The Semester is Dead, Long Live the Semester

Another semester is staggering to a close marching toward a triumphant conclusion. There is a familiar consistency in the rhythm of the academic year; tree branches become bare, days get shorter, the Detroit Lions lose football games–you can almost set your watch by it. Yet part of that rhythm is the reality that as one semester ends, another one has essentially begun. And while we at least start a little later in January, the Spring semester looms over us. WATCHING. WAITING. WE’RE DOOMED. 1367686867113930

Well, not really, but it is a bit disconcerting to think about the quick turnaround when we’re still riding the tsunami of final projects and exams associated with this one. But there can be some excitement, too; new courses mean new groups of students and opportunities for us to try new techniques or approaches. One suggestion your friendly neighborhood CETL staff would like to offer is for you to, as you prepare your syllabi for the Spring semester, think about the ways in which that document introduces students to you and your course. Like the cliché goes: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

As an example, consider the following course descriptions (courtesy of Economics professor Lolita Paff at Penn State-Berks):

As a student, would you be more intrigued by this course:

Econ 102 is an introduction to microeconomic analyses and policies. Microeconomic deals with the behavior of individuals and firms and how the behavior is influenced by government policy. The principal objective of the course is to enable students to analyze major microeconomic issues, clearly and critically.

Or this one?

Why should you want to study microeconomics? Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of people in the ordinary business of life. Every choice you make, from what time to get up … whether or not to go to class … how long to study, or work, or how much to eat, or where to go on Thursday nights … ALL of it incorporates microeconomic principles. Microeconomics helps us to understand how people and firms make choices, how markets are organized, why and how markets behave differently, and the effects government interventions have in market outcomes. I LOVE this course, and I am hoping that by the end of the semester you will develop a deep appreciation for the subject.

These are the “before” and “after” course descriptions from an instructor who adopted Learner-Centered Teaching as her pedagogical focus, and made intentional changes to her teaching (some of which are reflected in course documents like the syllabus). In one sense, “Learner-Centered Teaching” is an affirmation of what we do here at Grand View; our students are at the center of our mission, whether it’s an individual in the classroom or our university’s larger mission. But as a specific pedagogical approach, Learner-Centered Teaching is an intentional and consistent effort to place students at the center of our course design and teaching as well:

It proposes a global shift away from instruction that is fundamentally teacher-centered, at times glibly termed “sage on the stage,” focusing instead on learning outcomes. It is not intended to diminish the importance of the instructional side of the classroom experience. Instead, instruction is broadened to include other activities that produce desirable learning outcomes. Learner-centered teachers articulate what we expect our students to learn, design educational experiences to advance their learning, and provide opportunities for them to demonstrate their success in achieving those expectations. …A learner-centered environment grows out of curricular decisions and in-class strategies which encourage students’ interaction with the content, with one another and the teacher, and with the learning process. It encourages students’ reflection, dialogue, and engagement, and requires a reliable assessment of their content mastery.

One of the best ways to embody a Learner-Centered approach, and keep it consistently in front of both you and your students, is to design your syllabus around Learner-Centered principles.  This week’s links offer a variety of ways to think about your syllabus (and, by extension, your course design). As always, we’re here to help in CETL if you wish to dive deeper into any of these concepts:

How long have you used the same syllabus for your course? 5 years? 10 years? Sure, there’s stuff that needs to be in your syllabus consistently–but has the document basically ossified? Consider an “Extreme Makeover,” where you assess everything in the syllabus from a fresh perspective and do a little spring cleaning! “Yes, it takes a little time to do a makeover.  But clearing out the clutter and refurbishing the space does a lot for both your family room and your syllabus.”

Alternatively, you can go full-on nihilist and cry “Death to the Syllabus!”–an exercise worth doing, as described by Mano Singham, to move away from practices and routines that hinder student learning.

How about shaking things up? Just because we have to include certain things in our syllabi doesn’t mean that the thing has to read like an insurance policy. We’re smart people; we can be creative and functional! Perhaps visual creativity is the way to go; see the examples in this post from the Cronicle’s ProfHacker blog. Or, if you want to represent to students the way your course material fits together, try a graphic course calendar–here are some examples from Philosophy survey courses that clue students in right away to the interconnected nature of the course material and themes. And here are some more great examples–this time from the sciences–courtesy of the American Geophysical Union’s GeoTrek blog.

We highly recommend the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching’s comprehensive set of ideas and resources for syllabus construction. And, of course, Grand View’s syllabus resources page has all the institution-specific materials (like Core Curriculum information, for example) that you will need. As always, the CETL staff is here to assist with any or all of your course design and syllabus creation needs!

The important thing to remember here is that syllabi can, and should, serve a larger purpose than merely establishing “contract language” for your students. An inviting, learner-centered document can also set an important tone for the course right off the bat, and model the type of class environment that you want to create.

Some Announcements:

Speaking of course design, the very successful and productive Course Design Teaching Circle will continue in the Spring semester. If you’re interested and want to hop on board, or if you wanted to participate this fall but couldn’t fit it into your schedule, please feel free to join us beginning in January! For more information, or to let us know you want in, email Kevin.

We’ve been hearing from some students that there have been significant issues uploading materials to Blackboard this semester. Yet CETL’s only gotten a couple of reports from instructors that their students were experiencing this. I think we’ve all been dismayed at some of the Blackboard troubles we’ve had this term, but it’s vitally important that you notify someone if your students are encountering problems: we can’t repair problems we don’t know about! So if you’re running into trouble with Blackboard, please take a minute to email Blackboard admin extraordinaire DOCTOR Karly Good or Kevin Gannon, or call one of us (2831 or 6102). Thanks for your help.

Looking for resources? Ideas? Help?

Click here for this week’s CETL Library Spotlight

Click here to contact CETL

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