75. Concourse Syllabus Platform

Syllabi are important resources for students, faculty and institutions. Syllabi that are readily available, consistent, accessible, and up to date can provide important scaffolding for students. In this episode, Jeffrey Riman joins us to discuss a tool that can help both faculty and institutions accomplish all of those things while keeping faculty focused on learning outcomes and course design.

Jeffrey is a coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He’s also a consultant and educator at Parsons The New School University. Jeffrey is a chair of the State University of New York faculty Advisory Council on teaching and technology at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology. He is also the chair of their Faculty Senate Committee on instructional technology.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Syllabi are important resources for students, faculty and institutions. Syllabi that are readily available, consistent, accessible, and up to date can provide important scaffolding for students. In this episode, we’ll talk about a tool that can help both faculty and institutions accomplish all of those things while keeping faculty focused on learning outcomes and course design.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Today our guest is Jeffrey Riman. Jeffrey is a coordinator of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He’s also a consultant and educator at Parsons The New School University. Jeffrey is a chair of the State University of New York faculty Advisory Council on teaching and technology at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology. He is also the chair of their Faculty Senate Committee on instructional technology. Welcome back, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Nice to be back.

Rebecca: Glad to have you.

Jeffrey: [LAUGHTER] You make me sound so busy that I think I have to cancel, though. So we’ll do this another time. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think you are just as busy as it sounds from what I know.

Jeffrey: And I’m very happy to set the time aside to be with you guys. This is a great topic, so thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Jeffrey: Russian Caravan.

John: Yorkshire Gold.

Rebecca:…and Jasmine Green tea.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about the use of the Concourse syllabus management platform that’s been adopted at FIT. Could you tell us a little bit about this service?

Jeffrey: Yes, thanks. The product itself—and I like to preface whenever I talk about this product or VoiceThread for that matter—is we’re always looking to have choices in the products that we use and it’s really always a needs-based issue. What do you want to do and how are you going to get it done? In the case of Concourse, which is a product made by a company called Intellidemia, we knew that we had some challenges with the use of syllabi at FIT and we wanted to find a way to manage them. In most cases, what we found were products that were distributing PDF files or text files, but they weren’t truly interactive living syllabi, and let me explain what that means. First of all, like many colleges we have a very high percentage of part- time faculty, which means that many of them only are in the college to teach their courses, which means that they are not necessarily exposed to the curricular process or all of the syllabi that represent the curriculum they’re teaching. These syllabi tend to be handed down from semester to semester, in some cases, generation to generation. And, as a result, we were finding that many syllabi either had no learning outcomes or the course description was out of date. We’re all teaching in a technology driven world and a lot of what we teach at FIT is really based on practice, so products change, textbooks change very frequently. This is not unusual for any college but at FIT, because we have about 70% part timers, it’s a bigger challenge. So in doing a search we found Concourse and what Concourse allows us to do are a few things. First of all, it allows us to synchronize how all syllabi are formatted so students going to each class where Concourse syllabi appears are seeing a very similar appearance and the sequence is very similar. Now I want to stress that it is editable, it allows for full academic freedom, except in certain areas where the college—and I’m talking about the Faculty Senate Curriculum Committee—and the faculty as a whole feel certain things should not be edited. For example, the course description and the learning outcomes that the course is predicated upon. Those should be uniform, so if all three of us are taking the same course from different instructors, we should not have different outcomes. And many faculty were taking it upon themselves—with all sincerity—to amend the outcomes to better fit their practice or to better fit the way they think the course should be taught. And this, by the way, was not just the part timers, the full timers too. In one department, I was pelted with tomatoes when they found out that they were no longer able to edit the outcomes. [LAUGHTER] However, we need to put the students front and center in this situation. They sign up for a course and their friends are taking the same course, they should have certain unifying elements. So the synchronization of format, the format is fully digital but you can make a very nice looking PDF. It is completely compliant for screen readers. Font size, color contrast, and they have a VPAT that is easy to access that you can see basically their compliance levels which have improved and when you look at it it’s not like a beautiful piece of graphic design but it has a pleasing appearance. So many syllabi are in Times Roman and people are editing Word documents when they don’t know how to manage the formatting. The formatted syllabi allow you to input all the things you’re allowed to input and let me give you examples of what faculty will input. They’ll input their own unique course policies. They’ll input their absence policy. At FIT we do not regulate the grading scale from course to course, so there are some people who have an A that starts at 94 and others have an A that starts at 95. Those things are permitted. In addition, you can put down the materials needed for the course, the office hours, and really your whole calendar of how you have the course unfold. So if all three of us using this scenario are taking the same course in different sections, the syllabi can be quite different with respect to how each professor teaches to their strengths , but that does not mean that the pillars that support that course and the way assessment is achieved are unified. So how do we do this? First of all, like many colleges in the SUNY network I can speak to they use Banner. And Banner feeds will synchronize through the Concourse product. So we actually input all of our learning outcomes and all of our course descriptions into feeds that are updated on a daily basis. So I’ll explain how the feeds work a little bit more in a minute. But what that means though is everybody in each course is getting the same thing. Now that is on a course level. When you look at an institution-wide level, there were many policies and services that are available to everybody in the college, and we found that many syllabi either were out of date or did not even have them. So here’s examples of things that will go into what we call school policies and resources. Where is the center that helps students with special needs? Where is the learning center? The tutoring center? Advisement? Counseling? Where is the policy on academic integrity? All of these things are put into a separate feed that’s updated each semester so that they represent the current state of affairs. We’re never more than 14 weeks out of date.

Rebecca: From a student point of view, I can imagine how useful it would be to have this consistency that you’re describing from class to class. So that you know that the information that you get as accurate but also where in the document it is. That the heading structures and things look familiar so it’s easy to skim and look at it. I don’t think faculty always stop to think about that a student might have five classes and for each class, it’s almost like having five different employers where each place has its own set of policies and like, “This information is located here, and that information is located there.” So I can imagine for consistency purposes how useful that could actually be for a student.

Jeffrey: It does help the students and it helps the students and the faculty. And I’ll give you two examples. If there is a concern about plagiarism, both the professor and the student can go to the syllabi and click on the latest policy and procedure for dealing with plagiarism. Because we have different schools of thought on plagiarism, right? Some people think they should be tarred, feathered, and you know, left outside on a cold day. And other people treat it more like it’s a learning process. The school has very, very clear prescriptives on how to deal with plagiarism and when everybody’s using the same tool, it means that the students are informed of their rights and their ability to defend themselves and to deal with the issue. And faculty are prescribed a step-by-step process as well. That’s a great unification of process. It also is reassuring to a student who doesn’t have to go looking for that information. Another example is the academic integrity policies in general are very prescriptive to the students and the faculty alike in terms of best practices when it comes to the proper attribution of content and also the rights of use. And actually we have a significant issue with visual plagiarism.

Rebecca: Yup.

JEFFERY: … I knew you’d say “yup” to that one. [LAUGHTER] And so, this works. So without beating it to death too much in simple terms, so what we do is if you visualize your college, your college usually has several schools and within those schools are departments and within those departments are the courses. Taken as a whole—for instance, FIT runs around 2100 sections per semester—we have five schools and many departments within. The way we use it is from the highest level, course policies and resources are shared throughout the school. Course descriptions, learning outcomes are curriculum specific. And then the rest of it is left up to the faculty. The first time they create a syllabus, it could take them a good hour and a half because you need to input each thing individually and on a week-by-week basis. Building your calendar the very first time will take more time. But then once you’ve done it, it is easily transportable from section to section semester to semester. So the import process not unlike importing a Blackboard course—well, Blackboard you push from the old to the new and with Concourse you pull—so you go into the new course. So let me talk a little bit about the integration. Not that anybody’s stopping me here. [LAUGHTER] We are a Blackboard school, at least at the present time. We are fully integrated with Blackboard. We use a product called API Adapter which helps to manage the connection between Concourse and our Banner system. And it’s very simple, it’s just like middleware, it’s open-source, it’s easily used. On a larger scale there might be a fee but for our size college it’s not really a big deal. So, as the courses are run in Blackboard and we do run three times a day early in the semester, there were several things that happened in every school that’s using an LMS. The teacher assignments are updated, the course sections are updated, and course shells are generated. And Concourse will run right behind those runs so that if John is teaching a course and he has three sections and one section was cancelled, that update will be evident in Blackboard and you will not be able to create a syllabus in the course that was cancelled. Or conversely if a time has changed, that’s updated too. All of this goes through Banner. So if you just basically think of it as a one-two kick, we do our feeds for courses through Blackboard and then syllabi into Blackboard. Every single course that is a credit- bearing course has a syllabus template associated with it. Now let’s just say it’s an old course and it doesn’t have outcomes, Concourse understands when there’s something missing and will allow you to edit it. So if for some reason you got a course that didn’t have outcomes at all, and in the early days—we have some courses we’ve been teaching here for 45 years—like shoe making. [LAUGHTER] The outcomes are not that different now than then, except maybe now you’re using a 3D printer to make some of these pieces and back then it was all nails and leather and hands, you know? So, nonetheless, when something is missing, the door is open to paste it in. Now, they’re supposed to notify us when things are missing and we do get notified. Now the faculty who use it like it, but it is an adoption process. One of the challenges is most part-time faculty are not notified they’re teaching a course until anywhere from three weeks, a month, to 48 hours. And so a lot of times they have to use what they have and that means that the Concourse syllabus is less likely to get used. Now, I’ve explained to you how we use it, and before we move on, maybe I should give you guys a little oxygen to ask me questions.

John: One question is, can students access this outside of Blackboard or can they only do it within their course?

Jeffrey: Okay, so the answer is yes. When you create a syllabus there is a link that you can get that’s called a public link, and that link can be shared just like a Google Doc that is view only. So they can use that link. They can print a syllabus, it makes a very nice looking PDF file if you generate a PDF file from it.

John: And is that persistent? If someone say wants to transfer a course into another institution? Can they go back and use that same link to get a copy?

JEFREY: To another institution?

John: Well for example, I’ll have a student who two or three years ago took an online class here at Oswego from me and then they want to copy of that because they’re transferring from one school to another. Is there a persistent link?

Jeffrey: Yeah they’re better off making a PDF because the students only access Concourse through either public links that are deliberately shared by the faculty or through Blackboard and we close our Blackboard courses about a month after the end of the semester. So they would not have access to their course. And the link, I don’t think the link would work, but I’ve never tried it. You’ve given me something to add to my list. [LAUGHTER]

John: I was just thinking if they could get it, it could save faculty a lot of work because I keep getting emails from past students who want a copy of the syllabus.

Jeffrey: Wow, I’ve never had that happen. But you know, it’s an interesting thought. I will definitely look into that.

John: Well it’s partly because I have 340 to 420 students in my large class every fall and some of them transfer or some of them were online students who are doing it for some other institution.

Jeffrey: And at Parsons it would take me nine years to have that many. [LAUGHTER]

John: Although that’s just one class but…

Jeffrey: Okay, okay… [LAUGHTER]

John: I still have several other…

Rebecca: He always wins that one. [LAUGHTER]

John: I’m not sure that’ winning. [LAUGHTER]
In a recent podcast, Christine Harrington talked about her book on creating syllabi and so forth and one of the things she noted is that she runs syllabus workshops that are really professional development workshops and Rebecca does the same thing here, that building a syllabus could be really useful in terms of guiding faculty towards backwards design or to better instructional practices. Is that being used to some extent or have you seen it being used in that way at FIT?

Jeffrey: I personally, when I work with faculty for the first time, that’s exactly what I talk to them about. The process of building syllabi from different sources, meaning how you have historically taught the course, what your unique policies are, but the normal natural constraint of abiding by what the curriculum committee approved. So, in some ways you’re constrained, which means you need to understand, analyze, and incorporate the way the curriculum was designed. And then at the same time, we can really engage them in what is the pedagogy that they’re going to use in their course? When they build their calendars we talk about the different types of activities and assignments that they can hypothetically project by doing their calendar ahead of time. And a lot of times, they just haven’t had the time to really explore what are other ways that I can assess my students progress? So the syllabus process allows you to really re-examine everything, kind of like when you clean out a closet, you put things back one at a time. I like that metaphor. You know, that’s a good one. But that’s what building a syllabi is and this product kind of requires that you do that. I can tell you there’s other scenarios though that are being used. For example, some departments have course coordinators who coordinate all the faculty teaching that curriculum. And so the course coordinator will meet with the faculty as a whole and share their syllabi so that the other teachers can actually, if you will, harvest intelligence from them. And because they have a course coordinator, they can touch base as needed on what works, what doesn’t work, and what they need. That’s a side benefit.

John: What are some of the other features that you don’t use, and why not?

Jeffrey: One of the things that it is capable of doing is allowing a department chair or even a dean to audit all the syllabi, to view all the syllabi, so there’s a management function there that allows you to, in effect, take a look at what the syllabi looks like that are going to the students. We don’t do that at FIT. Some departments request or require that the syllabus be submitted each semester by a certain date and others just coordinate and follow up with the faculty without that formality. So the Concourse product allows you to audit and manage as much as is either permitted or accepted within your culture. At FIT faculty really like to hold their syllabi close and they are not all comfortable and this reminds me of the argument at MIT when they went with, you know, opening all their syllabi that there were still professors who will not permit that, and that’s the same thing here. There are some people who said, “Everybody can look at my syllabus,” and others say, “No,” and no is no. So the college does not take a very strong top-down position on that.

John: In my department, at least, the secretary collects all the syllabi for review or potential review. I don’t think anyone’s really reviewing them except when we go through Middle States accreditation and so forth, and then that whole portfolio goes to the evaluators. But occasionally we’ve had a syllabi study on campus where people have gone through and evaluated them, but it was generally voluntary submissions to that.

Jeffrey: Just to give you another perspective, at The New School you’re required to submit your syllabi for every section you teach named in a very specific fashion and the implied consequence of not submitting it could interfere with your reappointment. So they feel very strongly it’s very important. And I agree with you, John. They probably don’t read everyone. But if there’s a problem, they have everyone and they can look at it. And I bet you they do look at areas they’re concerned about.

Rebecca: I was going to say, that reminds me of when you were talking about some of the capabilities of the system that I was thinking having some of these structured ways of having policies and things in the documents and having a repository where they’re all located prevents the ask mom versus as a dad. Like the scenario where students are trying to find the answer they’re looking for. So they’ll just keep asking people until someone gives them the answer that they want to hear, but if it’s really formalized and that process is reinforced and that the policies are reinforced and consistent, that they’re always going to get the same answer no matter who they ask.

Jeffrey: And I’ve had faculty thank me as if I created the product because this takes some of the guesswork out of what they need to do. And I think, realistically speaking, especially as we all look to bring in learners from different stages of their lives and different points in their careers, whether they be right out of high school or they’re coming back for additional learning, that tools like this permit a more consistent product for whoever is coming in from anywhere and it kind of helps support what I’m going to call the shared governance of a faculty that generates curriculum, which is the lifeblood of the college. And that protection is really, really valuable. So many people work so hard to make sure that these courses maintain their relevance and at FIT we’re opening up new degree programs and closing old. And so as we continue to build toward the near future, this product becomes more and more valuable. But I will say on the other side, it’s an organic process and it takes time.

John: What went wrong along the way? What things might you do differently if you were to implement it now?

Jeffrey: First of all, typically a lot of people who are instructional designers would be involved in training people to use a product like this and showing its value within a course design. But the upfront implementation process in a Banner school really requires that you have somebody who understands how feeds work, how to generate feeds, and how to test feeds.The folks at Intellidemia—they refer to themselves as syllabus geeks—will provide an implementation manual, but that manual is best read first by IT. To be perfectly candid, you need that upfront integration to be rock solid in order for everything else to work. In my case, we came in early on the product and their implementation strategy was not 100% clear. And I want to emphasize that my experiences were more challenging than many people who are newer customers, but you do need to have IT support and engagement with it. And I recommend do a pilot with just a small amount of courses so you see how it plays out. Initially we did previews. I did a pilot with 14 faculty. They all loved it to bits but they all had trouble convincing other people to try it. And the organic process of growth has begun to speed up now, but the initial sell was difficult and you can’t push. You have to kind of show value and, “If you build it, they will come” is not always true. We still have resistance in some pockets of the college and our Academic Affairs Office has been very reticent to do a top down push on this. However, I will tell you that one of our Business and Technology departments that has a very high adoption rate, about 80% of the syllabi in that department—and that department has 1200 students. It’s bigger than some community colleges, just that department—and when they had an accreditation review by an organization that directly works with the merchandising and marketing type colleges and courses. They cited this product as being an integral part of the success of the department, the way they are coordinating courses and making sure that everybody has that same syllabus tool at their disposal and is implemented. And so they were congratulated for what they did to the point where I know they’ve encouraged others to do the same.

Rebecca: I can imagine that some faculty pushback would come from the assumption that if most of the structure is there and you can only edit some of the language… Some of the ideas that Christine Harrington brings out in the motivational syllabus, writing from a particular point of view, being warm and welcoming, and not like: “Don’t do this, don’t do that,” kind of language could get lost if you’re not the writer of all of the content or have the ability to do some of those things. Can you address that a little bit?

Jeffrey: Yes, and actually, I’m going to tell you that your interpretation right now is far more constrained than the reality of what we do. When you open up your course for the first time and you see the syllabus template, here’s what you will see that’s generated by the college, let’s say, or by the system. The header which has your course number, your CRN, the meeting date, the meeting time, and the meeting location are all managed through Banner. Then your name will appear as it appears in the system. So that’s always manageable, if somebody’s unhappy about something or they’ve hyphenated or you know, all these things that happen. And then the next thing they see is the course description as approved and the learning outcomes. The only other part of the syllabus that is constrained are the institution’s policies and resources. The faculty have complete freedom without any approval process to then add to the syllabus everything about their absence policies, their philosophy on teaching, their calendar is completely written in their own voice, so it’s really only those three things. The institution’s resources, the learning outcomes, and the course description. Everything else is up for grabs and is used very, very differently by different people.

Rebecca: I can imagine. I kind of had the idea that that was probably the case, but I think a lot of times when we hear a system that’s going to manage these things, red flags come up, and that’s what the assumption is and that can prevent adoption. So thanks for making that more clear.

John: Pretty much all colleges have fixed statements that have to be included in the syllabi. We certainly have them. But I suspect if we looked at all the courses out there, we’d see some were five-years old, some were 20-years old, and some might, perhaps, have never gotten in statements on disability access, and so on.

Jeffrey: And, you know, as I’m sure Christine Harrington has stressed also, many teachers are not trained to be educators. They are practitioners, they are people who have been out in the world, they’re bringing their world experience in, and then they’re being asked to follow the structures of an educational institution. And so we’re actually, by doing this, providing them with, let’s call it the core skeletal needs that every syllabi should have. And let’s be candid, you know, many people take more than one course or one semester to improve their practice, so the better we equip them upfront, the better start they get.

Rebecca: Seems only fair that we scaffold for faculty like we try to scaffold for our students.

Jeffrey: Yeah we don’t talk about that enough, do we? I remember the first time I taught as a part timer. You know, I felt like I had a great experience but I went in and was talking to a bunch of 20-year olds. The only 20-year old I’ve been talking to lately was my own daughter, and that’s not such a good conversation all the time. [LAUGHTER] So with your students, you learn over time that when you’re working with employees versus students, there’s similarities, but there’s far greater differences, especially when it comes to motivation, risk taking, quality of work, and so on. So we need the freedom to learn and to grow and to help each other. It’s a kumbaya moment we just had.

Rebecca: Yeah, that feels very supportive and loving. How have students responded in general? I don’t think we’ve really addressed that.

Jeffrey: Feedback I’ve heard is that the student reaction has been positive. Ironically, some faculty were thinking it was not advantageous for students to see the same format in different classes, but students actually recognize it makes it a lot easier for them to navigate. I’m going to make an analogy that I think works. I’m making a generalized statement here, most faculty who use rubrics have far less problems with their students in terms of their perception of assessment because they know that the entire class is being graded with the same tool. And I think that when they know that all of their colleagues— or their classmates if you will—are getting a product that is also regulated in the fundamental basics, that tells them that their teacher and their friends teacher are dealing with the same basic toolset before they go in and exercise their freedom as educators. Does that makes sense? Is that a good analogy?

John: It does.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to look at it. It also gives the perception that the faculty… that they’re all at the same level. Or they all have expertise and they’re all to be respected, which can be really helpful.

Jeffrey: Students give great feedback, and especially when they’re asked. I don’t want to digress into it too much, but even in like in an open pedagogy situation where students are really generating content, it can be amazing how they can be so insightful as to the benefits. Maybe we don’t always give them enough credit, but my interactions with students about the product have been, it shouldn’t be a big deal that this should be a no brainer. To them it’s kind of like, “Why is anybody not using it?” You know, and I don’t want the Intellidemia people to be too happy.

John: Because there’s always room for improvement.

Jeffrey: I want them to worry. I want them to worry and I want other people to make a product that competes with them too because we shouldn’t just have a singular product that functions in this level. However, the amount of work that Intellidemia has done to make the plumbing work I think is it truly impressive and it’s kind of, and I’ve mentioned before VoiceThread and you know the three of us talked about VoiceThread some time ago. VoiceThread continues to improve their product in ways that are very impressive, including most recently automatic captioning. And with the syllabus product, a lot of what they’re doing in terms of improvement is related to the simplicity of setting it up, the appearance of the product, the compliance of the product, and also—and this was a weak point for the product for some time—reporting. In the early days, I could not get a report that would tell me exactly how many syllabi had been opened. It took a long time before they were able to do that, not because they disagreed with my request or anybody else’s, but because they were really working on their back-end systems to be as flexible as possible so they can continue to add on. So although we do not use the management tools I’m going to call them, they continue to improve those as well so that if each of you were chairs of a department, you would be able to get an instant picture of how many syllabi are out there and you would be able to view them. I know there’s different points-of-view about that. But I think there’s a difference between looking at something and playing an editorial role at its creation. I think that people who overstep the administration side and start telling faculty what the verbiage should be, or what the emphasis should be, they’re tread ing in very dangerous territory. And that’s true whether or not you’re using Microsoft Office, or Acrobat, or Intellidemia, right? It’s really a principle, it’s not unique to any one product.

John: I do get reminders for sending in one of my syllabi every Spring because I have the students develop some of the syllabus on the first day of class. So, I just have to remind the secretary for my department that the syllabus will be coming as soon as we have a chance to finish putting it together. But again, that’s not unique to this, because even without the system, secretaries can be monitoring to make sure everyone has submitted their syllabus.

Jeffrey: But you know, there’s a good scenario there, John, where even with this product—and, by the way, I do this in my class—I have a conversation with them about how late is late, and how many absences have an impact, and what does an A mean and a B and so on. So even though they may not be able to alter exactly what we’re doing in terms of what’s required, they do get to change the verbiage on some of this stuff to fit what’s real. And so if you are using Intellidemia, you make those edits either in the classroom or that night. And that’s the way everybody will see it the next time they go in.

John: Right.

Jeffrey: You’re working with a live link. One other thing one, some faculty actually use the syllabi as a living document of what the assignments are. In other words, they update the calendar daily to represent what’s due each and every week.

Rebecca: I do that. [LAUGHTER]

Jeffrey: Yeah so there you go, you would love this for that reason then. So students know that they must go into Blackboard to view their syllabi or use the link that they’ve gotten to view it and not to depend on a static document.

John: We always end the podcast with the question, what are you doing next?

Jeffrey: As far as this topic is concerned, we’re beginning to work with the Office of Academic Affairs which we report up to on having more workshops on the creation, editing, and strengthening of syllabi, and we’re using that as a unifying message about actual course design as well. So if somebody is projecting how their syllabi will impact their students and then they link that or align it with the course design, it makes for a much more powerful subject as opposed to feeling that they’re related, but they’re not connected. And we’re trying to connect them so that’s really what—it’s much more holistic than it is anything else. I will say this that anybody is welcome to contact me if they want more information. I would then be willing to share with them an example of the syllabi for example. So, there you go.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Jeffrey. It’s always a pleasure.

Jeffrey: It is a pleasure. It’s nice to see you both, and let’s keep that tea going. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, mine is empty.

Jeffrey: I just have to say that I think that you guys do a great job. The series is so relevant, and I’m doing a commercial now for you but it’s from the heart. You guys are really performing a great service and I just encourage anybody who’s listening for the first time to go back and look at the incredible archive of content there that is all relevant and frankly, none of it is older than what, about 18 months John?

John: I think so. I think our first significant podcast was November of 2017, the first week of November.

Jeffrey: That’s right. I have found that it really enhances not only my teaching process, but it also helps me in terms of my work I do as a faculty developer. So thank you both for that. It’s really great.

John: It’s been a lot of fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you for such kind words. And if you want that full list, we do have a page for that now. It’s teaforteaching.com/episodes.

John: Or just go to teaforteaching.com and click on… I think it’s episodes at the top so you don’t have to scroll through six or seven pages of descriptions now. Well, thank you again Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: My pleasure. I look forward to seeing you guys again soon. Take care.

[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

61. A Motivational Syllabus

Do you wish your students knew what was on the syllabus? In this episode, Dr. Christine Harrington joins us to explore how we can design a syllabus that helps us improve our course design, motivates students, and  provides a cognitive map of the course that students will find useful. Christine is a Professor of History and Social Science at Middlesex College, and is the author of Designing a Motivational Syllabus (and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success). Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the NJ County of Community Colleges.

Show Notes

  • Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018).  Designing a motivational syllabus:  Creating a learning path for student engagement.  Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing.
  • Bain, K. (n.d.). The promising syllabus.  The Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University. Retrieved from: http://www.bestteachersinstitute.org/promisingsyllabus.pdf
  • Listeners to this podcast can purchase Designing a Motivational Syllabus at a 20% discount by visiting the Stylus Publishing order page and using the offer code: DAMS20. This offer applies to the paperback, hardcover, and ebook versions and is valid through 6/30/2019.
  • www.scholarlyteaching.org  – Christine’s website.

Transcript

John: Do you wish your students knew what was on the syllabus? In this episode we’ll explore how we can design a syllabus that helps us improve our course design, motivates students, and provides a cognitive map of the course that students will find useful.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

John: Our guest today is Dr. Christine Harrington, a Professor of History and Social Science at Middlesex County College, and the author of Designing a Motivational Syllabus—and several other books related to teaching, learning, and student success. Christine has been the Executive Director of the Student Success Center at the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges.

John: Welcome, Christine.

Christine: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Christine: I am not drinking tea; I’m not a tea drinker, I just do water and I will do iced tea once in a while, but not at the moment.

[LAUGHTER]

John: I’m drinking Tea Forte black currant tea.

Rebecca: And I have Prince of Wales today—mixing it up, you know?

John: We invited you here to talk a bit about your book, Designing a Motivational Syllabus, released just this past May, and the syllabus of many faculty tends to read sort of like a legal document and it often tends to be a bit off-putting and some people just provide a list of topics. You have a much different approach and it seems really productive. Could you tell us a little bit about that approach?

Christine: Sure, I’d love to. Thanks so much, John. I really believe that the syllabus is an underutilized resource. As we’re beginning our semester as faculty we always are required to put together a syllabus that explains to students what the expectations of the course are. But as you mentioned, many faculty treat it as a list of do’s and don’ts, making sure that we’re communicating what the classroom rules and expectations are and maybe the course topics, but it often kind of starts and stops there. So, I really think that it’s an opportunity for us to invite students to our course and Ken Bain is actually someone who’s written a lot about this as well, you know, inviting them to the feast. I think that’s what we want to do: we want to give them the excitement and passion that we feel as faculty and get them really excited about the course too. So one of the areas I saw as a gap or missing in the literature was the motivational angle of the syllabus. In addition to providing some really good resources and providing a course map to students, I think we can motivate our students through communicating our passion, telling them a little bit more about what to expect in the course in a more conversational style… by the words that we use… by the images that we include on the syllabus… and then also providing them really helpful information so that they view this as a course that they’re excited about and they will feel supported in.

John: We actually had Ken Bain here about 12 years ago, I believe it was, and he gave an all-day workshop on building a syllabus and I attended that and it was wonderful; much of your book reminds me of that, but you also go quite a bit further and provide a lot more suggestions in detail, so I like your approach. Could you tell us a little bit more about how the syllabus serves as an entry point to course design or redesign?

Christine: Sure. I think that for many of us the idea of redesigning or designing a course for the first time even is quite daunting and overwhelming to really think about how to engage our students and achieve all of our course learning outcomes. So, I’ve used the syllabus as a vehicle for that, as an entry point that I find that faculty find it a little easier if you’re working with a more concrete practical document to help them understand course design. Now, I have been accused by some of my colleagues of doing the old switch and bait, you know, I did a syllabus workshop that really was a course design workshop and they’re like, “Wait a minute, I think that you tricked me here,” and I said, “No, I didn’t, I thought you were talking about the syllabus, and if you’re going to talk about and think about what kinds of assignments and assessments you’re going to use—this is course design.” So you need to have a larger conversation. So, I said it’s an easier way for faculty to begin the dialogue and really take a good deep look at, well, what is it that I’m asking students to do and how does this fit into the overall course as well as the overall program that the course fits within… so, seeing the larger picture in terms of the course and program learning outcomes and revisiting the assignments and assessments and perhaps moving away from some of the “always have done this” kinds of assignments… you know, traditional exa…, paper… presentation… that almost all of us have in our course in one way or another. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon ship, but it is a great opportunity to step back and say, “Wait a minute, are these the assessment tools that are really going to help support student learning and help ensure that they’re going to achieve the learning outcomes that we set forth in the syllabus?” and then the syllabus really becomes the map for students. So it is the document that communicates the design of your course. As you are crafting your syllabus, you’re really thinking about: “What is it that I’m asking students to do? Why am I asking them to do that? and what kinds of supports am I going to put in to place so that they can accomplish those tasks successfully?” So, I really believe that it is a course design tool and that if you do it well, a well-designed syllabus really will show students exactly how they get from point A to B and the kinds of supports that are available to, you know, really enhance their learning journey along the way.

Rebecca: [If] faculty were to use the syllabus as a way to redesign, where in this syllabus should they start?

Christine: Well, that is not an easy question. You know, I think it depends on—I tell faculty they have two choices when they’re thinking about redesigning their syllabus: you can take the big approach, which is the course design approach, which is going to be looking at your course learning outcomes and then looking at what kinds of assessments or assignments are aligned to those learning outcomes… and then what I usually do for this big approach is ask them to think about what are the key summative assessments that you’re looking for and then work backwards from there using the backwards design process and determine what kind of formative assessments they need to use… and then as you start to craft the way your course is going to be developed, I say take your course outline your schedule of what you’re going to do—week 1, week 2, week 3 and start to plug in those summative assessments and then start to plug in the formative assessments that you’ve identified… and then that will help you determine what needs to happen in week 1, 2 or 3 to help them be successful on those tasks. So, it’s really kind of using that backwards design. I like to say it starts with the learning outcomes, it shifts over to the assessments that you’re going to use and then it starts to move into the course outline, you know, or sequence of topics that would be really important. But I said to you there’s kind of two ways that faculty can begin to, you know, redesign their syllabus. This is the big way and the way that I would really love faculty to do it, but if someone’s saying to me “The semester’s starting next week, that’s just too monumental of a task…” You cannot engage in this process in a day or two. It takes a significant chunk of time for you to really re-evaluate what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. So there’s also a lot of takeaways in this book about how you could do things literally in five minutes or less that would enhance the motivation and engage students in learning. For example, I did a workshop on my campus where we had a syllabus redesign summer camp and at the beginning of the semester we had faculty submit their current syllabi and at the end we had them submit their final syllabi… and the transformation just from a visual perspective alone was really incredible. So, if you didn’t even look deeply at the design piece… for instance, having a nice photo to draw students in (that’s related to your course content)… there was a biology faculty member who put this amazing, great engaging skeleton on the front page… and that really was much more effective than having her first syllabi, which had all rules and regulations…you know: “do this, don’t do that…” and a welcome statement and a picture of yourself… really just some of those kinds of elements really can make a difference. There’s some research studies out there that support adding a few additional words like “please come and talk to me” makes it much more likely that a student will come and talk to you, and it communicates that you want them to come and talk to you. There are some very easy fixes; changing it from formal language such as “the professor will” and “the student will” to “I am going to” and “you will do this…” Just using that more personal language can really help. So those fixes are literally… you could do it in five minutes or less if you want to make a couple of minor changes to increase motivation, but the overall course design is obviously a much bigger process, I’m not going to pretend it’s not.

Rebecca: I think it’s always a good reminder that you can always do small things before you can jump into a big thing and that the big thing is, you know, valuable. We were laughing at the beginning of what you were talking about a minute ago because I did the same exact thing here where I did a syllabus workshop that was a complete course redesigned workshop.

John: …and I suggested we rename it in the future as a course redesign or course design or redesign, but maybe leaving it as a syllabus workshop might work.

Christine: Yeah, I think you’ll get more people to participate. It’s less scary. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: It’s sneaky.

John: It is. It’s a sneaky way of getting in.

Christine: …and it also really allows faculty to walk away with something very practical… tangible… that they actually have done as evidence of participating in that workshop, and that’s great for administrators to see as well.

Rebecca: That’s a good point. So you talked a little bit about the syllabus as a tool for faculty to help think about organizing their class and redesigning it, making sure that students are going to learn what we’re hoping that they’re gonna learn. Can you talk a little bit about how the syllabus is a tool for students?

Christine: Sure. I think it’s really critical for students to not just take this document and put it aside but to recognize the value that it has… and I will tell you that students who see a more in-depth, comprehensive syllabi have a much more positive perception of the faculty member and also of the student experience of being in that class. From the student perspective, it’s motivational for them to know that they have a faculty member that cares enough to put together this really comprehensive package. Having a long syllabus that does not have any visual tools in it and is overwhelming… whether it’s legalese… that is something that students are not going to use much. But when you create a syllabus that’s motivational and engaging and visually effective, students will use that document and they really will appreciate it. Now, they do need reminders about how to use that. I think that it is a document that all of us quite frankly emphasize in the first day or first week of the semester and then often don’t revisit except for to say “in the syllabus…” which may or may not help a student if they’re having trouble navigating it. So, I’m a very big fan of making sure that we make it a document that is student friendly. If it is a longer document, including a table of contents, so that they know they don’t need to read all of this. Maybe the last half of the syllabus is the rubric section with specifics on the assignment… that they just need to know it’s there when the time comes for them to look at it. So I will often encourage students to view the syllabus very much like their textbook. You don’t need to read the entire textbook during the first week of class, but you certainly need to know what’s in the textbook so you’re not just focused on chapter one. You need to acclimate yourself to all of the information that’s in the text and what kinds of topics and resources are included. Well, the same goes for the syllabus… so really helping them use it as a resource and not feeling like they need to read it and memorize it, but instead use it as a tool to help them be successful.

John: One of the things you suggest is doing a screencast with the syllabus perhaps to make sure that students do look at it and to make it a bit more welcoming. Could you talk to us a little bit about that?

Christine: The screencast, I think, is a very valuable strategy, especially in the online class, but it can also be helpful in an in-person class. We all know that sometimes students are adding and dropping in the beginning of the semester and might miss an important conversation, and this really allows you to communicate about the syllabus to students. In addition, I will tell you that I have had students… I tend to have a fairly lengthy syllabi, as you can imagine, based on my textbook, I like to include a lot of resources… and I have had students say to me, when I got the syllabus via email from you, I really was overwhelmed and I was ready to run away from this class; I thought it was going to be a lot of work because it was a long syllabus, and once you explained it and we started to see the resources in it, I discovered that’s not the case at all. So I think that having that personal touch and the the nonverbals that you can really communicate through a screencast with a web video as well as the audio really does help students understand the value of the syllabus and we have so many great online tools now, like screencast-o-matic, that are free… things like that… that you can really easily do that in a short period of time to do an introduction, and students can refer back to that as they need to throughout the semester.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of things you would recommend faculty highlight or introduce about the syllabus on the first day? You mentioned identifying some of the resources and things in it. But, as you know, there’s a lot of faculty that call the first couple class days syllabus days and some of them actually read the syllabus to the students. What would you recommend?

Christine: Well, I certainly would not recommend reading the syllabus to the students. [LAUGHTER] That is not engaging. I think that the part of the syllabus that doesn’t get as much attention as it should is the “Why are we together?” The syllabus communicates: the purpose of the class, the goals of the class, and “What are the takeaways that they’re going to get as a result of being in this class?” Students, what they’re going to immediately want to know is about the grade, right? They go directly to the page that has information on the grade and the assignments that they need to do. But if they go there first, they’re missing the big picture. So, I think that we as faculty have a wonderful opportunity, whether it’s through a screencast or live in a regular classroom setting, to emphasize the learning outcomes of the course in a user-friendly way… not necessarily reading the learning outcomes, but to passionately explain why this course matters so much and the value of the course and the skills, and not just the knowledge that they’re going to get, but really the experience and the confidence that they’re going to get as a result of being in this course. So I really find that to be the most important piece to emphasize, and then helping them see the direct correlation and connection between what it is that they’re going to achieve and those learning experiences. So whether they’re assignments or assessments… the why behind all of those… so they don’t just view it as a big long checklist of “this is what I have to do because it’s a college course,” but they understand that that’s the roadmap that’s going to help them accomplish all those tasks. So, for instance, if I can give you one example, quizzing is something that not every faculty member does, sometimes it’s more of a more high-stakes midterm/final kind of situation… but faculty who really want to provide that opportunity for students to have formative assessments along the way would also include quizzing… and when you do that what happens is is that you’re helping students learn those skills along the way and help them self-regulate whether or not they’re on task to achieve the learning outcomes. But students may view them as busy work or that you don’t believe they’re going to read without being held accountable. By explaining the why in the rationale and bringing some of the research in on the testing effect and explaining to them that the reason for me doing this is because the research shows that if you test yourself you are much more likely to learn that content and it will stick with you throughout much longer periods of time. So providing the why, I think, is probably the most important part that I would bring their attention to and I think that we don’t do that enough as faculty.

John: Just as a plug for a future podcast, Michelle Miller will be a guest in a few weeks where she’ll be talking about the testing effect and retrieval practice.

Christine: Terrific.

John: But that is an issue. Students see testing as something negative; it’s not something they find quite as enjoyable… so providing that rationale is really useful and students don’t always buy it but the more you can convince them and the more evidence you can provide, I think the more likely it is that they’ll see the benefits.

Rebecca: Yeah, John and I have talked about this before that when I started doing that in my design classes, which is a place where testing is not as common, I had students actually asking for more, which I found to be very bizarre initially. You don’t generally have students asking for more tests or quizzes, but when they started realizing how it was helping keep them on track they actually found them really valuable.

John: In helping them assess their learning and to help improve their own metacognition of what they know and what they don’t know, it can be really useful.

Rebecca: One of the things that you have in your syllabus is a teaching statement. Can you talk a little bit about why you include that and why you recommend including that? Because that’s not something you commonly see in a syllabus.

Christine: Absolutely, in fact, there are a couple elements that I think are essential if you want to use the syllabus as a motivational tool, and I see the teaching statement as being one of the key elements; it’s an opportunity for you to start to build a relationship with your students, and it gives you a chance to share some background about who you are and why you’re passionate about the subject and what they can expect to happen during class. As we all know, the professor-student rapport is probably one of the most important predictors of success. Students who have professors who they believe care about them and are interested and engaged are much more likely to be successful than students who have faculty who are much not engaged and maybe not as connected to them. So, I believe that we could use the syllabus to begin developing that relationship, because we often send this out prior to even meeting a student for the very first time, and it also might be something that is shared on some kind of management system within the university or college setting for students to decide which classes to take. So it can invite them to why they should be taking your class –it’s really a wonderful way for you to share a little bit about yourself and your professional background expertise and passion.

John: You also suggest in your book that the syllabus can serve as a communication tool and it also makes it easier to be transparent in terms of how you grade and letting students know this, and that can increase equity, or at least a perception of equity. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Christine: Sure, I think it’s really critical that we are being as explicit and as transparent as we can be. There are going to be some students who can more easily connect those dots than others and when we make the dots connected for them we’re equaling the playing field to ensure that all of our students know what it is that they need to do in order to get to the finish line and how the different tasks relate to one another. So the more you can communicate and ensure that some of the students who may not naturally see those connections can see those connections, I think that really does improve learning and the academic experience for all students.

Rebecca: You mentioned earlier about referencing the syllabus and having students use the syllabus as a tool throughout the semester; you also mentioned early on that faculty have a tendency to say “it’s on the syllabus” without really providing much more guidance than that. Can you talk a little bit about ways that you recommend using the syllabus at farther points in the semester to help support students and continue to motivate students beyond just the beginning of the class?

Christine: Sure. I think that is critical. You know, many of us do activities on the very first day of class. I’m hoping that many of us are not reading the syllabus anymore and we’re starting to get more engaging strategies at the start of the semester. I know folks do a syllabus quiz and things of that nature. I actually think that having a group quiz format,, something that’s more interactive, is great. I do jigsaw classroom exercises at the beginning of the semester on the syllabus. They’re diving into that resource and understanding it and reporting back and teaching their classmates about the different section that they were assigned to. I think setting the stage at the beginning of the semester is really important, but we can’t stop there; we need to then follow through and revisit the syllabus throughout the semester. So what I typically do is I will often ask students to, at the beginning of class, (I always ask them to have their syllabus with them)… and I might give them a few minutes and I do this activity called dusting off the cobwebs… where they have to recall what we talked about last class and maybe from the readings and then we can look forward. So after we clean up our house in terms of where we were then what’s coming next, so what are we talking about today? How does this link up with the concept that we talked about last class, and then what what’s coming up in terms of what’s due? So instead of me putting on the board or on a PowerPoint slide, “Next week, don’t forget you have to submit the first part of your project” or whatever it might be. I’m having students give those daily reminders. So you can literally spend five minutes or less in a class, and maybe once a week; it doesn’t have to be necessarily every class… but maybe Monday’s will be your dusting day and looking forward opportunity. So I think that’s really helpful. The other time where I spend a little bit more time on it is when there is a big project that’s coming up. So at this point of the semester I will often have students work in either a partner group or a small group and in that situation I’m asking them to look at pages 12 to 14 that outline the details related to assignment 1 and the rubric of how you’ll get assessed on assignment 1. I want you to review that. I want you to put that in your own words… tell your classmate about what it is… and then you have an opportunity to ask me any questions about it. So, I’m basically training them to engage in that process. Again, this doesn’t need to eat up a tremendous amount of class time; it can be a few minutes. But by doing that you end up often getting better products to grade which makes your life much happier when it’s time for all the papers to be handed in because even though you put it in the syllabus, it doesn’t mean that they’ve looked in the syllabus… or they knew where to look… or maybe something didn’t make sense to them and they were not comfortable asking without the opportunity given to them in that very explicit way. So, I find that that really as a very helpful process. I also like to do an activity kind of mid-semester looking at the learning outcomes… so, going back to saying “Okay, so here’s what we said we were going to be able to learn and be able to do at the end of the semester. We’re about halfway done. I want you to look at the learning outcomes and do a self assessment. Where are you at on a scale of one to five? What do you need to do in order to get to the level five at the end of the semester? …and some of that’s going to happen obviously in classes or through the assignments. But, what else can you do to ensure that you’ll achieve all of those learning outcomes?” So, I like to use it in a self-regulatory way as well.

John: One of the things related to that is you suggest the use of an assignment grade tracking form. I’ve always kept my gradebook in Blackboard so students can see where they are but students don’t always seem to pay much attention to that. Having them create their own assignment grade tracking might be useful. Could you talk a little bit about what the form is and why you recommend that?

Christine: Sure. I do think that with our current technologies {Blackboard, Canvas, thinks of that nature), the LMS systems really do have a pretty robust gradebook feature where students can easily track their progress. Because in order for them to self-regulate they need to know whether or not they need some external data to see if they’re on track or not. To me, as long as they’re engaged in that checking and self-regulatory behavior, I don’t think it matters whether it’s definitely in the syllabus or in Canvas or Blackboard. But unfortunately, not every faculty member is using the gradebook to its full capacity, so sometimes students are left wondering about their grade and I want them to feel in charge of knowing how to do it. I also think that they have a hard time sometimes seeing the weighting of assignments so that they might view a smaller assignment as being equal to that of a larger one and not recognizing the significance that can have on your grade. In the absence of some of the technology tools… and there are great apps for this too so if your student has a faculty member that is not using an LMS gradebook, they can go ahead and download an app… and I think that’s a great way to track it as well. But just including something like that on the syllabus helps them see the breakdown on the weighting of the different grades so they can see how that final grade is determined.. Because I think you’re right. In the LMS’s I see that students are often looking only at the current calculated grade rather than looking at all of the pieces of how that grade came to be. So anything we can do to help them better understand the grading process and how those elements go into the final grade, I think, is useful.

Rebecca: In your book and also in the example syllabi that you’ve provided (both on your website and also in your book) you talk a little bit about your assignment sheets with rubrics and things completely spelled out… so not something that’s more generalized but something incredibly specific. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to do that and the advantages of doing something like that?

Christine: Sure. So I think that we all provide students with details about our assignments; it’s about where does that happen. For some of us, we think that that should happen outside of the syllabus in the LMS in a different place… under assignments or some other tab rather than being in the syllabus itself. I think it’s really helpful for students to have a complete package in the syllabus. Now, just because I think that doesn’t mean that it’s true, right? Actually I did a really neat study with a colleague of mine Crystal Quillen at Middlesex County College where we examined the student perception of syllabi length and we shared different syllabi. There was a 6-page a 9-page and a 15-page syllabus and they were randomly assigned to different groups. What we discovered was that students who were reviewing a medium or long (which was 9 or 15 page) syllabus actually found that syllabus to be more positive. So they had a more positive perception of the faculty member in terms of being motivated and things of that nature. In addition, we asked the specific question of the students “Would you rather have all of the details about your assignment in one place in the syllabus or is that not what you want? Would you rather just know ‘I have to write a paper’ and then have those details about the paper be provided at the point that you need them and in a different place within your learning management system?” …and 66% of the students said we want it all in one place. I think one of the challenges that our students have is that every faculty member sets up their LMS page a little differently… and I know colleges really work hard to try to have some consistency across the different course shells that exist… but students really do struggle with trying to find that information. If we can guarantee to students that all of the essential information you need about your assignments and your learning path are in the syllabus, then I think that makes a lot of sense. I really think it’s important for faculty and students to understand that it’s almost like an addendum to the syllabus, but it is in that document. So that they don’t need to get overwhelmed by it on day one but they know that it’s a resource… very much, like I had said before, like the textbook is.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting point right, a lot of our students are in five classes and if there’s five different ways of doing things and it’s organized five different ways with five different evaluation systems it can get a little overwhelming after a while. It’s a lot to keep track of. We often complain that students don’t keep track of things, but we certainly don’t help it.

John: We’d like to reduce the cognitive load.

Christine: Yeah, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, it’s the case and sometimes we need to get ourselves back in from the student lens to see what does life look like from their perspective. …and if I could just say one other thing about the “It’s in the syllabus” comment… I mean, believe me, I pour my heart and soul into creating my syllabus. My husband often laughs at me because he’s like “Haven’t you taught this course before? You look like you haven’t taught this before…” because I’m spending hours and hours and hours and I just had it last semester but I know it could be so much better. I’m trying to find ways to communicate it better. So, I know that the information is in the syllabus because I put it there. I spent many hours doing that. But if I give if a student is active enough and engaged enough to ask me a question about an assignment or the course and I just say “It’s in the syllabus” my syllabus is a long document. I do need to navigate them to which part of the syllabus it’s in, because my syllabus is probably a little different than other syllabi that they have looked at. So, I feel like it’s so easy and frustrating for us when the students may not have looked carefully before asking us. So that’s a skill we need to help them learn. But maybe they did look and they didn’t find it as quickly as they would like to. Let’s be honest. You and I also are not going to spend an enormous amount of time looking at a website if we can’t find what we’re looking for right away. We’re going to ask someone. So, we want to make it as easy to navigate as possible, and having consistency I think across different courses does help… not that you need to have a rigid standardized syllabus that looks exactly the same in every course. I think you need to have a little bit of room for the flavor and the personality of the course to show.

Rebecca: Those are things that we just forget about. We forget that it can be really overwhelming to look at documents. Yet we all complain about the same thing when someone else makes a document that we have to look at and we can’t find something. So, it’s good to double-check ourselves. So, I appreciate the reminder.

Christine: Absolutely.

Rebecca: One of the things that needs to be in a syllabus to some extent is the policies… there’s college policies that might have a particularly language that you have to include, but then also maybe what some of your own policies are as an instructor. How do you suggest including those in a motivational, inspiring, and supportive way? Because sometimes they don’t feel very inspiring or supportive.

Christine: That’s a great question. In fact, I have noticed that probably one of the biggest demotivators of a syllabus is the policy section… and many times faculty add more and more policies based on negative experiences that they’ve had. So something happens in a classroom setting and they’re like “I need a policy on that, so I’m going to add another policy about that…” and it starts to become this really big long laundry list. And clearly we have to have policies… I’m not saying we shouldn’t but I think the way in which we communicate our policies really do matter. When we have a list of “don’t do this: don’t cheat, don’t plagiarize…” all these kinds of rules and regulations… we’re kind of communicating to students that we think you’re going to do this, so I’m going to set you straight right now… rather than using more positive language. Instead we could communicate the same policy… I like to use the academic integrity one. So instead of saying “don’t plagiarize” instead… if you have a policy about academic integrity and the importance of why that matters so much and how everyone is expected to uphold academic integrity and engage in honest actions… That I think sets a very different beginning to that policy. The other piece is that we sometimes create policies that promote, I think, more achievement gaps… and actually gets back to that question you asked me earlier about equity, because many of our policies do not promote equity. I’ll take a late work policy, for instance… and I recognize the fact that we all need to be timely with our tasks. I mean in the world of work people are going to expect you to complete tasks on time and I recognize that that’s a very important skill. However, I also know that we are all human beings with a life on the side, you know, so that life happens sometimes that may prevent us from being on time with a task. I know I personally have not always been on time. I’m a very timely person, but there have been times when I have missed a deadline and haven’t been exactly where I needed to be at the time I should have been there. It’s not a pattern, but it does happen. So I think we need to have policies that are building in some of the flexibility that communicates to students that we respect them… we recognize that they have a life outside of school or at least outside of our class… sometimes our policies don’t even seem to recognize that they have other classes… like our class is the only one. So, students complain about that quite a bit… thinking that you’re looking at this only from your angle and not recognizing that this is one of many classes that I’m taking. When you think about policies such as that, it’s important to communicate it in a way that isn’t taxing on your time so that you’re taking late work every minute of every day… but is respectful. So, a very simple way to do that is “Here’s the policy. I expect you to be on time with tasks, especially if you’re doing a group task and your classmates are dependent on you.” I tend to be a little bit more rigid with my policies when it’s a group related task versus an individual task. But I also know that life happens and if you are in a situation where you’re not able to meet a deadline, please come and talk to me.” Because, if you put in a policy that says no late work is accepted… everything must be handed in on time. Well, certainly you won’t have to deal with any late work… that helps you with your time management, but it really is inequitable because the student who comes from a culture where it’s fine to challenge authority might come to you and say “My grandmother passed away last week. I have this really horrific thing happened in my life…” and, many of us… I know I myself… I had at some point a no makeup policy. It wasn’t a real policy… if you came to me and it was a good reason then I gave you an extension. But I only did that if you came to me. I did have no makeup policy on the syllabus. So, the problem with that is that there are certain groups of individuals that are not going to challenge authority and take your word at face value. So now you’ve put them at a distinct disadvantage in the class. So I think it’s important for our policy to do a couple of things: one is first of all they should be accurate… so I did not really have a no makeup policy… I had a “makeup if you have a good reason.” So, it wasn’t accurate. So now my policy is much more reflective of my current practices. I expect you to be on time but if something happens, communicate with me and we will see what we can do. It’s not promising them the world but it’s certainly promising them at least the conversation… and second in addition to having it be clearly communicated, it really needs to be equitable so that everyone gets an opportunity and it’s not a case-by-case situation where if they’re more willing to challenge authority they’re going to be more likely to get a positive outcome.

Rebecca: One of the things that you mentioned earlier is shifting the language in the syllabus to something that’s more personal from something that feels more like legalese or something. In those circumstances where an institution might impose a particular policy that’s written in a particular way that doesn’t match the voice of the rest of the document, how do you suggest dealing with that in a syllabus, when it might be required of you?

Christine: I think this is one of the big challenges that faculty face, is when there’s required elements that are not very motivational in nature. So first of all I would say try to start a conversation on your campus about revising that language, not necessarily the policy… that’s what the policy is going to be… but can we introduce it in a different way? So, I would say if you can do that that would be ideal because then that would be benefiting all of the students in all of the classes across your entire campus if they’re required. So I think that’s probably the point of intervention that I would encourage you to take and you could go back and refer to some of the ideas in the text or talking with colleagues about other ways to better word some of that policy language. If you’re not able to switch the language, or you want a quicker fix while that conversation is happening, I think it’s appropriate (and again you need to find out on your campus if it is) to maybe have an introductory statement: “The next section of the syllabus is going to be the institutional policies that every faculty member needs to include.” So, not saying they’re badly worded, but you’re saying that they’re different… like you can definitely see that I need to include these and I certainly wouldn’t have them (unless you’re required to) on the first page or two. Let the more positive motivational pieces be front and center and then have the policies be later on in the syllabus. So almost like you have a cover page or some kind of introduction before getting into the more typical policy language, I guess, if you need to include it I think can be helpful.

Rebecca: I’ve done things where, for example around intellectual integrity, there’s a campus statement (and I label it as such) and then my policy which kind of interprets that and puts it into context and is in my language… so the same idea that you have about introductory or it’s you’re kind of separating the two and making it clear like whose is whose.

Christine: mm-hmm

Rebecca: …and I think that sometimes has helped students too… but I’ve always found that to be jarring.

Christine: Yes. I would agree I think that definitely is, and I like your approach really of summarizing it because sometimes those policies that we get handed down are very lengthy and students probably aren’t going to read them. So, even if you gave the one- or two-sentence summary of what that meant…translation is… you know this is what you need to do… Be honest. you know, engage in honest action. It really matters. We all want a good reputation and we all want to learn. So in order to do that, these are the kinds of strategies that you need to engage in… and going to the integrity topic again, I think so many times students are unintentionally plagiarizing… not always necessarily doing it on purpose. So maybe helping them understand how they can better learn how to cite sources appropriately or how to paraphrase more effectively… So, pointing them to resources that are going to help them with all the tasks.

John: In your book, in addition to providing a lot of great resources about the syllabus and a lot of great recommendations and the evidence behind them you also provide quite a few some very nice sample syllabi at the end of the book and it’s a great resource and your publisher has very gracefully provided us with a discount code to any of our listeners which is DAMS20 and you can do that by going to the Stylus Publishing website. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.

Christine: John, if you don’t mind I’d like to also share my website which is just www.scholarlyteaching.org. If you go to that website you will see several other teaching and learning resources,including several sample syllabi… and the syllabi that we used in the research study that I mentioned earlier on the length of the syllabus are provided there as well.

Rebecca: There’s also really good videos… a syllabi checklist… There’s some really great resources on the website. So definitely I recommend checking that out…

John: …and also information about your other books.

Christine: Yes, thanks for that John… appreciate it.

John: We always end our podcast with the question what are you doing next?

Christine: Well it’s interesting that you asked that. I am looking at options right now but I am very much interested in staying connected to the teaching and learning space and how we can improve what we do in the classroom. I’m spending some time thinking about moving it up to a higher level and engaging administration in some of the conversations that we’re having about teaching and learning and putting the teaching and learning centers kind of front and center really in conversations about student learning and engagement on campuses. So, for instance I work in the community college system as you know. There’s a national movement called Guided Pathways and this national movement is all about improving the success outcomes of students and it happens to a variety of ways. They talk about making sure our programs are clear, so that they’re defined and students know how to get from point A to point B. They talk about helping students choose a pathway and stay on a pathway, and they also talk about ensuring learning… but, having been a part of this national conversation, the “insuring learning” really is very much an afterthought, I think, unfortunately. I feel like we’re dancing around the classroom. So I’d like to take some of this work that I’ve been doing and work that’s been very directly helpful to the faculty and try to shift it to being helpful to the community college leadership as well as leadership at the four-year universities as well… to emphasize the importance of good and effective teaching practices. So we’ll see where that takes me. I’m not really sure how that’s going to transpire, but I did just present on that topic at the POD conference. I’m putting teaching and learning centers right in front and center in the Guided Pathways movement, getting them at the table of these conversations. So, I’m very interested in further pursuing that at this point.

Rebecca: That sounds like that could be really valuable to a lot of the faculty because translating that information to the administration is always really useful in finding support and all working together to have these really stronger outcomes for students.

Christine: Absolutely.

John: Well, thank you. This has been a fascinating conversation and this is a book I’m going to recommend to all of our faculty.

Rebecca: Yeah, so glad you were able to join us.

Christine: Well, thank you. I really appreciate the invitation and I hope that everyone listening is able to design motivational syllabi and if that happens our students are the ones who will benefit at the end of the day. So thank all of you for listening and for supporting students in their learning journey.

[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.