Course planning2

*Getting students to read and have ownership over the syllabus

I have often heard faculty complain that students do not read their syllabi and they ask questions that are contained in the document. To get the students to read and take ownership over the syllabus hand out a draft syllabus with certain points left for the students to decide. Students can have a say over deadlines for projects, dates for tests within a few days, or even how much weight, within a range, specific assessments will count. Students can be asked to modify or add policies, but you still get the final veto. Class time during the first class can be devoted to discussing some of these points and the discussion can be continued after the class period ends. If you are using Blackboard, students can have a discussion between the first and second class of the decision they have to make. Without an electronic discussion system that all can read, they can communicate with you by email. Before the second class you should determine the consensus. You can also give a bonus point or 2 if the students correct mistakes in the document, or if they identify areas that need further clarification.

*Helping to balance the power in your classes

To achieve learning-centered teaching the instructor needs to look at the balance of power between themselves and the students. Some possible ways to do is to consider:

Faculty can share power with students to determine how individual classes are conducted, how material is learned (not what material is learned).
What opinions are expressed, etc. Yet we cannot give up power as to how an entire course is run.
Faculty power comes from the authority our university has given us as the instructor.
We can share power but we can never share authority.

The idea of the distinction between power and authority comes from D. Fink’s book, Teaching with your mouth shut, 2000 Heinemann Publishers.

*Getting mid-course feedback on your class

About half way through the semester it is a good idea to get a read on what the students think of your course. Ask your students to write their answers to a few questions on topics that you can change or make mid-course corrections. You might consider asking about how fair (in terms of aligned with objectives or what you say will be on the test is on the test) your tests are (not how difficult are your tests), your pacing in your classes, clarification of difficulty concepts, availability to answer questions, etc. Once you get their feedback address their concerns in class or on Blackboard and indicate if you will be making any changes as a result of what they told you. Some things you may not be able to change or want to change, but it still worth letting your students know you recognize their concerns. Students will appreciate you more as a teacher and value your class more because you showed them you care about them.

*Does the amount of content taught influence how well students understand the material

Thirty years of research strongly indicates that the more content taught in a course, the more students rely on memorization and the less they learn with understanding or acquire deep learning in the discipline. Decide what is the essential content that you need for the students to learn, and cut the rest out of your course. Then work with students to learn to use the content and not for you to cover the content.

*How to plan time allotment for a course

Most of us plan courses in terms of how many hours the students spend in class. However, the unit that we should be using is learning time, not class time. The general wisdom is that for every hour spent in class students in undergraduate courses are supposed to spend 3 hours out of class and perhaps more for graduate classes. Therefore, for a three hour per week of classroom time, the students really should have 9 hours of learning time per week for that class. Now divide the 9 hours into what students can do on their own (often learned material), what should be done with others (such as discussions), what a teacher is needed for (such as answering questions or doing demonstrations or modeling problem solving or learning to learn in the discipline). Plan your weekly schedule based upon the total learning time and the type of activities needed to learn the course objectives and where they should be done. This might lead you to plan class time very differently. Students should be made aware of this change in thinking and oriented to the concept of learning time. This might help them to spend more time on your course outside of class.

Chris Knapper of the UK and now in Canada introduced me to the concept of learning time.

*Being supportive of our students in their differences in the time they need to master skills

If you are assessing students on their skills, give the students several opportunities during the semester to demonstrate these skills, provided they are independent skills and not ones that build on each other. Some students take longer than others to learn skills and others may not more than one attempt to demonstrate mastery.

This tip come from Margie Roos in PT and was mentioned at the last TableTalk on being supportive of our students. Many other good ideas also come out, so attend the next discussion on Tuesday, January 18th.

*Using a bingo card concept to increase student interaction with the content and decrease procrastination

This is a more complex tip than usual, but I think it is worth trying.

Create a bingo card with cells giving the types of additional activities you want the student to do to help them engage in the regular and consistent interaction with the content necessary to really retain it. Examples for the cells might include:

  • you might ask the students to create a 20 item crossword puzzle, with the answer provided, on the terms used in a chapter
  • ask five intelligent questions pertaining to the class material during a class
  • have > 95% class attendance
  • find a website that is accurate about a concept discussed in the textbook etc.

Distribute the bingo card at the beginning of the semester and let the students know that this is an optional assignment.

When a student shows proof that he completed the activity the instructor marks the box. Prizes are given when people complete a line or several lines. Prizes can be to drop the lowest quiz grade, can bring a study sheet with information to the final exam or adding 5 points to the final exam score. The irony is that students who get the most lines probably will not need the prizes because the extra work they did helped them to master the material. However, the motivation to earn the prize may have helped them to engage in the content more and to decrease their procrastination.

This tip was adapted from Amy Jo Sutterluety, Bingo Games Decreases Procrastination, Increase Interaction with Content. The Teaching Professor, Nov. 2002: 16 (9) 5-6.

*Maximizing student learning

As you are preparing or revising syllabi, prioritize what you do, what you ask students to do and especially what you do while with the students (i.e., in the classroom) to maximize student learning. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Information can be disseminated many ways beside through a lecture, consider posting material to read, giving students access to websites or course auxiliary materials to illustrate concepts
  • While students are in the classroom, have them engage in the material by solving problems, asking you questions, or answering questions. You can use the time to check on their mastery of the material, to help them to learn better or clarify misconceptions
  • Ask students to check each other’s homework, discuss their differences and then have an opportunity to redo their improved/corrected solutions (have them hand in both versions). This might be done out of class.
  • Use blackboard to give self-assessment quizzes with the answers explained after the deadline for doing it
  • Give students assignments that prepare them to come to class ready to engage in the material. Use class to reinforce or apply content not to go over what was covered in the assignment
  • Give students explicit criteria on how you will grade papers, projects, etc. in advance of when they complete the assignment.
  • Give students opportunities to give each other formative feedback either prior to or instead of you reviewing every product (especially homework problems).
  • Allow students to give feedback using your criteria on drafts and then you will receive better papers

If you incorporate some of these ideas, you might need to adjust the balance in your syllabus or consider the total picture of what you are doing in the course.

*Reviewing how the courses went as you finish the semester

As you hand in grades, take a little time to review how your courses went and write some notes to yourself. Try to analyze where the students had difficulty-identify the concepts they had trouble learning, the assignments or activities they seemed to have a hard time understanding or doing, etc. Look at the directions you gave students for exams or assignments and check that they were clear. Finally record what went especially well. As you revise your courses for the next time you offer these courses, these notes will help jog your memory.

*Developing prerequisite courses that meet the expectations of the instructors of advanced courses

If you are teaching a course that is a prerequisite for more advanced courses, talk to the instructors of these courses. Find out the essential knowledge (topics or concepts), skills and attitudes that they want your students to acquire in your course. You might find that you are covering material that they do not care about or some topics might need further emphasis. Then plan your course to be a good match with what they want without and what you think should be covered.

*Making sense of students’ complaints that the instructor or the course was unfair

Research shows that students complain that a course or an instructor was unfair when there is a disconnect among the goals or objectives of the class, such as how the students were taught, what the students were expected to do and how they were assessed. Courses that are aligned or consistent in all of these areas are more likely to be perceived as fair. Students might think they they are too difficult or too challenging, but fair if they are aligned.

*Getting meaningful feedback from your students that is separate from course evaluations

If you want to gather some individualized feedback at the end of a course, ask the students to complete a couple of questions that you would like to know more about.

Leslie Bowman suggests the following questions:

  • What did you find most useful in the course?
  • What is the most valuable lesson or content you learned from this course?
  • Is there something that the instructor should be informed about concerning his/her teaching style?

Keep these questions separate from the course evaluation forms that students need to complete. This should be formative feedback just for you.

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