Teaching Newsletter, August 11, 2017

August 11, 2017

Welcome to the inaugural issue of Teaching, a new weekly newsletter about teaching and learning that we’re developing here at The Chronicle.

It’s being put together by a couple of us: Dan Berrett, who oversees stories about teaching, learning, and curriculum, and Beckie Supiano, who is new to the beat and will be reporting and writing these stories.

We hope that this newsletter points you to some useful resources and sparks an insight or two. Please let us know what you think. And to continue receiving this newsletter, please sign up here.

A Useful Tool

The fall semester is fast approaching, and it’s a time when attention turns to things like syllabi. For many people, writing and handing out paperwork can come to feel like a rote exercise, but some professors use syllabi as pedagogical opportunities.

For example, I remember sitting in on Richard Bell’s American history course at the University of Maryland at College Park nearly five years ago. After handing out his syllabus, he had a course packet of primary-source documents ready for his students. But they had to pick it up from him during office hours. That way, he could meet them in person. Soon, he knew everyone’s name and could lead his large lecture like it was a discussion.

More recently, other professors have written about using the syllabus to promote learning. Kevin Gannon has administered quizzes on his syllabus, which he says can encourage students to read it. A quiz also introduces them, in a low-stress way, to how he assesses. Anne Curzan waits until the end of her first day of class to review her syllabus. That way, she can lead her students in activities that help set the tone for the rest of the course. David Gooblar suggests paying attention to the design and layout of the syllabus to help make sure it “engagingly introduces our course and entices students to fully invest in it.” Meanwhile, Sean Morris writes about ways to approach the syllabus in online courses. He likes to view the syllabus as “an invitation.”

Of course, syllabi can be the subject of scholarly attention, too. There’s a journal dedicated to them. And the Open Syllabus Project, which we wrote about here, gathers interesting information about these documents. Among other things, it keeps track of required texts (Spoiler alert: The Elements of Style, Plato's Republic, and Marx's Communist Manifesto are the most popular).

While we’re on the subject of syllabi, we’d like to hear from you. What’s one thing you’ve changed about how you write or distribute your syllabus? Your response might be featured in an upcoming issue of this newsletter.

Extra Credit:

  • We recently described a boomlet in high-end classrooms that are specially designed to foster active learning. Want to know what these spaces can look like? Derek Bruff, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching, posted 132 photos of them on Flickr. They’re worth a look.
  • The California State University system announced that it’s dropping placement exams and non-credit-bearing remedial courses. The courses can be major sticking points for underprepared students, costing them time and money. But scuttling these courses is not without controversy. To brush up, you can read coverage from our colleague Katie Mangan on two states’ experiences, and a deep-dive into what happened in one of them, Tennessee.

Recent Research

When students set goals, should they aim high or start small? This study suggests that the latter may be better. Students who set a goal to complete a discrete task (taking a practice quiz, in this case) generally managed to achieve it – and fared better in the course overall than their peers who set a larger goal of earning a good grade in that course. 

A Parting Request

Thanks for reading our first issue! Do you have thoughts or suggestions? Please send them to me (dan.berrett@chronicle.com) or Beckie (beckie.supiano@chronicle.com). And don’t forget to share your thoughts about syllabi.

Once again, if you’d like to continue receiving Teaching, please sign up here. Thanks!

  • Dan and Beckie