By Doug Ward

The end of a semester is always hectic, but it’s important to spend time reflecting on your classes while things are still fresh in your mind.

Did students learn what you had hoped? If not, what do you need to change the next time you teach the class? What activities or assignments led to unexpected results or fell short of your expectations? What readings did students struggle with and how can you help students grasp them better? What discussion areas resulted in a mostly silent classroom? What elements of your syllabus did students find unclear and need revision?

Those are just a few things to consider. Now is good time to make some notes because by the time you get to a chapter or assignment or module or discussion next time, you will struggle to remember exactly what changes you had planned to make.

Ashley Herda, assistant professor of health, sport and exercise sciences, has found a great way to reflect on her teaching and to make sure she is ready the next time she teaches a class. She calls it a living syllabus.

A SEMESTER’S WORTH OF LOST AND FOUND. Students leave behind a lot of things in the large lecture halls in Budig Hall each semester. Water bottles and lunch bags are always plentiful, as are notebooks and books. It’s not unusual to see keys, flash drives, watches, glasses, shirts, student ID cards, passports and even credit cards. This is in addition to perhaps a dozen coats and jackets and even a stray soccer ball (upper left). Hmm.

Herda explained her approach during a workshop at the Edwards Campus last week. She said the living syllabus worked like this: After she distributes the course syllabus to students, she sets aside a copy for herself and makes digital notes on it during the semester. If students find something unclear, she makes changes in the syllabus in edit trace immediately. If an assignment takes far less time than she expected, she highlights a section of the syllabus and makes notes in bubbles to the side. If there are problems in grading, she reminds herself right in the document.

This approach makes it easy for her to make adjustments for a future class, she said. Rather than starting from scratch each time, she has the living syllabus ready to go.

I love the idea of a living syllabus. The name perfectly captures the idea of a course in a state of constant improvement. It also turns the syllabus into a means of reflection, not just an artifact of a class.

During the workshop, other instructors explained their own approaches to reflection and course improvement. John Bricklemyer, lecturer in engineering and project management, jots down notes after each module in the online classes he teaches and frequently shares his thoughts with other instructors. Lee Stuart, leadership programs manager on the Edwards Campus, includes a reflection component for each assignment that asks students for their feedback on the assignment. That helps him get a better sense of places where students are struggling or of assignments that might be too easy or that are not meaningful.

Like others, I have long made notes about classes and assignments during the semester. I usually do this in a OneNote file where I keep a class outline, readings and notes. I also build in reflection assignments in each course I teach and ask students to evaluate themselves and the course. When I teach in person, I usually spend part of the last day of class talking with students about the strengths and weaknesses of the class. I’m candid about strong and weak areas I saw in the course and students are generally forthcoming with their own thoughts.

The method of reflection on a course is less important than the act of reflecting, though. The disciplines we study and the courses we teach are dynamic and need continual oversight. Students change. Materials change. Our understanding of the subject matter changes. Needs of a department change.

Imagine how vibrant teaching might be if all instructors embraced the philosophy of a living syllabus. It’s a worthy aspiration.

Guidelines for successful brainstorming

A recent article from Innovation Excellence offered what it called the four rules of brainstorming. The idea of rules for something as freewheeling as brainstorming seems a bit odd, but I can see the logic in establishing some guidelines.

Innovation Excellence attributed the rules to Alex Osborn and his book Applied Imagination, published in 1953. Here they are:

  • Go for quantity over quality, because we know the best way to get good ideas is to just start with lots of ideas.
  • Withhold criticism, or “no idea is a bad idea.”
  • Encourage wild ideas; just freewheel and go crazy? (Sort of the point of rule two.)
  • Combine and improve upon ideas.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.