March 19, 2015

Online Teaching Tips: Separate Syllabus, Course Schedule, and Assignment Instructions

(This is one article in a series offering tips for teaching online. The suggestions and ideas shared are based solely on my personal experience teaching online for many years, and not on any "hard" research.)

There is a school of thought in teaching (online and otherwise) that says put EVERYTHING into your syllabus for your course - contact information, policies, procedures, assignments, deadlines, assessment information, etc. Everything! It all goes into the syllabus. By stuffing a Syllabus full with all class-related information, the document becomes unwieldy, less flexible, and consequently, less useful for the student. Rather, separating the Syllabus from a Course Schedule and from assignment information can be a more useful option for students. 

There is no disputing the importance of the syllabus. In the syllabus should be placed those course policies and procedures the student must know in order to succeed in navigating and working within your course. These policies may include communication with the instructor, assignment completion and submission, late work policy, "attendance," accessing the course and relevant course materials, grading/assessment, and technical troubleshooting, among others. The document should be sufficiently detailed to provide students the tools and information to be able to work effectively and efficiently in the course in those first couple of weeks. Anticipate what the students will need to know in order to work practically within the course, and do your best to minimize opportunities for student confusion or misunderstanding on how to function effectively in your course. 

Here is an example of a Syllabus I use for one of my online courses. Note the use of bookmark navigation links at the top of the Syllabus to help students access the information needed most directly, and hyperlinks to relevant external materials throughout the document (if you are teaching online, take advantage of hyperlinking whenever possible):
MUS 253- History of Jazz ONLINE
I try to be as explicit as possible in my Syllabi. But, no matter how detailed I believe I am in the Syllabus, I find myself answering the same questions from students repeatedly, the answers to which are explicitly stated in the Syllabus. This leads me to believe that, if students access the Syllabus, they rarely read it in depth. And, if they do read the Syllabus, they rarely return to the document after the first week or two of class, or during the last week of class, as final grades loom large. So, for me, including assignment-specific instructions and assignment due dates are best handled separately from the Syllabus. 

Face it. Everyone is busy. Many students take online courses because these courses fit best into busy schedules. That is, online students typically plan coursework around their already-established daily or weekly schedules. The most important course-related information most students need then, after learning how to get started in your course, is what needs to be done and when. Using a separate Course Schedule can provide this essential information in an easy to understand, easily accessible format. 

Because the Course Schedule is likely to be the most-used course document, it should be as explicit and as useful as possible, but minimally should include the following items:

  • Dates for the entire term - weekly or daily, depending on how your course is structured
  • Topics studied - broken into daily or weekly topics, depending on course structure
  • Where the work is to be completed/found (if in a text, include inclusive page or chapter numbers; if a discussion, indicate the discussion name and its location)
  • Assessments with clear due dates
Spreadsheets work wonderfully to display this type of data in a clear, concise format. Also, they offer the further option of using color to help organize and display the information in a more useful manner.

Here is an example of a Course Schedule I use for one of my online courses:
MUS 253-History of Jazz Course Schedule
In this Course Schedule, I use color to indicate each week, assignment content locations, spanning of assignments across multiple days/weeks, and to highlight important assessments.Also, where possible, consider including hyperlinks from the Course Schedule directly to assignments or resources students will need. If the documents are publicly available on the web, linking is quite easy. However, hyperlinks become much less useful if the materials are locked on a Learning Management System or within online learning environment where authentication is required for access. Typically, linked URLs will not be passed through after a login, making hyperlinking to materials behind locked systems much less useful.

Another feature of spreadsheets that is very useful is the ability to "freeze" rows and columns. Placing heading information in a "frozen" column or row allows a student to scroll through the Course Schedule without losing access to the header.

For the same reason Course Schedule information is best separated from the Syllabus, details for specific assignments also should be separated. Including detailed instructions for assignments within the Syllabus makes the document very cumbersome to use by the students, while diminishing what I believe is the principal function of the Syllabus - to describe course policies and procedures. Also, creating separate instructions affords the instructor the flexibility to change or adapt an assignment's instructions depending on course or student needs, without having to alter the Syllabus directly. Over time, if the course is taught again, assignments are more likely to change rather than course policies or procedures, so having that flexibility makes future preparation and course deployment easier. Further, by creating separate instructions for assignments, these separate assignments can be hyperlinked on a Course Schedule, giving students direct access to the assignment without having to wade through a lengthy Syllabus to find the assignment information.