Dr. Aaron Kashtan developed a classroom activity that has students read syllabi while also introducing some of the critical thinking skills he would be teaching throughout the semester. I taught his idea on the second day of my classes. The results were not as expected, but the impact was greater than I anticipated.
Assignment for Second Day of Class Developed by Dr. Kashtan
Compare the syllabus for this class with the syllabus for some other class you’re taking this semester.
What are some similarities and differences?
What information is included in one syllabus but not the other?
What policies are different between the two syllabi? Why?
General Benefits of Assignment
What especially impressed me about Dr. Kashtan’s assignment was that it was positive. Students are engaged in a comparison/contrast/analysis activity that facilitates reading the syllabi for more than one class.
Specific Benefits of Assignment
When I taught this assignment on the second day of class, students were engaged with the syllabi. I had printed out Dr. Kashtan’s questions on a handout and students were intent on filling it out. Even though I kept repeating that it was fine for them to talk with each other, discussion did not begin until after they had become comfortable that they understood the context of both syllabi they were analyzing.
I was not surprised that the initial small group discussions sometimes turned to issues other than the syllabi; something I do consider to be a benefit on the second day of class. My fear that students would ignore the syllabi questions was not realized.
When it came time to discuss the syllabi as a class, I was able to reinforce my goals for the course while also supporting my colleagues. For example, because my syllabi also serve as course packs running from 35-45 pages, students commented that there was much more detail in my syllabus. In response, I asked, “Does that mean that your other professor will not provide details later this semester?” The answer, of course, was “No.” A discussion of various teaching styles followed.
During the discussion, I was able to elaborate on the points students were making. Because my comments were in the context of issues students had just raised, the students were interested in hearing my comments.
I must confess that I was initially disappointed that there was not a livelier discussion of the questions that Dr. Kashtan raised when we discussed the syllabi as a class. I should have anticipated this because, on the second day of class, students are still learning my expectations and are not yet as comfortable with their colleagues as they will become as the semester progresses.
I rearrange my classroom so that students sit in small groups throughout the semester. Therefore, my initial disappointment was alleviated when I realized that the geography of the classroom had caused significant learning to take place during preliminary small group discussions. If colleagues who have a more traditional classroom arrangement were to adopt Dr. Kashtan’s assignment, I would encourage them to have the students rearrange themselves into small groups before trying to have a full class discussion.
The Potential for an Uncomfortable Moment
While listening in on the small group discussions, I overhead a team talking about a fairly significant error in the syllabi of one of my colleagues. Had this team brought up this difference between the two syllabi, I would have had to state that my colleague had included factually incorrect information in their syllabus. Fortunately, the issue was not raised in the full class discussion.
Even though the discussion did not progress as anticipated, I believe that having the students do the assignment designed by Dr. Kashtan was worth the time and it is an assignment that I am likely to repeat next semester. Not only did it cause students to familiarize with the syllabus for my class, it also assisted my colleagues as students read their syllabi as well.
After the second day of class and before the third day of class which has not yet taken place, I have had several students contact me concerning assignments that are due on Day 3. The sample size is small, but about 75% of the students whom have e-mailed me questions have specifically mentioned that they consulted the syllabus before contacting me. I have never had so many students tell me that they checked the syllabus before asking their questions.
–Steven L. Berg, PhD