Note from Adam: This page too, like the Student Insights section, is a work in progress. I would ask that you please grant me a little latitude in the writing and construction at this time.
This stems from my professional experience, but it is equally valid in academia: Make sure your students understand and can easily reference your expectations of them and their assignments. This advice was handed down from my mother and her work as an Organizational Change Management Consultant and Executive Coach. Consider the following scenario:
You, as an instructor, ask your students to turn in a short paper based on previous reading assignments. You tell the students about the paper in class, echoing what is written in your syllabus. Until now, the students have been asked to write short forum posts online, responding to weekly reading assignments.
In this common scenario, what should you do to give your students the best chance at producing quality “A grade” material?
Ask yourself the following questions:
Do my students know what I, as their instructor, consider to be “good” or “A grade” work?
Following this point, do the students know what to look for in their own writing, to produce good work?
It is not enough to provide a list of requirements for an assignment, because everyone has different personal benchmarks and interpretations of measures.
There is a business exercise used to demonstrate the gap that lies between what we ask for and how people perceive the request. In short, you ask people to draw or list the characteristics of somethings basic and common place. For example: List the qualities of a good car. Draw a picture of a house.
1. Instructions and requirements should be easily accessible.
Virginia Tech, like many universities, uses a course management system (e.g., Scholar or Blackboard) for organizing courses and related materials online. Take advantage of these resources to communicate with your students.
For my course this past summer (2013), I made sure my syllabus was posted to my course Scholar site> Specifically, I posted under the “Syllabus” main-menu option for Scholar sites, as it is the most obvious location for this content. I sent the students an email with a copy of the syllabus in the body of the message, a link to the online version, and as a PDF attachment — this was a precaution against VT’s CMS going down/offline unexpectedly. Critically, I also told the students to always check the online version of the syllabus for the most current information, as it may change during the course of the semester — this was stated clearly at the top of the syllabus.
Well Adam, where else would you put your syllabus…
A number of faculty do not post their syllabus online at all. It is handed out as a physical document at the start of the semester or distributed by email. In the cases where the material is sent by email, this is occasionally only done by request (e.g., Dear Proff. I missed the first day of class, would you please send me a copy of the syllabus?).
In addition, some faculty do post their syllabus to the CMS, but it’s buried on the site. There is a “Syllabus” page option under VT’s CMS, which creates a main menu item specifically for this content. However, some people only put a file of the syllabus under a resource folder or as a link in the site description, and so on.
Side Note: Give your files, especially syllabi, meaningful file names. This will help students and you, as the instructor. For example, my syllabus file name was in the following format:
[Dept ID]-[Class Number] – [Course Title] [Semester] [Year] – [University Course ID (i.e., CRN)]
Ex. STS-1000 – Into to STS Fall 2013 – 1234567
A meaningful name provides several benefits:
- It’s easy to search for on your computer, because it contains common and logical keywords
- The semester and year tells you what version of the syllabus you’re using
- The CRN identifies the specific section of the course your used this material for, i ncase you changed material for different sections within the same term, etc.
Now to be clear, I’m fine if you want to host your material on your own website. Not everyone likes their university’s chosen CMS and prefer to choose an alternative. I would stress the point of ensuring that critical information, like a syllabus, is posted in an obvious location and in multiple formats (e.g., both as a webpage and a downloadable document).
2. List requirements as bullet-points or an ordered list (if there is a priority).
I have come across a number of syllabi where key requirements were buried inside paragraphs about the course or assignments. As a student, I should not have to do a critical and careful reading of the syllabus, just to understand what to include in an assignment.
Also, use an ordered list (simple Arabic numbers being the best – 1, 2, 3,) for requirements, if you want to emphasize the importance of some items over others. If you do have a priority, you should also state that the list is ordered in terms of priority/importance. I say this as a former Knowledge Manager, knowing that people do not always mean or interpret list formatting (bullets vs. ordered) as having significance.
3. Provide examples or context for both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ work.
4. Give specific and functional feedback, early on.
Assuming you have an assignment or course based largely on written work (e.g., form posts, papers, etc.) offering feedback on
Know the Room
If you haven’t use the room and equipment therein (such as projectors), get to your location early and get comfortable with the setting. Most people get nervous before presenting or running a meeting. Taking 10-minutes for basic prep can help calm your nerves and prevent you from getting embarrassed by particulars of the space.
Need to use a projector or monitor? Test using the device and connecting your device before people arrive. And use that time to run through all of your presentation materials. The most common mistake I see with incomplete presentation prep, is reliance on the internet (knowingly or unknowingly). Typically someone has a video they want to show online, but when the time comes they are not connected to the building’s network to access the internet or the access is very slow, so it takes a minute or two to cache enough of the content to begin playing.
Check on the seating arrangements in the room: Do you enough enough seats? Are the seats arranged how you need them? Etc.
Fed and Watered
Whether you’re leading class discussion or running an important meeting, satisfying basic needs of food and drink go a long way to helping people stay focused and engaged. For this reason, whenever I’m leading something important (such as a course seminar) I stock the room with water, coffee, and snacks.
The ‘Starbucks Traveler’, regardless of your position on the company and quality of their product, provide a great solution for transporting fresh coffee for meetings. For roughly $12 they provide you with an easily transportable container of coffee, cups, tops, milk, sweeteners (usually sugar and a substitute), stirs, and napkins.
Snacks, I like to provide two options: sweet and crunch. For example, a small variety of cookies and bowls of mixed unsalted nuts (typically cashews and almonds) — never peanuts, in case of allergies.