Catherine's Learning Journal

Tearing up the syllabus

This is a thinking-out-loud post, and I would welcome comments – on or off line.

Over the summer, I’ve been working on revising a course I teach in adult learning theory. I finished my syllabus last weekend, but just as it is now time to start getting the course built in Canvas (it’s 100% online), I am seriously considering tearing up at least part of the syllabus and taking a different approach.

Background
Here’s the proximate cause of the redesign. LaSalle has moved to a half-term course structure, which means my 15 week class now has an 8-week schedule. Theoretically, students will spend double time in those 8 weeks and be able to complete two courses per term, allowing them to earn a degree in shorter time. Realistically, though, I have had students struggle to do the work when it was parsed out over 14 weeks.

Nonetheless, I took up the challenge to re-craft the syllabus and to ensure that it meets the same objectives in this new structure. The major projects of the course have not changed much, but the pace of surveying the various adult learning schools of thought is significantly sped up, and we are often “covering” more than one theoretical perspective in a given week.

The problem (I think)
I am seriously concerned about whether the pace allows students to adequately process their learning. This is further compounded by the fact that I moved away from using an expensive textbook as foundation reading material and am instead providing 4-6 articles every week to give background for our discussions and exercises.

Methinks I am expecting too much… my course plan is fulfilling the requirements of content, contact hours, workload, and assessment, but I am very much afraid that it will not have long term impact on students’ professional practices, which is far more important.

So I am backing up a bit…

Ruminations
When I started this syllabus, I had just finished reading Edmund Hansen’s Idea Based Learning, which reminded me about focusing on the outcomes – the big ideas – rather than on content. Students don’t really want to learn adult learning theory, but I am intent on convincing them that it’s an important part of their expertise. The thing is, we don’t study learning theory so that we can define and contrast behaviorism, cogtitivism, constructivism, and other isms and approaches; we study it because having a deeper understanding of how people learn should help us to be more intentional and effective in how we go about supporting learning and development in others.

In thinking about the course, I concluded that the “big idea” is scholarly practice:

  • helping the students to formulate well-grounded theories of teaching and learning that shape their approach to the work and
  • igniting the students’ curiosity and commitment to exploring new theories and research in order to continuously refresh and revise their approaches to align with emerging theory and practice.

As I look at my current draft syllabus (found here if you’re interested), I think that the assignments are very much in line with the goals. Students explore their own learning histories (in a reflection paper), they investigate and interpret theory and research related to some aspect of adult learning that appeals to them (though a “poster” project), and they use their emerging understanding of the corpus of adult learning theory to craft their own philosophy of teaching and learning. I still think those are solid and useful assignments.

I want to be more creative (and realistic) about how to engage the students with the content. I’m using a fairly typical read/post/comment discussion board structure, albeit with a lot of choices about the discussion questions, but I’m not sure that forcing students into this approach to learning and processing the foundational theories will be successful. I think it’s too much too fast, along with the three assignments. The course is usually among their first in the program, so the students are often just learning how to effectively engage online – so I worry about taking an approach that is too unstructured as well.

In the 15-week version, I had students discuss one school of thought per week. They posted in two discussion boards, with a required 2 comments in each, and they kept a journal that was intended to help them take notes for their philosophy of teaching and learning as they moved through the course. That worked fairly well, although students didn’t like the textbook (dry reading, long chapters). I always had a few students who posted many more than the required comments, although most simply posted the amount of times required. Very few students kept up with the journal – most caught up later (no penalties for “late” entries). In addition to taking each school of thought one at a time, I gave a few “work weeks” with no discussions so students had time to catch up or work on projects with no new material to worry about. I don’t have that luxury in an 8-week course.

I’m trying to figure out how to revise the approach to online discussion to give ample opportunity (and incentive) to engage in meaning-making while not overwhelming students with structure and post-counting.

Initial ideas
Here are some options I am considering (not necessarily mutually exclusive):

> Leave the discussion boards completely open – let the students ask questions and talk about the theories without strict structure for how they do that (except some way of demonstrating their engagement – by posting or commenting each week).

> Move to discussion board questions that are less about talking about the material and more about what the material means – many of the current discussion options don’t go that far.

> Lighten up a bit on the original post requirements – have half the students post “discussion starters” of their own choosing in each week. And perhaps ask that these posts begin with some level of summary of the school of thought under discussion.

I will welcome comments and suggestions. I am already grateful for a number of posts and online discussions that I’ve lingered over – about online learning approaches, the problem with frameworks, the why of teaching, and more.

 

  1. RobRob09-06-2015

    Catherine,

    Are you tied to discussion boards? One of the things that one of our Terry instructors has starting using is a web site and application called Slack (slack.com), which is basically a slick web front-end for an IRC chat server with corresponding apps for mobile devices. In short, you can setup a customized sub-domain (myclass.slack.com) for your “team”, create multiple channels (#general #discussion1 etc.), and invite your class into the team.

    The CIS department began experimenting with Slack this semester, and what they’ve found so far has been pretty extraordinary. Students are spending a great deal of time on the app… they’re encouraged to engage in discourse, not just about school work, but about anything they really want (in the appropriate channel to segment the conversations), which helps them socialize with their classmates and really get a good feel for real-time online collaboration.

    During the course of my graduate studies, I’ve seen classes done in one of two ways: either the pace of the class was doubled, or an ‘abbreviated’ version of the class was delivered that still achieved the learning objectives of the course, but didn’t have quite the same breadth as a typical full semester course. I honestly believe that if we encourage students to use this type of tool and converse — not post by post — but thought by thought, a greater exchange of knowledge can take place. That, in and of itself, makes for a great learning experience.

    • Thanks, Rob – this sounds like something worth looking in to. I would love to see more ongoing conversation among the students. My experience with LaSalle so far is that many students are leery of social media tools. I wish the LMSs would adopt some of these strategies for use with classes.

  2. After mulling this over, I’ve decided to move to ONE discussion board per week, with multiple types of threads. I’m going to assign students to do either a summary, an example, or a counterpoint (summarize critique of ideas), or a free form post. The math works out so that we have at least five of these varied “discussion starters” in the discussion board each week, and students will be asked to comment at least five times. I hope by limiting the start posts and increasing the expectation for commenting, the students will get into it a bit more in a more manageable way. We’ll see.

  3. Nadine MonnNadine Monn09-18-2015

    Dr. Lombardozzi, I saw this post and wanted to share, even though it’s a little late to do so.

    I think your change to the discussion boards will help. Having already taken this course with you, I can speak to how foundational the content is for those of us in the ITM program who don’t come out of an ID background — the accidental IDs, as Cammy Bean calls us. It was a lot of content for the regular full-semester schedule; I personally can’t imagine trying to process it on the new one.

    One suggestion, if I may: over-communicate your encouragement for students to contact you with questions or requests for clarification. I think your concern that the schedule won’t leave much space — chronologically or mentally — before students feel overwhelmed and fall behind is on point. You’re one of the most accessible profs I’ve ever had and I think reassuring students that you welcome their inquiries in a thread, by email, or whatever, may really help them feel comfortable to take the step in reaching out.

    (Side note: In reality, that schedule change concerns me. I worry about its impact on all students, but I’m particularly concerned about anyone like myself with a learning disability. My fear is that the compacted schedule won’t allow me enough time for all of the reading and writing I’ll need to accomplish. I wonder if any of the research material used to make a decision on the schedule change included studies that encompassed LD learners?)

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Nadine. I did some more work on this, and I think the changes I’ve made to the plan make the flow of work seem more manageable without watering it down. And thank you for your kind words about my accessibility; I really enjoy working with students and want to help them to succeed here. Your points about students with learning disabilities is well taken; I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately in the area of universal design for learning, and am becoming quite aware of the ways my courses are (and are not) all-learner friendly. Over time, I hope to improve in this arena as well.

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