardy ("answer in the form of a question" optional). Divide the class into teams and give them a time limit to confer (or look up the answer). This helps break the ice and satisfies the modern student's craving for competition and gaming. More importantly, having the students comb through the syllabus in search of information makes them more likely to remember where to find it in the future. This idea could also be expanded to include important resources contained in the course website, if there is one.

There are free programs and templates online for designing Jeopardy games, or go old-school and write the grid on the chalkboard.

Make your syllabus more constructive

An anonymous tip:

This semester, I threw out the two-year old syllabus and started over. I did not realize (until a student pointed out on the evaluation) how negative and punitive my syllabus really was. So, here's what I did:

My first statement - before we get to grading - policies - rules... is Instructor Contact - 

My job is to help you to be successful in this class, so please come see me outside of the classroom if you need to talk about anything at all. The sooner the better! My official office hours will be held on Tuesdays from 1:00 - 2:00 pm; Wednesdays from 4:30 - 5:30 pm; and Thursdays from 8:30 - 10:00 am. If these times don't work for you, please let me know and we'll figure some alternative time to meet. Also remember to email me with questions on class content or assigned work.

I follow this with "why come to class" (or 'why participate" for the online class), telling them some highlights of what we'll be covering and why it's important for them to come/participate, and that just submitting work is not enough to understand the material. 

Then I continue with General Course Information, followed by Course Content and assessment measures. After that comes all the institutional requirements and other special things to help them.

I give a syllabus quiz. Don't laugh - I've had students complete the entire course and not remember my name!) I asked students how they liked their syllabus - was it understandable - easy to read - positive? 93% said it was positive, and they felt like they could approach me with a question or clarification. Yippee! I'm doing it for every other class!

Add a contract to your syllabus

Lois Lake Church, University of Connecticut, Quinnipiac University, Southern CT State U, Charter Oak State College

In my freshman composition courses, one of the early lessons students must learn is how high school and college classroom expectations differ. At the end of my syllabus (which includes policies and procedures, and a class plan for the semester), I add a contract explaining behaviors and attitudes I expect of students who want to be successful. I invite students to discuss any points with me in person or in writing. I used to ask them to sign a copy of the contract, but now say that their returning to class is a tacit pledge to abide by the points of the contract. I have yet to find a student who quibbles or refuses. Here is a copy:

CONTRACT, Introduction to Academic Writing, Fall 2013

I agree to:

Attend every class awake, aware, and prepared to be an active learner

Communicate clearly and with proper etiquette with both prof and classmates

Understand the absence/lateness policy and abide by it

Complete every assignment (both classwork and homework)

Demonstrate ~willingness to attempt difficult reading, thinking, and writing

~belief in my own potential

~the effort to form positive attitudes and habits

~an open mind when encountering unfamiliar ideas, people, and activities

Listen with respect to classmates and teacher

Consider other viewpoints

Document carefully any use of others’ words and ideas

Build my vocabulary daily

Understand that it is not the teacher’s job to entertain me: it is my job to find a way to care about each assignment

Check my email and the class page each day for messages from teachers and group mates

Avoid visiting social network sites and personal email addresses during class and tutorial sessions

Leave outside the classroom non-academic habits of behavior and mind

Leave turned off and put away all electronic devices (except computer or tablet when we are writing electronically)

Abide by the University’s Code of Student Conduct: (I attach a link)

By continuing to attend this class, I tacitly pledge my honor to meet or exceed the standards listed above, and to accept the consequences without whining or appealing if my behavior falls outside the behavior outlined in these standards.

Help students by making expectations clear

An anonymous tip:

In introductory-level college courses and lower-division teaching, students will be wrestling with new challenges in time management. Moreover, some of them may not be familiar with the assignments, expectations, and standards of performance we use in higher ed. To help students think realistically about performance and assessment, and to support them as they come to terms with college-level standards of performance, I list general guidelines on my syllabus for what constitutes A work, B work, etc., starting my list with the elements of "satisfactory" (that is, "C") work. The rubric subsequently suggests how satisfactory can be built up in the direction of excellence (B, A), or eroded in the direction of unsatisfactory (C- , D). Presenting grades in this manner helps students consider the difference between "doing all the work" and investing the time, attention and care it takes to excel in their mastery of new material and new approaches.

Think about outcomes when making a syllabus

James Lang points out that the usual focus on coverage when preparing a syllabus considers the teacher ("the coverer") and the course materials ("the covered") but neglects the students. Lang recommends that when coming up with a syllabus, you should be "thinking first and foremost about what knowledge or skills students should learn in your course, and then thinking about the best ways for them to learn that knowledge or those skills." This may seem obvious, or too general, but it should guide nearly every decision you make as you put together your syllabus, and your course.  -DG

Source: James M. Lang. On Course: A Week-By-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. 3-4.

The Blank Syllabus

I got this strategy from Chris Walsh, of Boston University, who detailed it in his talk at the 2013 MLA Convention. He calls it the "blank syllabus," but it's not really blank at all. What is left blank are some of the assigned readings. In Chris's words, the students fill these blanks "by completing the first writing assignment, which requires them to choose a reading from the course anthology and to write a paper that advocates for making their selection required reading for the class."

I tried this out last spring in an American literature survey course. I wanted to have the students read one prose piece and one poem for each class period. I chose the prose pieces, but left an empty slot for a poem for each class. Each student's first writing assignment (due in the course's third week) was to find a poem in the class's assigned anthology and argue for its inclusion on the syllabus. After receiving these essays, I filled in the syllabus with the chosen poems; each student was tasked with leading the discussion on the day that his or her poem was discussed.

Walsh notes that this strategy can be modified due to the size of the class--I had under twenty students which made it pretty straightforward. With a larger class, Walsh suggests having the students vote for which selections actually make the syllabus.

In all, I found the strategy very successful, as it involved the students in the course's design from the start of the term, got them to actually spend some time with the anthology apart from the assigned readings, and encouraged them to discover what sort(s) of poetry they might actually prefer to read.  -DG


Source: Click here for a pdf of Walsh's more detailed explanation of his idea.