This week:

  • I tell you about a new tool designed to promote transparency in course enrollment.
  • I share one instructor’s method for rewarding students who help their classmates.
  • I point you to several essays about teaching you may have missed.

A New Tool for Course Transparency

The days when students flipped through course catalogues to determine what they wanted to study are long over. So why do so many colleges continue to provide students only brief course descriptions on which to base their enrollment decisions? Couldn’t those descriptions be much more expansive online, including course-material costs, a syllabus, and even a professor’s statement of their teaching philosophy?

Those were some of the driving questions that led a planning group at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to design a tool they’re calling Class Features, to give students better information during enrollment season. The tool, which has been embedded into the university’s enrollment-management system, allows professors to upload their syllabus, include the cost of textbooks and other required resources, and describe their grading system, among other things.

Viji Sathy, a professor of practice in psychology and neuroscience who sits on the academic-planning committee charged with figuring out spring 2021, says that she and her colleagues were spurred in part by challenges stemming from the pandemic.

The committee was hearing complaints from students in the fall who were having trouble scheduling their time once classes shifted online. A student might think a course described as asynchronous, for example, meant that it was self-paced, when instead the professor had built it around weekly assignments. Or a student might expect that a course listed as synchronous meant that she had to show up three times a week for live virtual classes, when attendance was required only some of the time.

“There are a lot of different ways in which people are teaching courses right now,” says Sathy, “so we felt that it was important to have a clear understanding of that at the time of registration.”

In addition to explaining when and how class sessions meet, Class Features also allows professors to provide as much information as they’d like on how the course is designed, including their grading system. The tool allows students to see, for example, how many weekly assignments and papers are required, whether there is a midterm and a final, and how much each activity is weighted. They can also find out whether professors offer flexible or fixed deadlines for assignments.

To make the process palatable to professors, Sathy says, the tool allows them to decide what to include. On the question about flexible deadlines, for example, one option is “not sure.” Instructors can also update information if, say, they haven’t finalized their syllabus. And, she notes, uploading this information into the system cuts down on the need to answer individual emails from students who might have questions about the course.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for faculty members to go in and use it,” Sathy says, noting that about 200 instructors agreed to participate for the spring-2021 semester.

Another member of the academic-planning committee, Nicholas Sengstaken, a recent graduate and a fellow in the Office of the Chancellor, had been advocating for more transparency around course costs. Like many in higher education, he has been concerned about textbook affordability and has advocated for increased use of open educational resources on campus.

So the committee, which includes instructional-technology experts and members of the registrar’s office, added a feature in which the professor can list the cost of required textbooks and other materials. “Now, faculty are seeing these costs add up,” Sengstaken says. “When you have to visualize that and put it in the system, we hope people will think more critically about costs. We hope we’ll see some better practices.”

So far, the reaction from students to Class Features has been positive. “Students want certainty, and that’s what this provides,” Sengstaken says. “They are able to create a schedule that works for them.”

Other campuses have incorporated similar elements into their enrollment systems, Sengstaken says, but he has yet to find a college that has created a setup to allow extensive course descriptions.

Harvard, for example, has created a syllabus explorer. And, according to OER advocates at OpenStax and U.S. PIRG, a number of campuses, such as Austin Community College, are adding textbook and other materials costs into their course listings.

Sathy said the committee is interested in sharing the tool with other colleges, and learning whether other campuses have tried something similar. “It seems so obvious after the fact that we ought to be doing this,” she says. “Our students deserve this kind of information.”

Has your campus found ways to give students in-depth information about course content, design, and cost before they enroll? If so, drop me a line at, and I may share your approach in a future newsletter.

Giving Students Credit for Unseen Work

One of the positive side effects of the forced shift to online teaching has been the growth in virtual support groups. On Twitter and Facebook, faculty members have been sharing strategies and seeking help with teaching challenges.

In a post last month on the Facebook group Teaching in the Time of Corona, Guy Schaffer, a lecturer in science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wrote about a way in which he gives credit to students who help their classmates. He calls it his “unseen-work recognition portal.”

He shares a link to a Google form with his students and writes: “Please use this form to recognize your classmates’ unseen work in this course with one to two extra-credit points. If your classmates have helped you understand concepts, feel comfortable in class, or complete assignments, please indicate how they helped you, and suggest how many points you think this action deserves. Actions that can be recognized include, but are not limited to: offering feedback on your work, sharing notes, posing good questions, making helpful jokes, offering emotional support, or otherwise helping out.”

“Students always seem pretty eager to use it,” he wrote on his Facebook post, “and it gives me a lot of hope to see the way students want to help each other out. It’s been helpful for me to recognize the types of support students offer one another, and the kinds of gratitude they have for one another. It’s been particularly useful this year, as students have been super supportive of one another.”

His post resonated with readers, getting nearly 400 likes. Have you done something similar in your course, to reward students who help their classmates? If so, drop me a line at, and I may share your strategy in a future newsletter.


  • In his latest Chronicle advice piece on addressing distraction in the classroom, James Lang, a professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, writes about the value of teaching like a poet.
  • In this advice piece for Inside Higher Ed, Zachary Nowak, a lecturer in the history department at Harvard University, and Sarah Bramao-Ramos, a doctoral candidate in history and East Asian languages at Harvard, explain how they fostered community in their online class by giving students an assignment to socialize.
  • On her blog, Cynthia Brame, a senior lecturer in the department of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University and associate director of the Center for Teaching, wrote about what worked, and what didn’t, in her online biochemistry course this past fall.

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