In Online Learning, Don’t Start with a Virtual “Syllabus Day”

Sadly, many students have come to expect that there will nothing of consequence addressed on the first day of an on-campus class.

It’s often referred to as “Syllabus Day” because that is the only content of consequence presented  by the instructor.

Kevin Gannon, the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and also Professor of History at Grand View University. Gannon also bills himself as the “Tattooed Professor.” Recently he penned an op-ed piece for Vitae, the online career service from the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled The Absolute Worst Way to Start the Semester.  It is a well-crafted argument for expecting more of students and for giving them more than a ten- minute overview of the syllabus. Gannon states:

We dedicate so much time to designing our courses, planning our activities, reading up on our content, and constructing our syllabi. We ought to ensure that time was well- spent by planning a first day of class that encourages students to become engaged participants in every aspect of the course.

He goes on to suggest that the first day of class encompass these points.

1.  Give the students a taste of everything they’ll be expected to do during the semester.

For example, lead a discussion session if that is a central learning strategy for the class. Or, if group-work is important, break them into groups for a simple exercise.  In other words, give students the opportunity to experience your teaching routine and model your expectations and feedback for them. Give students an immediate opportunity to do to be active learners.

2.  Show passion for the course content.  The first day is a great time for an instructor to share “the exciting, weird, intriguing, or controversial parts of the course material.”

3.  Of course the syllabus itself is a critical element of any class.  Discuss the document by directing students to the information they’ll need throughout the term.  After, check for understanding and memory using a syllabus quiz.  This first quiz will encourage students to read the syllabus thoroughly.  But it can also provide an example of the quiz format that will be used throughout the term.  Of course, a quiz on the syllabus is a relatively low-stakes assessment that allows students to build some early confidence.

I wholeheartedly agree with the concepts of the Tattooed Professor.  He also recommends making an effort from that first day to learn the students by name.  (I actually create a video using my iPhone with each student telling the camera their name, their college goals, and one memorable thing that will distinguish them from other students.)

Kevin Gannon summarizes his view of the first day on campus as:

Opening day presents a unique opportunity in our courses. Our students haven’t experienced anything yet, so there’s a default level of interest which we can leverage with engaged teaching and a welcoming atmosphere.  The tone we choose to set and the structure of activities we design can impart a positive first impression, and might also preempt some of the more common frustrations that pop up later in the term. Sure, some students will lament the passing of Syllabus Day, but the dividends from a more substantial and engaging first day will more than offset that disappointment.

These are truly important concepts and similar to strategies that I have used when I teach on campus.  Yet, I believe his thinking works just as well for online learning.  Just because we teach online does not mean that instructors are missing similar opportunities to connect with their students, to set expectations, and to create a sense of curiosity and interest for the course topic.

Here are four suggestions for incorporating Gannon’s thinking in online learning.

1.  Create a learning experience around the syllabus. In addition to the benefits mentioned from Gannon, informing students and measuring via a simple quiz means that the students can legitimately be considered “active students.”  This is significant as the students who receive Federal financial aid such as a Pell Grant must be documented as active in each class.  For years, I have created a one-question syllabus quiz. That question is a yes or no response to: “I have read and understand the syllabus for this class and agree to be an active student.” Of course it is possible to use a more extensive quiz if desired.

2.  Use the flipped class approach and create a killer introductory video featuring you in which you talk about the importance of the subject.  You could also talk about your own pathway to teaching this class. Express your passion for teaching, for the subject and for students, especially the ones in this particular class.

3.  You may also need to create or discover videos that will train the students in the use of the college’s Learning Management System (LMS).  Don’t assume that students know how to use discussions, journals, or turn in their homework.  I create the first discussion be asking each student to provide a little biographical thumbnail.  This semester, I will be asking them to submit a short video that will be shared with all students in my section.  I believe that this will create some sense of a group and put names with faces.

4.  You could also divide the class into groups if this is something that you commit to.

Group learning is powerful, and most LMS platforms will make it fairly simple to do. The groups can work together on projects throughout the term.

One final consideration is that the first week or so of a term may be a time of exploration for many students.  They use the first week as a time to “shop around” for classes. That makes it especially important to give them a clear and engaging introduction to the course that reflects your overall teaching style and the course’s material.

Yes, in a sense there really is not a first day like you would have on campus.  Online learning would be more like the first week. But, you definitely can create the positive first impression, set expectations for the students, and allay fears about the technology immediately using many of the same principles that produce engaged learning in a traditional classroom.

About the Author
Author: Lawrence G. Miller

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