Classroom Realities

After semesters of making syllabus adjustments to promote better understanding of course expectations, Shari Wilson finds that certain lessons can never be too obvious.

April 21, 2006

When I was first given the chance to teach an English composition class
at night for a business college, I labored over my syllabus. After looking at colleagues' examples, I crafted my own somewhat spartan version to guide my thoughtful and committed students. By the end of the first night, I had answered questions about attendance, assignments, quizzes, tests, and papers due more than once. Exhausted, I drove home with a notepad full of questions. Later I clarified through handouts and other materials. I started to get the impression that many of my students were simply interested in getting a grade and getting out. Still, I tried not to stamp the whole class with this label; surely there would be standouts that would be transformed by the educational process.

By my second semester, I was getting more specific on paper. My attendance policy seemed clear to me -- as did my requirements for rewrites. I had even made up an in-depth course outline, which listed due dates for papers, late due dates for papers which included a 10 percent grade penalty, quiz dates and test dates. I reasoned that any person accepted to college would surely be able to understand my course objectives and see how they could accomplish those goals. I was wrong.

Students still flooded the podium with questions about what exactly constituted an excused absence, what the penalty was for late papers, and whether they could make-up work when they didn't come to class. And, one student asked, her tone petulant, exactly how late was late anyway? Sigh.

Finally I attended a valuable workshop on high- and low-context learners. Suddenly I could understand why certain students wanted to know about the whole semester's work at the start of the first few classes. And why other students were happy to have information parceled out at two-week intervals. Desperate to improve retention, I rewrote my class materials again. I drafted a day-by-day course outline that provided not only important due dates, but guidelines of what we'd be doing in each class. Some were general ideas; others were specific instructions, listing handouts and work to be done.

My high-context students were thrilled. They immediately skimmed the course outline and highlighted certain dates. Armed with knowledge, they started to feel more accountable. Many spent more time on assignments, saw tutors, and turned in better work. My low-context students, of course, were not affected. They simply read what was immediately due the next day and accomplished that one piece. A few read ahead -- if only to avoid scheduling problems with their busy social lives. Others only consulted the syllabus minutes before class

My next semester was noticeably better, but a few students still seemed to have a difficult time understanding exactly what was expected of them in my English composition course. Several students complained that they didn't realize they were failing my course until they received midterm grades -- even though many of them had received failing grades on essays. And several seemed to think it appropriate to approach me after receiving their final in-class grade to ask if they could make up quizzes and work that they had missed that semester.

I finally started to wonder if this was more about grade-mongering than understanding. After all, the information they were seeking was spelled out on my syllabus. Still, I had a responsibility to my students --   and if clarifying this or that would help them work harder (or accept a grade for minimal effort), then I was willing to spend more time on my syllabus and class outline.

My biggest education was to come. When hired to teach part-time at a large community college system in northern California, I started to receive some real-life instruction on how to write a syllabus that would promote understanding --  and, most importantly, eliminate wiggle room for unmotivated students. After trying to teach English composition, closing up loopholes in my syllabus became my biggest objective.

Each semester taught me one more trick. In one case, I made a simple change that eliminated all the questions about when a student was supposed to have done the reading listed for that day's work. Some may find this hard to believe, but some students actually thought that a reading listed for Wednesday's class, for example, might be done during Wednesday's class -- or even after Wednesday's class. No matter how many times I announced in class that readings were to be done before that day, some students claimed they didn't understand that they needed to read ahead in the textbook in order to be ready for that day's class.

To make my expectations even more clear, I started grouping the readings required and listing them as "homework" for the previous class. On the next class day, when the students were going to be quizzed on those readings, I listed a "quiz" at the start of the hour and referred to the readings they read as "homework." Now under each class date, I had headings that instructed duties to be carried out at "start of class," "in-class work," and "homework." Curiously, my
students understood this system perfectly. The questions stopped and the majority of my students started coming to class prepared.

By the time I was hired on full-time to a university, I had classroom policies that seemed to keep the peace -- and avoid most of the chance for the dreaded "grade review." The truth is that any student who was unhappy with his or her grade could simply go to one's dean and ask for a review of their final class grade; this review could result in a review of one's syllabus and policies by the dean -- and in some cases be counted against an instructor seeking tenure or renewal. I also had a syllabus and course outline that were so specific that students could visualize their semesters by flipping through a few stapled pages. I even mastered "columns" in MSWord so that the assignments due on Monday, Wednesday and Friday were in neat, readable columns across the page. This helped visual learners to see how assignments built on one another. The other benefit was that the information could be worked into several pages, rather than a half dozen pages -- which was much more student-friendly.

No longer did I have to announce in class what was due on Monday. No longer did I have to outline what the procedure was for the in-class midterm essay exam. No longer did I have to tell a student exactly how their two absences and four tardies impacted their 10 percent participation grade. It was all spelled out.

And, better yet, when questions did arise, I often was able to write a short note, cut and paste some small portion of my syllabus into a student's e-mail message, and feel confident that I would not be waging an "e-mail war" with a disgruntled student about some miniscule detail which they felt would magically alter their grade. For the better, of course.

Still, there was more to do. After hugging a hardcover grade book to my chest for years, I finally realized that there was another way to do things. A better way. I had seen a colleague using grading software to generate class grades. Nervous, I watched over her shoulder as she plugged in numeric grades --  and printed off a sheet that told her exactly what her students' grades were at that point in time. Amazed, I downloaded the shareware program called Gradekeeper, and made the commitment to "try it for one class that semester." That night, I read through the easy instructions and started loading information for my first class. After 20 minutes, I had somehow transformed my hardbound, difficult-to-quantify grade book into an easy-to-read spreadsheet.

I loved it.

That night I loaded all five of my English composition courses into the software. I could now go to class with a print-out, check off attendance, hand-write in assignment grades and simply load them into the Excel-like spreadsheet every few days. The biggest advantage was that I could actually generate individual grade sheets that I could give to students. Students could now actually see what they were missing and how that affected their grades. They could actually see how their coming late was affecting their grade now -- not months later when it was too late to correct their behavior.

I became a big advocate for grading software; not only because it allowed me to let students know exactly how they were doing, but it also gave me instant access to how my class was doing as a whole. Surprisingly, I could also now see how classes did on particular assignments -- which gave me the ability to adjust workload or expectations, depending on the student population. And last, I could finally disengage from the coveted hardbound grade-book. No longer would I have to copy sections of my grade book and hide it in file cabinets, afraid that my book would be stolen or lost. After updating entries, I could simply print out attendance sheets and grades-to-date to bring to class each week. And at three- or four-week intervals, I could hand out computer-generated scores for each student. They could see what assignments they had done --  and what their grade to date was. Overachievers and underachievers alike seemed happier when they knew where they stood in my composition course.

Later, WebCT and Blackboard started offering online grading -- which many of my colleagues swear by. I will admit that I'm squeamish about letting students view their individual assignment grades and the resulting in-class grade to date. It seems to promote grade-mongering and keeps the teacher (or academic counselor) out of the process. Even still, Blackboard will allow instructors to "release" information as they desire -- for example, at a time when they are giving individual conferences with students. Having their grade in print, with details about how they earned that grade, seemed to diffuse students' concerns;
this seems to attest to the "authority of print." When used judiciously, technology-generated in-class grades can be an incredibly valuable tool for faculty.

I realize that planning a semester ahead of time may be impossible for many professors. For some, revealing this information in a course outline may be completely inappropriate for their discipline -- or ineffective with their teaching style. For this particular English composition instructor, however, this tactic has not only allowed me to manage my class time better, but also see my semester in a more holistic way. Instead of viewing my course as a series of individual
assignments, I have started to see the flow of concepts that make up a semester. And though some may see my spelling out class policies as petty, others may see the value of eliminating students' worries before they start. Instead of spending five minutes at both the start and end of class on "what was due yesterday" or what constitutes "lateness," I've been rewarded with a bit more focus on class work.

Students are apt to consult me on the credibility of a secondary source rather than argue about their participation grade. And my office hours are often spent helping with students' thesis statements and outlines, rather than finely-crafted presentations on why a student has not been in my class for four weeks.

And me? I'm lucky enough to be able to focus on developing more effective assignments, evaluating how my student population is reacting to my curriculum, and even reading a few journals with the hope of developing my teaching theory and technique. It feels like success to me.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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