Preparing for Fall

First, a warm welcome to all of our new colleagues joining us at FSU this semester, and a warm welcome back to our returning colleagues. As we begin a new academic year in extraordinary circumstances, some things remain familiar: We’re preparing our courses, writing our syllabi, meeting our new students, and helping them to grow intellectually, professionally, and personally during our time together.

We’re glad that our weekly teaching tips will now resume their regular format. This first one is meant to serve as a brief guide to course design, so it is longer than usual, and there are many linked resources to explore as you work on designing your fall courses. At the bottom, you’ll find information about the Open Clinics we’re holding on Zoom the week of August 17th, so if you have a question or an idea you’d like to discuss, we will look forward to working with you then, and throughout the academic year.

As we plan for fall, the following are some important questions we can ask ourselves:

Who are our students?

On August 24, FSU will welcome a culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse class of around 6,000 talented first-year students, selected from over 64,000 applicants. This year’s admits had an average GPA of 4.3, an average ACT score of 30, and an average SAT score of 1331. 63% of the class made all A’s and B’s in high school, and completed an average of 9 AP, IB, AICE or dual enrollment classes. Approximately 25% are first generation college students , and about 27% are eligible for Pell grants. They come from 50 states and DC, as well as 66 of the 67 counties in Florida. Georgia, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Maryland are the states (beyond Florida) sending us the most students.

You can learn more about your own students in the first days of the semester by any number of means: surveys, writing assignments, or intro videos posted to Canvas. You’ll want to discover who they are as well as what they already know . Since many of our courses can’t meet in person, it will be more important than ever to learn about our students as people, and to humanize ourselves. In any semester, we might like to know about their interests, where they come from, what courses they’ve taken before, etc.

Teaching remotely, we also need to know about their technology access . Do they have sufficient connectivity and equipment for Zoom? Can they stream video? Do they have webcams? We might also want to know if they have privacy and freedom from distraction. Students taking their courses from their parents’ kitchens may feel less comfortable in discussion, and self-conscious about participation or even about the material they study. You can use a survey, a writing prompt, or both, to elicit this information. Your curiosity will show students that you care about them, and you can use what you learn to tailor assignments, examples, and policies.

What do they need to learn?

What do you really want your students to know or to be able to do when they’ve successfully completed your course? How will they be changed by the semester they spend with you? Will they make different connections, different decisions? We need to provide learning opportunities that will help them to grow and stretch , so some of your goals may address mindsets, perspectives, values, or habits, as well as concepts.

Working backwards from meaningful, relevant goals for student learning will help you craft a powerful course. When we allow a reading list or textbook, rather than our goals, to shape our course design, we tend to pack in too much, so we don’t leave room for students to grow as thinkers. Learning requires reflection , practice, and feedback—so (paradoxically) too much content can hamper learning (Nelson, 1999). Especially during this challenging semester, when many students will be taking courses remotely, it’s important that we don’t just dump unmanageable quantities of content on them. Instead, we need to think about how we’re creating opportunities for them to develop their reasoning: solving problems, analyzing case studies, reflecting on values.

How will we know they’re learning?

After you’ve fine-tuned your goals, you can take a closer look at the alignment amongst the goals, the ways you attempt to measure students’ progress, and the practice  and feedback they get along the way. Assignments and exams are some of the ways we gather evidence of students’ learning, and help them evaluate their own progress. Fink (2003) points out that “when we become clear about what constitutes successful student performance, it is much easier to develop effective teaching/learning activities.”

As we plan for this fall, we’ll also need to determine whether the exams and projects we might typically use in face-to-face courses will work as well in our current circumstances. If they won’t, you can change your approach to assessment by thinking about this question: How can students best show you what they have learned, or can now do, or now believe because they took your course? The Office of Distance Learning provides a helpful resource featuring a variety of alternatives to in-person proctored exams, and we are also available to consult with you about your plans for assessing students’ learning this semester.

How can we make the most of their time?

The work we ask them to do, whether individually or together, should provide frequent opportunities for students to get practice and feedback. As Terry Doyle (2011) reminds us, “the one who does the work does the learning.” The more students have to do—the more they have to think through, puzzle out, solve, inquire, explore—the more they’ll learn. When we let students do the work, we guide them through the thinking processes we want them to practice, but they have to do the thinking for themselves.

Making that thinking “visible” will require students to talk, write, and collaborate. Classroom Assessment Techniques offer opportunities for practice and feedback during times when class “meets,” and many work both online and in person. Classroom response systems like TopHatand Learning Catalytics, and games like Kahoot  can help you create a loop of immediate feedback, letting you and your students gauge their progress and identify trouble spots, so that you can both get back on track.

How will we communicate with them about their learning?

Your syllabus is the document that introduces students to your course design. It’s their first (written) point of contact with your course, and you can craft it to be a learning guide. (The ever-longer list of course policies and any abstruse language added to conform to accrediting standards can wait until the end of the document, or occupy an easy-to-find place on Canvas. That way your syllabus can be an opportunity to motivate your students.) Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do (2004), describes a “promising syllabus ” as one that makes a promise to students about what they can expect to gain as a result of the class; describes the course activities designed to fulfill this promise; and “begins a conversation about how the teacher and the student would best come to understand the nature and progress of the student’s learning.”

Your grading criteria are also an important form of communication (Cox, 2009). By assigning points to the work students need to do in order to learn effectively, you instruct them how to use their time. If all of the weight rests on a couple of exams or major projects, students will be very likely to cram for these high-stakes tests, rather than keeping up with daily work.

A learning-centered syllabus includes learning goals that students can understand and value; descriptions of all major assessments and their relation to the learning goals; and a sense of how the class will be conducted to support their learning–all phrased in a positive, respectful, and inviting way. You can use this checklist to make sure your document sets the tone for a productive, learning-filled semester.

If you’d like to discuss your course design, get help crafting assignments or group exercises, get feedback on your syllabus, or think about how you want to accomplish things remotely, please consider attending one of our upcoming Open Clinics: On Monday, August 17, from 1:00-3:00, and Tuesday through Friday, August 18-21, from 10:00-12:00 and 2:00-4:00, we’ll be available to work with you on any issue related to teaching. You can drop in at any time during the clinic. Here’s the Zoom link.

We look forward to working with you. Welcome Back!