In this issue:


Course syllabus: What do students use?

What information do students use on a course syllabus? There is lots of advice on how to set up a course syllabus but not much is known about what information students actually use. Becker & Calhoon (1999) asked 863 students in 19 sections of introductory psychology from 4 U.S. institutions how much they would attend to 29 syllabus items. They asked the students on the first day of classes before they received their introductory psychology syllabus and again during the last week of classes. The 29 syllabus items were taken from published literature that listed items to include on a syllabus. Students rated how much attention they paid to each item on a Likert-type scale from 1 (no attention at all) to 7 (a great deal of attention).

The items that received the most attention (arbitrarily defined for this newsletter as a mean rating score of 6.0 or more), in descending order, were: examination or quiz dates, due dates of assignments, reading material covered by each exam or quiz, grading procedures or policies, type of exams and quizzes (e.g., multiple choice, essay), dates and times of special events that must be attended outside of class, number of examinations and quizzes, kind of assignments (e.g., readings, papers, projects), and class participation requirements.

Items rated in the 5 range were: amount of work; whether extra credit can be earned; make-up policy; late assignment policy; attendance policy; schedule of topics to be covered; course format (e.g., lecture, discussion, classroom activities); where to obtain materials for the class (e.g., texts, readings, lab materials); days, hours, and location of class meetings; prerequisite skills and course work; course goals and objectives; holidays; course description; instructor information (i.e., name, title, office location); available support services (e.g., tutoring, computerized study guides); and instructor office hours.

Only one item was rated in the 4 range and in the lower 4 range at that. That item was academic dishonesty policy. A few items: course information (course number and title, section number), drop dates, titles and authors of textbooks and readings all were rated below 4.

Not surprisingly, students are very interested in evaluation procedures and timing of assignments and exams. Students also pay attention to general course organization and policies. In discussing their results, the authors say "Students in introductory-level psychology classes pay little attention to information they can find elsewhere (e.g., textbook information is available at the bookstore)." These results were from the information collected on the first day of the class. The authors also examined a number of other variables such as first-semester or continuing students and whether they were of traditional age. Small, but significant, differences were found in some of these variables. There were also small but significant differences in some of the items from day one of class to the last week of class.

The authors provide some advice on structuring your syllabus. "You might also consider eliminating syllabus information that neither you nor the students find particularly useful. One would expect that students would be more likely to read a concise yet relevant syllabus than one that is overly lengthy and appears to contain irrelevant information." They also suggest that instructors might remind students of some policies such as make-up and late policies during the term. 


Booking technology supported classrooms

There are a number of classrooms on campus that are equipped with network-connected computers and data projectors. If you need this kind of facility for your fall-term course, be sure to inform your timetable representative as soon as possible. Only a limited number of these rooms is available.


Posting of student grades

Recent revision to University of Waterloo's Policy 19 ("Access To and Release of Student Information") contains a new item III which discusses posting of student grades.

Item III reads: "Provided the identity of individual students is protected, an instructor may convey information about student academic performance (e.g. grades on assignments, mid-term or final examinations) by posting results in a public place such as an office door, bulletin board, or course website. Final examination and final course grades shall not be posted before the final examination period ends."

The complete policy can be found at: http://www.adm.uwaterloo.ca/infosec/Policies/policy19.html


Supervisory relationships

Supervision of undergraduate and graduate student research is an important, yet not often discussed, component of a university professor's job. Unfortunately, this is also a component that is not well understood by people outside the academy such as politicians who tend to view university teaching in the very narrow sense of classroom contact hours.

During the winter 2000 term, TRACE held a workshop on the topic of supervisory relationships. A handout was created for the workshop participants that might be of interest to you. The handout provides some advice, mostly taken from the literature, on how to create and maintain good supervisory relationships with your students. It includes sections on your approach to student research, your own experience as a student, possible supervisory styles, and the value of making your expectations clear and explicit, and your role in meetings with students.

The tip sheet also indicates some common problems for research students, such as poor planning and project management, writing up the project, etc. As well, it indicates some of the common criticisms of supervisors that research students make. These include too few meetings with students, too little direction, etc. And it provides some indicators for students at risk such as postponing meetings and procrastinating on writing. 


Preparing students for group work

(by Torsten Nelson)

Planning term group projects can be a daunting task. How can we help to ensure their success? On February 16, 2000, TRACE ran the workshop "Preparing Students for Group Work." The goal was to help instructors and teaching assistants (TAs) plan for these projects by preparing their students for working in groups. For those of you who were unable to attend, here are some highlights.

There are many ways to form groups. The instructor can form the groups randomly or by matching students by some criteria (e.g., discipline, interests). Alternatively, students can form their own groups, but they should always be encouraged to look for partners with complementary skills. How large should each group be? Large groups are difficult to coordinate and make it easier for students to "hide" and not participate. The ideal group size is from 3 to 5 students.

At the workshop, we implemented a group activity called a jigsaw. This activity has two parts. In the first part, the participants are divided into groups and asked to discuss an issue. Different groups work on different issues. In the second part, new groups are formed containing a member from each discussion area from the first part. Now, each person presents the findings of the first group to the new group. The groups in our jigsaw activity discussed three different topics related to preparing students for working in groups: planning and running a meeting; group roles; and discussion skills.

Meetings are key events during group work, and there are several techniques for running them effectively. For example, they should be carefully planned in advance, with an agenda sent out to all participants. Discussions should be focused on one issue at a time, with clear time limits for each issue. And final decisions should be recorded and tasks assigned to group members, along with deadlines.

During a meeting, it is often helpful if group members assume different roles. Typical roles are facilitator/leader, note taker, timekeeper, mediator, presenter, devil's advocate, and idea generator. An important role is that of facilitator who does such tasks as keeping the group focused and encouraging participation from everyone. However, the facilitator's job is only possible if every group member works to develop group work skills such as active and tolerant listening.

A meeting is also the main venue for group discussions and decision making. However, discussions must be done in a structured fashion in order to be effective. At the workshop, we discussed various ideas and methods for opening a discussion, narrowing down solutions, and closing the discussion.

While group work is a great way to teach students to work cooperatively, problems may also occur. For example, a student may complain about doing most of the work, with little help from the group. This can be remedied by using an assessment method that takes individual participation into account and/or having groups write group contracts before starting their project.

Group work can be a great teaching aid when used effectively. It fosters cooperation instead of competition and teaches skills that are valuable in the workplace. However, it can be an unpleasant experience for both you and your students if not handled well. Taking a little time at the start of a course to give students some pointers about working effectively in groups can make a great difference. 


Voice training: A helping hand for professors

Imagine spending a term teaching in a concrete amphitheatre to more than 300 restless students. They talk during class, disrupting you (and their classmates) and making you increasingly nervous. Then add to this the fact that English is not your first language, and your accent becomes more and more pronounced as your agitation increases. Doesn't sound like an enjoyable teaching experience, does it? What could you do to get help?

TRACE provides individual consulting to help you deal with classroom management issues. But equally important in this case is that we also periodically run voice workshops for instructors on campus to help them increase their awareness of effective breathing and vocal techniques. A few faculty members have required more assistance, and in these cases, we have provided the opportunity for one-on-one coaching with the workshop facilitator, Anne-Marie Donovan. TRACE services are confidential, but one faculty member has been so successful as a result of this coaching that we asked for permission to share the story while maintaining the person's anonymity. Here it is...

The opening scenario is part of my story. I had lost much of my earlier enthusiasm for teaching by the end of that term. Why should I spend so much time preparing to teach only to receive such disrespectful treatment? It was discouraging and I felt somewhat bitter towards the students. My course evaluations were low and my accent was often cited as a major problem. I went to TRACE for help and learned that I could receive voice training. I thought, "Why not? It's worth a try."

I initially agreed to six one-hour sessions, which were paid for by TRACE. In the first session, Anne-Marie spent some time asking me about my situation and providing tips on classroom management. This conversation helped us to build rapport but it also enabled Anne-Marie to assess how best to help. Surprisingly to me, Anne-Marie indicated that my accent was not the problem; she could understand me perfectly well. Rather, the problem involved how I was using my voice.

Over the next three months, I learned how to support my breathing with my diaphragm. This technique taught me how to project my voice without straining or yelling. In my class, the more my students had talked, the louder I felt that I needed to talk. It was not sustainable, so I tried a microphone, but that only seemed to make my accent more pronounced. This new technique allowed me to speak loudly and clearly for extended periods of time without fatiguing my voice. I was beginning to feel more in control and less self-conscious about my accent.

I decided to continue with the coaching, paying for my lessons privately. In subsequent lessons, I did a variety of different exercises. One common one involved me reading aloud from texts (first ones from my discipline and then Shakespearean sonnets), with Anne-Marie correcting my pronunciation after a period of time. Another involved first reading aloud the vowel sounds in a text and then reading the entire text. I also received some specific training to learn how to make sounds that do not occur in my native language. In all of these exercises I was expected to continually practice my diaphragm breathing. I was also assigned "homework" exercises for daily practice - both diaphragm exercises and ones that helped to expand my vocal range. I continue to spend 15 minutes every day practicing these exercises.

The overall effect of the voice training is that I now have confidence in my vocal abilities. I continue to have an accent, but I know that my voice is clearer and audible even in the largest lecture halls on campus. And I do not have to make a conscious effort to make this happen any more.

What advice can I give to others? Most importantly, don't be too self-conscious. Anne-Marie will have you do a variety of exercises that could make a self-conscious person feel uncomfortable. But they are all well worth the effort, and if you cannot let yourself go, you may prolong the time needed to improve. As a coach, Anne-Marie is very kind and very patient. Her main goal is to help you improve your vocal abilities. I am certainly very grateful for her help and how it has positively affected my classroom performance and my attitude about teaching.

If you are a Waterloo faculty member and feel that you could benefit from individual voice training, please contact Gary Griffin in TRACE at ext. 2579.


Teaching assistant developer

Donna Cooper, TRACE's incoming teaching assistant (TA) developer, is an MA student currently enrolled in the language and professional writing program offered through Waterloo's English department. Donna's experience and interest in teaching span the area of academe and beyond. She is committed to teaching and learning as lifelong processes, and this commitment will assist her in fulfilling the responsibilities of her position.

Donna is a participant in TRACE's teaching certificate program, and looks forward to the possibility of an academic teaching position in the future. Enrolment in the certificate program has also allowed her to grow professionally and build upon her existing communication skills. As a TA developer, Donna looks forward to collaborating with her peers and offering them assistance over the next year, as various teaching methods and philosophies are explored.

Donna can be reached at extension 3408 or by email at dmcooper@artsmail.uwaterloo.ca and will hold office hours in MC 4052 every Tuesday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.


Active learning in large classes

You have over a hundred students in your classroom. What can you do to encourage active learning? Even given the constraints of a large class (and classroom), there are options available.

One relatively easy technique to implement involves asking questions. But avoid just asking knowledge- or recall-based questions since they do not encourage any discussion. With a definite right or wrong answer, they may also intimidate some students from participating. Instead, consider also including higher-level questions such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation questions (e.g., "How does x compare to y?", "What might happen if you combined a and b?"). You may also choose to use demonstrations, brainstorming activities, or quizzes. Course notes which include only section headings and a few key charts, tables, or lists require a significant amount of annotation by students and represent another tool to foster active thinking about the course material.

Another more structured activity is a think-pair-share in which you have individual students think (and perhaps write) in response to a question, problem, or issue, then turn to a partner to discuss their ideas. From there, pairs share their ideas with the whole class. You need only spend up to 5 minutes on the individual work, about 5 on the pair work, and 10-15 on the large group discussion. One way to strongly encourage students to attend to this activity and take it seriously was provided in a recent issue of College Teaching. In a short "Quick Fix" article, a professor from the University of Prince Edward Island explained that he randomly selects the work of about 15 students for submission at the end of the class each time he uses the activity. The probability of being selected is independent of whether a student has been selected on a previous day.  He has found that while this change is small (and does not significantly increase his workload), the results are significant. Students are silent when generating their individual ideas, they have more substantive discussion during their pair work, and more students volunteer to participate in the large class discussion.

Large classes may seem daunting and open only to straight lecturing, but you do have options for providing variety and active learning in your classrooms.  If you'd like to discuss any of these ideas, please contact Donna Ellis at ext. 5713 or Gary Griffin at ext. 2579.


Academic offences: How to avoid them

Cheating, plagiarism, and other forms of academic offences are usually detected by course instructors. Determining if an academic offence has occurred and dealing with it can consume a lot of your time. Are there ways to reduce the occurrence of academic offences or the time involved in dealing with them?

In February a small group (Emily Barnes, Veronica Chau, Matt Erickson, Marianne Miller, Catharine Scott, Robin Steward, and Jay Thomson) discussed issues and concerns regarding academic offences. These issues relate to confusion on the part of students regarding appropriate collaboration and reporting of group/team work, improper citations and footnoting, plagiarism, submission of the same work for two courses, etc. 

The group also noted that some students think that it is 'ok' to cheat to further one's academic career, some students believe they 'deserve' a degree, the time pressures on students are sometimes excessive, and there are perceived inconsistencies across campus in how academic offences are handled. 

The group created a document, Student Misconduct: What you Need to Know, to help students understand academic and non-academic offences.  University policy documents do not always describe offences in ways that are clear for students. A copy of this document is included as an insert to this newsletter.  You might find it helpful to use it in your classes. Given the results of the study looking at what students look at in a syllabus (see the first article in this newsletter), you might want to hand this out at a different time than the syllabus, such as, when you want to remind students of assignment or exam dates. This would also be a good time to make your policies on collaboration, etc. very clear. 

The group also came up with the idea of an assignment checklist. The idea of the checklist is that students would submit the signed checklist with assignments. The checklist has items such as: "I have referenced and footnoted all ideas, words or other intellectual property from other sources used in the completion of this assignment." 

The checklist informs a student about what is not acceptable and, therefore, makes it difficult for the student to argue that he/she did not understand what constitutes an academic offence. A copy of this form is also included as an insert to this newsletter. You may need to modify it for your specific needs. 

TRACE would be interested in your reactions to these materials.  Specifically, if you use them in your courses, what effect do they have?  Contact Gary Griffin with your feedback at ext. 2579. 


Announcing spring 2000 TRACE events

Workshops for the spring 2000 term
Assessing group work May 17 12 - 1:30 p.m.
Using writing as a learning tool June 13 12 - 1:30 p.m.
The juggling act: Balancing roles July 12 12 - 1:30 p.m.

For more specific details, watch for flyers in your department and via the Certificate listserv. If you would like to join the listserv, please email trace@watserv1. Each lunchtime workshop is followed by an informal discussion group one week following the workshop.

CUT participants, please note that all of these workshops partially fulfill CUT requirements for GS 901 and 902. The teaching dossier workshop is a required workshop for the CUT.


Conference notices

TRACE will be offering many interesting and informative workshops in the Winter term which are open to all Waterloo instructors. They are as follows:

STLHE Conference June 14-17, 2000 
Into the Millennium: The Changing Faces of Teaching and Learning Brock University, St. Catherines, ON

The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) is a national association of academics interested in the improvement of teaching and learning in higher education. 

[Return to Top]