Do You Tell Your Students How to Succeed in Your Class?

Do You Tell Your Students How to Succeed in Your Class?

By Yana Weinstein

We’ve published several resource digests about syllabi – notably Weekly Digest #41: Preparing a Syllabus and Weekly Digest #64: Preparing a Learning-Focused Syllabus. However, what we haven’t done as much is talk about our own syllabi. Today, I wanted to tell you what I’m putting in the syllabus to help students succeed in my class (and, hopefully, beyond).

Confession: I have never done this before. I usually focus on giving students lots of retrieval practice opportunities throughout the semester – in-class quizzes, reading quizzes, and group activities that promote retrieval. But I’ve never thought of the syllabus as a place to start telling students about effective study strategies.

Why not? I guess I just didn’t know it was a “thing”. I thought syllabi were dry documents with lots of boring policies. The only part of the syllabus I really found useful was the course calendar. I figured most students just throw theirs away.

Image by Turinboy on flickr ((CC BY 2.0)

Image by Turinboy on flickr ((CC BY 2.0)

This semester, however, I was unexpectedly switched from teaching a class I’ve taught many times (Cognitive Psychology) to a class I have never taught (Introduction to Psychological Science). A new class is an opportunity to try new things, right?

Well…yes and no. On the one hand, I’m excited with the blank slate and would love to build a very effective, evidence-based approach to teaching this class from the ground up. On the other hand…I also have to figure out and create the material I’m teaching. I am realizing a new class does not lend itself very well to developing the most excellent pedagogy, because of this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 8.55.19 AM.png

So, I’m going with the low-hanging fruit. I will do daily quizzes, and some of them will be quizzing material from previous lectures. Here’s what I wrote in my syllabus about the quizzes:

In-class quizzes and attendance (20% of your final grade)

There are no attendance points, but there will be a low-stakes quiz in most classes. The quizzes may come at any time during the class, and may ask you about information you learned in the current class, or in a previous class, or something from your assigned reading. We are doing this because quizzes encourage you to bring information to mind from memory, and this is a very effective way to learn. This technique is called retrieval practice, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about it in this class.

Quizzing method: We will be using Plickers for all in-class quizzes. You will receive a Plicker card at the beginning of the semester. You are responsible for bringing this card to class and printing a replacement if it is lost or damaged. 

Scoring policies: If you answer all questions correctly, you will get 100% of the points for that quiz. Occasionally, there may be additional quiz questions for extra credit. If you answer all questions incorrectly, you will get 50% of the points for that class (a failing grade). If you do not attend or attend but do not answer any questions, you will get 0% of the points (a penalty). The lowest two quiz scores for the semester will be dropped from your total.

The Plickers, by the way, are something completely new that I’ve never tried before. I am nervous but excited about using this method for retrieval practice. The beauty of it is that unlike traditional clickers, there is no cost for students and they don’t need to have a smartphone.

Plickers.jpg

In addition to embedding these effective practices into my teaching, I also want students to be practicing them on their own. I’ll be giving them posters on 6 effective strategies for learning, and running a “how to study effectively” training session early on in the semester. However, I also wanted to put something about this in the syllabus – to be up front about how I’d like them to study for this class. Here’s what I’ve drafted so far:

How to read your textbook

What do you usually do when you are assigned a text book chapter to read? Read it carefully, maybe highlighting key terms? Skim it? Just look at the pictures? Not bother reading it at all? Try the following method, which is quite likely to be more effective than all of those options. It was devised by another student just like you, based on decades of research from cognitive psychology. Rachel Adragna created a “a step-by-step guide that will lead you through reading, note-taking, formulating questions, and practicing retrieval”. We’ll be practicing it in class, and you can read about it here:

http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/2/12-1

How to study

If you’ve read this far, you should have noticed that we’re using the term “retrieval practice” quite a lot. This strategy of bringing information to mind from memory is one of the most effective and efficient things you can do with your study time. There are many different ways to practice retrieval – you can write everything you know about a topic on a blank sheet of paper, maybe even draw, answer practice quiz questions, or play a game. For this particular class, I recommend that you create flashcards with the key concepts, as well as a set of instruction flashcards that tell you what to do with those concepts (e.g., draw, compare, describe). This way, you’re not just practicing remembering the definitions – you’re actively using what you know in new and different ways. We’ll be practicing this method in class as well. Check it out here:

http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/2/20-1

What to study

You have three exams in this class – two mid-terms and a final. All exams are cumulative, which means you will need to remember information covered throughout the semester – not just information covered since the previous exam. This means you need to be sure you’re doing spaced practice: repeatedly practicing information from a day, a week, and a month ago. Even if you feel like you’ve learned the information, don’t stop trying to retrieve it – studies have shown that practicing retrieval even after you’re able to produce the correct answer is crucial! This blog post explains how to study using spaced practice, and why cramming doesn’t work in the long run:

http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/7/21-1

I’d love to hear about what you all put in your syllabi to help your students succeed in your class. I’ve seen some great examples on Project Syllabus by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, but this seems like something that should be addressed in all disciplines!

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