Working on This Term’s Syllabus? Resources You Can Use Now

22 Aug 5 things Screen Shot

Just before Winter break, we curated a small list of resources to support January work on course revision that engages many of us as we return to campus.  For this updated post, we’re offering an additional three resources on:

  1. Situating Course Policies as more than an often ignored syllabus addendum.
  2. Considering ‘cold’ versus ‘warm’ syllabus tone and impacts on creating classroom learning climate.
  3. Attending to audience, and to drawing an audience into action, into learning. 

1.  Course Policies 

In my own undergraduate and undergraduate courses I follow a benchmark of a UIowa mentor:  Any course policy statements I adapt from university templates or create for my own course context need to:  (a) incorporate an introductory or closing sentence to link any templated statement to that specific course in practice, and (b)  becomes part of the course conversation during an interactive, week one activity that activates student annotation, analysis and discussion of syllabus as a first course reading.

Why?  

If the policies do matter – in terms of how and why we conduct the course in general or how we expect the course climate to take shape in particular ways – then we need to make those connections explicit for students in what we write, in what we discuss, and what we do during the important opening days of the course.  This is part of “unhiding” the implicit curriculum:  What does “participation” look and sound like?  What are the characteristics of “engagement”?  How might we – students and teachers – step up to address disrespect, discomfort, disconnection in a classroom moment?

The Teaching Professor – an online and paper-based resources for college faculty of all disciplines – sponsors a LinkedIn Group where editors and teachers regularly pose timely queries about learning and teaching in higher education.  You will need to have a LinkedIn account to access the group and its discussions.  (It’s an easy account to set up, and you don’t need to set up a full profile to join a profession group; additionally, within the groups I’ve joined, I’ve opted to receive email updates as a daily digest, which is wonderfully mangageable.)

One thread is particularly apt for this post: How do you convey the value of your course policies and their associated consequences in your syllabus?  Participants responses reflect a range of  teaching philosophies, a broad sweep of institutional types, and full range of classroom locations and course formats.  Two comments within that thread still have me nodding in agreement: one for addressing a learning syllabus as a document that unveils ways learners and teachers will (inter)act and otherwise operate in course, and one that recommends sending a “Start Here” or “Welcome” email – with a syllabus attached – as the first step in creating a meaningful inclass discussion of that core:

I link to the formal policies on student behaviour and discipline, but in my syllabus I concentrate on the positives: how to contribute, take notes, use technology effectively etc. As [others have said] I tell them how to enhance their learning and [address elsewhere] the punishments for impeding theirs or others learning. (Marjorie Kibby, Associate Professor at The University of Newcastle, Australia)

I give a personalized (mail merge) letter welcoming students to the course, stating what is required for success. This letter describes what my expectations are and what they can expect from me; as well as the mechanisms and tools available. The letter includes instructions of how to get to the syllabus that is online so I don’t have to print tons of paper.  (David Terrell, Professor at Warner Pacific College)

2.  Syllabus Tone

The body of literature on construction of a “good syllabus” notes these components as part of that package (and generally in this order):

  • instructor contact information,
  • course information including description and objectives with students as the primary audience,
  • course materials and technologies,
  • assignments and course calendar,
  • methods of instruction, discussion, and peer interactions in light of instructor’s learning and teaching philosophy,
  • grading procedures, and
  • learning resources for students

As important, this body of research points out, is how such information is conveyed – the tone in which we deliver syllabus message. As Harnish, et al, note :

“Students can glean the instructor’s interpersonal style and approachability from a syllabus’s messages about expectations for classroom climate. A syllabus that talks at length about penalties for not following protocol or instructions can convey ‘coldness’ about the instructor and the class climate, and can signal an undesirable class…In contrast, a syllabus that provides course information in a positive or friendly manner can build a sense of belonging and community. A positive syllabus tone removes unnecessary and unhelpful barriers between instructors and students, making the classroom a comfortable and safe place for discovery.”

Harnish, et al, suggest six rhetorical strategies to keep in mind while making syllabus revisions with that “positive tone” in mind –

  • positive language
  • rationale for assignments
  • self-disclosure
  • humor
  • compassion
  • enthusiasm

– and illustrate these in Table 1 in both the web posting and article setting out their research findings.

3.  Presentations: Audience and Action

The Brain Lady Blog runs with the sub-title “Psychology & Brain Science to Understand How People Think & Behave.”  Creator Susan Weinschenk earned her PhD at Penn State, became a SUNY-Oswego psychology professor, and now writes and consults on research related to unconscious mental processing — decision-making, persuasion, and emotion.

Weinschenk’s “5 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People” video, which draws on research she presents in 100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People, is one of those Vimeo animated postings that buzzed through Twitter for good reason.  In 6 minutes, she addresses the following points:

1. People learn best in 20 minute chunks
2. Multiple sensory channels compete
3. What you say is only part of your message
4. If you want people to act, you have to call them to action
5. People imitate your emotions and feel your feelings.

The video and linked animation are both helpful for teachers, who – like me, and many of my consultees – feel confident about presenting with points 1 & 2 in mind, and want to learn more about the action components of interactive presenting, which are addressed in the short video as Weinschenk explorse items 3, 4 & 5.

 

 

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