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Syllabus Week

An example of how to start off the term with active learning.

December 17, 2017

Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

My first semester as a teaching assistant, I was required to take a course on pedagogy. Teaching your first class can be incredibly intimidating. From preparing notes to deciding what methods work best for your material and class, the list of issues to consider seems endless. As a new teaching assistant, I was eager to learn about how to best help my students.

At the beginning, however, I was weary. The course sought to introduce students to different teaching methods, focusing on active learning practices. At the time, I was a student at large public university where much of the learning I did could not be described by the word “active’ Prior to this course, all my classes were large lectures with little student-teacher interaction. The first week of classes, nicknamed “Syllabus Week” by students across the university, was the best display of how awful things could get: one week straight of professors mindlessly reading from the syllabus for sometimes the entire length of our first lecture. So, walking into this course on active learning at this same university, I had no idea what to expect.

The course professor, Shannon, flipped the script down to even the setting. To everyone’s surprise, the class was held in a small room seating twenty students in desks arranged in a circle. As we entered the classroom, most of us looked at each other, unsure of where to even sit. The unfortunate, typical syllabus week game was to see how far you could be from the front of the classroom - but here everyone was equally visible to everyone else. Shannon sat at one of these desks, as if she were also a student, smiling in silence as she watched everyone’s confusion.

As the minute hand hit exactly 3:00 PM, the start of our class time, Shannon stood up, introduced herself and the course, and then walked around the room to hand a syllabus to each student. “OK, here it goes” I remember thinking, but after she handed the last one out she said, “OK, put those away. Before we dig into the concepts, we have to set some rules.”

Without further explanation, she said, “Let’s start with me. Tell me exactly what you expect from me, and I’ll tell you if it’s reasonable or unreasonable. Then, we can go from there.” A few seconds of silence that felt like an awkward eternity passed. Finally, an unidentified voice said, “Be on time.”

Shannon laughed. “OK, if you raise your hand and introduce yourself.” The student did - and Shannon asked everyone else who followed to introduce themselves as well. Later she would go on to explain the simple reason why:in her classes, she wants to get to know each student as well as she can, so that she can best identify how to help them learn. While it is difficult to do for large classrooms, she said that it is one of the most important things for her.

“Asking for a name takes just a few seconds, but it’s the start of a lasting relationship with a student beyond letters and numbers,” she said.

As for being on time to class - Shannon said she would be, and even struck a deal with us: for every minute she was late to class on one day, she would let us go one minute early during the next class. If one of us was absent, she would ask us to come into office hours to go over what we missed in class.

“We have to respect each other’s time.”

We continued our conversation for over half of the class period, with us exchanging expectations. Some expectations were courteous actions – put phones away during class time, speak to each other with respect, look at and listen to whoever is speaking (which explained the circle). Others progressed into the actual course objectives, with students listing skills they hoped to gain from the course. Some of the objectives did not match what Shannon initially intended to teach us, and we discussed if there were ways to incorporate them into her syllabus to improve our experience with the course.

By the end of the discussion, we felt comfortable with each other and genuinely motivated to learn from Shannon and each other for the rest of the semester. We each felt like we had a role in the classroom. Some of us even joked with each other, with one student boldly standing up and saying, “I suggest every class be a potluck, with a theme picked by a different student each week.”

To that, Shannon kindly said, “Maybe sometime.”

At the end of our discussion, we had outlined an entire blackboard with expectations. Shannon typed them up and shared them with the class. These rules would go on to dictate our behavior in the classroom for the rest of the semester. None of us ever broke any of the rules, since Shannon showed us how much she valued our time and her own on the first day. Our discussion made the classroom feel like it was not the professor’s class to run alone, but ours as well.

Since then, I’ve started every semester with the same discussion. This is easiest to do in smaller classes, like recitations and labs, where learning is naturally more active. Often, when introducing myself to students, I just start by asking them what they want to get out of this course, based off what they have heard about the class or know about the course’s topic. While each class’s expectations might differ, the result is always the same: the beginning of a defined and fruitful classroom dynamic. I haven’t taught a large lecture, but this method may extend well to office hours, with small groups of students at a time throughout the first week of class, or via a survey whose results could facilitate a large lecture discussion. The exercise might take extra time, but giving students a voice in a course as large as a lecture could make them feel more active in the classroom despite its size.

What are some of the ways you express and adhere to expectations in the classroom?

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Todd Van Hoosear under a Creative Commons license.]

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