Interactive Syllabus

EQUIP Workshop #1

The EQUIP project has focused on several tools to present in workshops over the next year. The first tool is the interactive syllabus.  An interactive syllabus is an instruction and organizational tool that can offer intensive information, links and contact information.  When used properly, this tool can benefit both instructors and students in several ways. Benefits to instructors include up-front analysis, planning, organization and resource-sharing. Students benefit by having access to course requirements, textbook titles, dates and assignments allowing them to organize and plan ahead for the semester.

In focus groups conducted at the University of Northern Colorado and Aims Community College, students requested detailed and stable syllabi that they could use as a tool for upcoming semesters. Preplanning is crucial for many students, especially those who need to have textbooks converted to audio or Braille. Students expressed a need to plan ahead for major assignments, group projects and exams before the course even begins. Students want specific information explained, and a point of contact (phone number, email address, office location) so they can ask questions that are still unanswered.  When student’s questions, concerns, and issues are addressed in the syllabus everybody benefits.

When good teaching strategies are employed in the classroom, all students benefit.  Good practice techniques, as presented by Chickering and Gamson (1991), are presented here and correlated to the elements of an interactive syllabus:

Good practice encourages student faculty contact: Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances students' intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans.

An interactive syllabus encourages contact between students and faculty right from the start of the course with concise information, clear expectations and contact information such as a phone numbers and email address. Experienced instructors are aware of the questions that arise during the first couple weeks of classes such as office hours, access to books, missing classes, grading, final exams schedule and class expectations to name a few. Informed students that have all their course "housekeeping" questions addressed prior to the start of classes can be more focused on the course work from the first day of class..

Good practice encourages cooperation and reciprocity among students: Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort than a solo race. Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one's own ideas and responding to others' reactions improves thinking and deepens understanding. Cooperation among students is gained by modeling the behavior that is sought.

Reciprocity and cooperation comes easily when an instructor is clear about the flexibility and use of the syllabus. Students can suggest links to web resources, current events, campus issues, and instructors can do the same.  Collaborative use of the interactive syllabus encourages students to think and share with others (deVry, 2000) in a safe, accepting atmosphere. The focus of the class changes from teaching to learning when an instructor asks for input from students.

Good practice encourages active learning: Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.

What began as a traditional syllabus comes alive with the use of links to areas such as campus resources, departments, college handbooks, policies and maps.  Areas of interest to the instructor can be conveyed via links to websites that support subject matter, such as music clips, photos, movies and more depending on the scope of the course.

Good practice gives prompt feedback: Knowing what you know and don't know focuses learning. Students need appropriate feedback on performance to benefit from courses. In getting started, students need help in assessing existing knowledge and competence. In classes, students need frequent opportunities to perform and receive suggestions for improvement. At various points during college, and at the end, students need chances to reflect on what they have learned, what they still need to know, and how to assess themselves.

An interactive syllabus is a tool that allows for student-instructor cooperation by expecting feedback about the document where students are encouraged to share ideas. Asking for feedback supports active learning (deVry, 2000) and encourages students to share their information about web sites, literature reviews, documents, books and other articles that helped.  “When incorporated into online course design, the interactive syllabus can provide a high level of initial interaction between the learner and the material, resulting in increasingly progressive engagement with course materials in a nonlinear and adaptive process” (Richards, 2003). 

Good practice emphasizes time on task: Time plus energy equals learning. There is no substitute for time on task. Learning to use one's time well is critical for students and professionals alike. Students need help in learning effective time management. Allocating realistic amounts of time means effective learning for students and effective teaching for faculty. How an institution defines time expectations for students, faculty and administrators, and other professional staff can establish the basis for high performance for all.

Offering detailed syllabi access during the registration period allows students the the opportunity to make an informed choice to select one course over another. It is cost-effective, it puts ownership into the hands of the students and allows the instructor more time to teach and interact with students (Twigg, 1996). The interactive syllabus allows students to decide immediately whether or not they should take a class.  It answers most of their questions, gives contact information, course objectives, goals, prerequisites and expectations.  If there are other issues to address, students have the flexibility and opportunity for prompt feedback. Those issues, whether they have to do with office hours, access to books, missing classes, grading or anything else can be put into the syllabi. Informed students that have all their questions addressed prior to the start of classes will be more focused on the course work because there will be few unknown topics.

Good practice communicates high expectations: Expect more and you will get it. High expectations are important for everyone-- for the poorly prepared, for those unwilling to exert themselves, and for the bright and well motivated. Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers and institutions hold high expectations of them and make extra efforts.

The instructor’s unique perspective on the course is allowed to be expressed in the syllabus by objectives, expectations, philosophy and other individual factors.  Instructors with high expectations offer robust syllabi that cover all areas of concern to students and respond quickly to any issues.

Good practice respects diverse talents and ways of learning: There are many roads to learning. People bring different talents and styles of learning to college. Brilliant students in the seminar room may be all thumbs in the lab or art studio. Students rich in hands-on experience may not do so well in theory. Students need the opportunity to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Then they can be pushed to learning in new ways that do not come so easily.

One basic premise of universal design for learning is that a curriculum should include alternatives that make the learning accessible and applicable to students with different backgrounds, learning styles, abilities, and disabilities. When an instructor varies the way a lesson is taught, more students benefit. Learning increases when different methods, such as slides, videos, music, role-playing or small groups are incorporated into the classroom. Flexibility is essential in the learning process (Rose, 2000) when the design of instruction takes into consideration the many different types of learning styles, the classroom setting, local events, and personalities the classroom environment is enhanced and everyone benefits.


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