A few years ago, my wife and I were tired of saying the same things to the kids about how to behave at the dinner table. Our kids love be involved in setting things up (rules, fencing, Legos, …), so we sat down as a family and wrote out the rules for eating at the table. I think we came up with about six or seven rules on our first attempt and posted our page of rules prominently in the dining room. After about a week, we had already added enough other rules to necessitate a second sheet of paper. Sometime later when we had a few other families over for lunch one weekend, a couple of the other parents really enjoyed reading our rules and laughing that we had to write things like “Toes do not go in drinks.” This was a phrase that I would have never thought I would have to say, much less write down as a rule of the house, but parenting (like teaching) will make you say and do funny things. Once our rules of eating required a fifth page, we knew something had to change. We can’t possibly write down a rule for every scenario that will come up since that seems to only embolden the kids to find new and interesting ways of acting at the table.
Eventually, a few things changed about how we ate as a family. As our kids got a little bigger, we noticed that they could sit (as much as kids are able to sit at the table at all) in the adult chairs, so we got rid of the booster seats and other kid stuff in the dining room. At about the same time, we redid the counters in the kitchen which included having counter top seating on one end of the kitchen. We still eat in the dining room a good bit and the kids adjusted to their new seating as well as our new philosophy of “empathy” and “sanity” at the table. The counter top seating is preferred by the kids now though, and my wife and I like it because we can sit with them or continue with other kitchen duties while they continue to eat for what seems like an extra hour. One of the byproducts of the counter top seating is that our kids really know how much work goes into their meals. They have always helped a bit in the kitchen but I feel like they appreciate how much work goes into even a snack. As such, they willingly participate more in the food preparation and cleanup.
This is a very good metaphor for what transformation occurred in me over the past several weeks of writing syllabi and assessments for my fall classes. For the past five years or so, I have used a pretty boring but standard syllabus and course policy sheet for all of my classes. While I have included some explanations for how the class will be run, I don’t think I had tried to build a cohesive and convincing explanation for what the class was really about. Instead, I listed a bunch of stuff that students needed to know (or I was required to put in the syllabus).
In parallel to my student buy-in plan, I started looking at the many example syllabi and assessment methods that were shared at the IBL Workshop this summer. It was really nice to see these examples but the biggest challenge was picking my favorite parts or ideas from these examples and incorporating them into a cohesive class that I thought I could pull off. One idea that I flirted with was a standards based assessment similar to what TJ Hitchman does with his undergraduate linear algebra class. I figured out that I am just not ready to implement something like this yet, but I would be interested in building something like this as an explicit statement of what I will try to assess.
A summary of revamping of how I write writing syllabi was less emphasis on stating facts in bulleted lists and more showing students what is going on in the class, out of class, and what is going on in the bigger picture.
A couple of syllabi ideas that I really liked were:
- The idea of citing what my institution defines a credit hour as and how that relates to at least two hours (per credit hour) of work outside the regular meeting times per week (from Christine von Renesse). I liked this idea because it seems to normalize how much work we expect students to do outside of class time.
- I included the following quote on all my syllabi just before the section where I write about what IBL means to me and why we would be doing it:
The best way to learn is to do; the worst way to teach is to talk.
I think this quote sets the right tone for why the class is the way it is.
- Explain how each of the assessment idea aligns with the goals of the class. I guess I just assumed students knew instructors did something like this, but writing these things out explicitly was a very informative experience for me.
- An entire paragraph (or two) on the rules for collaboration in each class. I modeled a lot of what I wrote based on ideas from Carol Shumacher’s examples. This is something that I always talk about in class but I really like the idea of putting some writing behind it as well.
- In my lower level class syllabus, I included a couple of complementary student responses from end of course evaluations. The ones I picked used my name but throughout all the student’s writing, the only thing I did was assign groups. In other words, all the good things the student’s mentioned were the active learning they did.
One aspect of assessment that I am still looking for are good mechanisms to alert students to what they don’t know (but think they do). I feel like some students are oblivious to being told this in the same way that children can be oblivious to being told how to behave while eating.
Let me know if you have any ideas or questions in the comments. I’m always available at longne at sfasu dot edu.