Teaching Today

Ditching the Syllabus Monologue

Traci Levy provides four tips to improve the first day of class.

January 21, 2020
 
 
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For years, I ran the first day of my classes unlike any other day: I monologued.

As I went through the syllabus, I nervously reassured my students that this was the most I would talk at them uninterrupted. Class would usually be much more interactive, I promised.

But this last semester brought my students a new approach. I built the first day instead on the pedagogical methods and classroom values that I would emphasize throughout the course: community, careful reading and active learning.

The result was a jolt of new energy, bearing out studies that show active learning is much more effective than passive. The way this fresh start worked was that I:

Divided students into teams of four or so, making sure they introduced themselves and collaborated on a worksheet about the syllabus. I ordinarily work to make sure students get to know one another in my classes and regularly employ group work. This change honored that tradition, starting on day one. Soon after I did this exercise, academic Twitter led me to a study in science classes that showed group work, particularly using worksheets, resulted in the greatest gains in student test scores. I suspect this holds true for social science classes, as well.

Included a question that asked students to judge -- for themselves -- whether our class would regularly use the assigned text. I wanted to pre-empt the “Do I really need the book?” questions I always get. My Introduction to Politics worksheet questions focused on key issues and different sections of the syllabus that I wanted to emphasize. This question required them to look up the required text, peruse the class schedule, note when the text was assigned and make a judgment about whether we would use the book “regularly.”

Offered an extra-credit participation point for every member of the group who was the first to finish the team syllabus quiz completely and accurately. The objective was to point out the importance of reading and responding carefully. I told the students we would go over the answers after all groups were finished, and I would number the order in which their teams finished. If the first group missed or skipped a question, I would go to the next, and so on. I noted that most of the quickest groups answered questions incompletely or incorrectly. As these groups saw their extra-credit participation points vanish, the importance of reading questions carefully and answering all the parts were driven home. In essence, they learned to value thoroughness over speed.

Made the entire syllabus one of the assigned readings for the next class. This is actually a long-standing tradition of mine, but now I could expect a deeper understanding from my students of what will be required in the months ahead -- a factor directly related to student success.

As I walked around the room on syllabus day, students were mostly focused, working together, laughing, puzzling over the syllabus and occasionally debating responses. It was clear that turning the day from an instructor-centered monologue to a student-centered exercise helped students get to know one another, taught them what they needed to know about the course and gave them a more representative experience of what class would be during the semester.

Seeing the classroom come alive that day, I realized my syllabus monologue needed to become a thing of the past. By sharing this essay, I hope it can become a thing of the past for many more faculty members, as well.

Bio

Traci Levy is an associate professor and chair of the department of political science and director of gender studies at Adelphi University. Before gaining tenure, she was the 2005-2006 recipient of Adelphi’s Teaching Excellence Award for nontenured faculty. She also has extensive training in the Reacting to the Past pedagogy.

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