Tips to Crafting a Learning-Centered Syllabus

Every course design is philosophy and belief in action. –Manifesto for Teaching Online, written by teachers and researchers in online education, University of Edinburgh 2011

[This is a companion blog post to the eLearning Bulletin Board Poster on the 4th Floor of Wohlers Hall, College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The poster is an abridged version of what a motivational syllabus looks like. It is intended to serve as a discussion stimulus only.]

Bulletin Board Poster on Designing Learning-Centered Syllabus

As instructors, we may not be conscious of this when we are busy planning and teaching our courses, but our courses reflect our educational philosophy, and us. The first step to setting the appropriate tone for our classes is the design of an effective syllabus.

  1. A syllabus is, at its heart, a learning resource; a motivational introduction and guide to a great learning experience, not a legal document or Terms of Service Agreement (think software license). Sound welcoming and conversational. Address your learners in the second person pronoun (“You”). Ask, “What is the tone of my syllabus? (Approachable or defensive?)
  2. Include your teaching philosophy and approach to learning. Ask, “How would I make my syllabus an invitation to a great learning experience students wouldn’t want to miss? How would my syllabus help students see that they have the opportunity to develop learning skills that are applicable beyond my class?”
  3. Explain the rationale of activities in the course. Help students see the relevance of what they are asked to do. Ask, “What is worth learning? Why?”
  4. A syllabus is sometimes seen as a learning contract between the instructor and the students; hence expectations from both sides are communicated. Ask, “What can you (learners) expect from me (e.g. communication and feedback/grading turnaround time)?” Next, instead of telling students what you expect from them, provide learners with the opportunity to tell you what they expect from their peers (other learners). On the first day of class, conduct this learning activity with your students (Singham in Weimer, 2010). Pose two questions to learners. Ask, “What do you expect from an instructor who is giving 100% to the course?” and “What would you expect to see your peers doing if they were giving 100% to the course?” Using these responses, edit your syllabus on your learner expectations. This helps students see that they have a part to play in making this course a successful one and gives them some ownership in course decision-making. We are co-learners in the learning experience.
  5. Include an assessment table in your syllabus that is linked to course goals, assignments, grades (percentage) and the rubrics (Crossman, 2014).  Placed together, these help students to see that there is alignment in course learning objectives, assignments and rubrics and that the syllabus is a useful resource for them. Ask, “How can I align my course activities and assessments with the course goals and communicate that to my students?”
  6. Incorporate the syllabus as a learning resource for class meetings/live sessions so that students will learn to use it regularly. Some instructors include module/weekly agendas in their syllabus; others include resources for regular references (Crossman, 2014). Ask, “How can I make my syllabus a useful learning resource?”
  7. A syllabus also has to meet university and department guidelines. There are components that must be present in a syllabus: Accommodations statement to support learners with special educational needs; Academic Integrity or University Honor Code; Grading Policy; Course Prerequisites (for some courses). Ask, “How can I communicate these policies in a firm but humane way without sounding authoritarian?”
  8. Format it in such a way that it is as appealing and as accessible as possible to learners. Ask, “What breaks the monotony of texts and can be conveyed graphically without losing meaning?”

References and Resources:

Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. (2015). Samples of creative syllabi.

Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence. (2017, Aug. 4). Writing a syllabus. [Great resources on the what, how and why of effective syllabus design, including a syllabus template with essential components]

Crossman, J. M. (2014, Jun. 9). Using the syllabus as a learning resource. Faculty Focus.

Everett Community College. (n.d.). Sample syllabus statements regarding accommodations.

Halliday, A. (2014, Nov. 28). Lynda Barry’s wonderfully illustrated syllabus & homework assignments from her UW-Madison class, “The Unthinkable Mind. [Suitable for more arts-based disciplines; a text-only version is required for accessibility]

Jones, J. B. (2011, Aug. 26). Creative approaches to the syllabus. ProfHacker in The Chronicle of Higher Education. [Note: Embedded in this post are links to alternative formats for syllabus design – e.g. graphical displays of learning objectives]

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2017). Humanized syllabus (The History of Still Photography). [Includes a link to her full project site]

Paff, L. (2016, Dec. 1). Preparing a learner-centered syllabus. Faculty Focus Premium subscribers only.

Weimer, M. (2010, Mar. 23). What students expect from instructors, other students. Faculty Focus.

Quick Tips to Writing Effective Multiple Choice Question Items

[This was first published under my personal blog. It has been slightly adapted from its original version.]

Female Student Taking a Test

 

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These quick tips are grouped under three categories from Xu et al’s article (see References below). Several of these tips seek to prevent test-savvy students from using verbal clues to guess at the correct answers.

Fairness:

  • Write clearly and simply
  • Write questions that span a wide spectrum of topics
  • Ensure that questions align with your syllabus. Measure what you aimed to teach
  • Make sure students are informed about the knowledge you will be assessing

Feedback:

  • Provide students with opportunities to self-correct (e.g. multiple attempts at quiz)
  • Provide timely and substantive feedback
  • Obtain student feedback on assessments (pilot test)

Formatting and Content:

  • Generally, avoid “none of the above” or “all of the above” questions. If you want to use them, use them consistently for correct and incorrect options
  • Avoid negatives in questions, e.g. A felony is not a minor criminal offense. Use instead, A felony is a serious criminal offense. (See Claudia Stanny article for more details)
  • Avoid multi-part and giveaway questions
  • Avoid composite answers (e.g. A and B but not C)
  • Avoid using more than 5 response options. Some research show that only 3 response options can be used without resulting in any significant increases in successful guessing.
  • Response options should be parallel and consistent in structure, and equal in length
  • Keep question stems short but meaningful with relevant information
  • Shuffle option order so that options are randomized when multiple attempts are offered

To test for higher-order thinking using MCQs

  • Present a scenario-based problem in the description. Questions can be based on solutions to problems in the scenario
  • Present figures or tables of data. Students can interpret the findings or compute solutions to questions based on the data

References:

Xu et al summarized their findings under five categories: assessment quality, fairness, feedback, formatting and content, cheating countermeasures.

Tips to Support Academic Integrity

An online student pays an online cheating service provider to complete her assignment for her as she deals with a pressing work deadline.

Cheating in online courses is a potential reality. A quick search using the phrase, “take my online class for me,” produced numerous results of online course cheating services. Although studies show that students are just as likely to cheat in face-to-face classes as in online classes, we have compiled some strategies to promote academic integrity in online learning environments.

6 Tips to Support Academic Integrity

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  1. Distribute grades across several assignments so that final exams are not so heavily weighted.
  2. Use variety in the design of assessments. Move from objective to more subjective types that involve more personal expression.
  3. Design application type of assignments, such as problems or cases.
  4. Offer students multiple means of expression to transfer learning to real life contexts. Take advantage of the technology in students’ hands to require assignments in different formats.
  5. Plan individual and team assignments as ongoing assessment of students’ learning progress.
  6. Harness technology to promote accountability and self-checks of writing assignments, for example, plagiarism detection software, Turnitin and SafeAssign. Where appropriate, use proctoring software (e.g. ProctorU, Smarter Proctoring); browser lockdown software (e.g. Respondus).

For further reading, check out WCET, the UT TeleCampus of the University of Texas System, and Instructional Technology Council’s handout on Best Practice Strategies to Promote Academic Integrity in Online Education (Version 2.0, June 2009). Retrievable from http://wcet.wiche.edu/sites/default/files/docs/resources/Best-Practices-Promote-Academic-Integrity-2009.pdf 

Tips to Create Engaging Live Sessions

Live sessions (LS) offer opportunities for interaction between students and with the instructor in an online learning environment.

Download PDF Handout

 

livesession

7 Things to Know When Facilitating Live Sessions

(text-only format)

  1. Acknowledge your students’ presence. Call them by name.
  2. Cultivate a sense of community.
  3. Start and stop the session on time.
  4. Show how the live session topic is relevant to the course and students’ work.
  5. Don’t repeat what’s in video lectures.
  6. Provide real life, current examples / cases / situations.
  7. Help students own the live session. Let them play a part in creating their learning with you and their peers.

 

Possible Agenda for Live Session

What an engaging live session agenda might look like:

  1. (2 MINS) Welcome by instructor & introduction to Course Support Assistant
  2. (10-15 MINS) Instructor responses to “Questions for Live Sessions” or Class Q&A in Compass Forum
    • Questions for LS should be announced to students early in the week, and they should be encouraged to post up to 12 hours before the session so the instructor can address them.
    • Instructors do not have to respond to these questions in Compass. Keep them for the LS.
    • Polling can be used to assess student learning of previous module’s concepts.
  3. (10-15 MINS) Instructor’s presentation. Value-Addedness: What value is my presentation adding to the course? Why would students want to come to the LS?

DO

  • Expand on the topics of the week with new information.
  • Make connections between course topics and current events.
  • Explain or clarify a topic or activity that was difficult or need more support.
  • Introduce a new topic that will be discussed in the upcoming week and get students’ excited about what they are about to learn.
    :: Make a brief presentation. (Hint: LS focus on interaction.)
    :: Use a case or problem as a prompt.

DON’T

  • Repeat what you have presented in course videos.
  • Take too much time clarifying previous topics with individual students. Encourage students to use Office Hours for more personalized consultation.

 

  1. (10-15 MINS) Active learning activities

Provide students with a discussion prompt (a case, questions, current event)

  • Send them to breakout rooms in groups of 5 or 6. After discussing with their peers, they return to the main room and present their ideas.
  • Instructor and peers pose questions or comments on student reports.
  • Capture individual or team responses to questions with polling software (e.g. Kahoot).
  1. (15-20 MINS) Ideas for student presentations or discussions

Students could present

  • What they discussed in the breakout rooms (assign a recording secretary)
  • On topics that were pre-arranged per class schedule
  • Summaries of the live sessions (Groups sign up for different sessions)
  • Summaries of shared annotations and comments of assigned readings (e.g. use of Hypothes.is)
  1. (15 MINS) Wrap up
  • Ask students if they have further questions.
  • Review key ideas of LS.
  • Share highlights or assignments for the following week.
  • Provide logistics if needed.

Resources:

Norman, M. (2017, June 26). Synchronous online classes: 10 tips for engaging students. Faculty Focus.