Category Archives: 2. Featured Articles

Students Not Reading Your Syllabus? Try One That’s Accessible

We’ve all had to stifle eye rolls when students ask about a due date or reading assignment, silently thinking IT’S ON THE SYLLABUS! But perhaps our students avoid our course bibles because they have become dated or resemble the small print on contracts or user agreements that nearly everybody skips over. That’s where the accessible syllabus comes in.

An accessible syllabus is based on universal design to enable people of diverse skill sets to engage with it. To do so, an accessible syllabus will contain four elements instead of the standard onewords: images, text, rhetoric, policy. Below is the purpose of each element.

Images. The idea behind using images on a syllabus is the same as inserting images into any document: It allows the reader to skim the content and quickly absorb information. In a syllabus, instructors may choose to include images of the text or its authors, word clouds that support course objectives, a pie chart to show the distribution of final grades, or even a table of contents. Whichever is chosen, images should always serve a specific purpose.

Text. Text cannot be omitted, but the accessible syllabus uses principles of design to break up large blocks of type: bulleted lists, chunked sections, and hyperlinks. A text-heavy syllabus can be greatly improved by using a few strategies. First, cut down the amount of text. For example, if you currently include all course assignments in the syllabus, put them in a separate space or create hyperlinks to them. Likewise, eliminate codes of conduct and the like by creating hyperlinks that connect to those policies on your institution’s website.

Next, make text more readable by dividing it into several columns and keeping paragraphs to no more than 4-6 lines. Use bold face to highlight important key words. Stick to sans serif type for online versions and use 1.5 line spacing. Finally, organize the document to facilitate quick information retrieval. Create a table of contents, headings, bulleting, and enumeration.

Rhetoric. The prose in the accessible syllabus should avoid punishing language and create invitations rather than commands. For example, instead of “late assignments may not be accepted,” write “I’ve found that turning work in on time helps prepare you for success in the workplace, so late work may not be accepted.”

Policy. The final element of the accessible syllabus may affect instructors’ pedagogy. Some research points to the notion that students do better when they have some degree of control in their learning, so course policies that offer students choices become part of accessibility. Inclusive pedagogy—in which the learner and instructor work together—can be manifested in an accessible syllabus in several ways. Instructors can include an inclusive learning statement that voices the instructor’s desire for student success and asks students to discuss accommodations they may need, which may include adjusting due dates or providing extra time for exams.

We’ve included some links to resources for creating an accessible syllabus. Tell us about your strategies and your institution’s guidelines!

The Accessible Syllabus Website

Temple University Accessible Syllabus Template

Stanford’s Designing an Accessible Syllabus

Avoid Burnout—Here’s How

Teaching college can be a burnout profession, especially for adjunct faculty with heavy class loads or tenure-track professors balancing research and publishing. Last month we wrote about student anxiety, so as we close out academic year 2018-19, it seems appropriate to address how college instructors’ demanding jobs can lead to teaching fatigue, and how to avoid it.

Between prep for multiple classes, mandatory administrative duties, the tyranny of endless grading, and the necessity for continuing professional development, it’s hard to stay fresh. Add needy students and the constant pressure of student evaluations, and it’s little wonder the flame that drew us to teaching flickers from time to time.

But who among us wants to be the instructor who looks bored before the semester starts, whose lack of enthusiasm kills even the most energetic student’s drive? To help you recharge before greeting your new students in the fall, we’ve put together some strategies that may help you approach your job differently next academic year.

Manage student expectations. Tell students early in the term that you are not available 24/7, and set policies for responding to student e-mails. You might, for example, tell students that you’ll reply to their questions within 24 hours and encourage them to connect with classmates to ask questions about assignments or missed class. Preserving time away from your students—protecting your downtime—is crucial to avoiding burnout.

Remember why you became a teacher. It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day details: meetings, institutional requirements, administrative duties, and the like. Try to tap into what drove you to academia in the first place. Regularly remind yourself about the positive aspects of your job.

Develop efficiencies. Examine your workload and see where you might make changes that will ease your load. Perhaps you can develop rubrics that make grading a little less time consuming or drop one or two assignments. If you’re a researcher, maybe it’s time to slow down and engage with your job in a different way. Sometimes changing just one element of your routine can make an immense difference and help you feel less drained.

Be ready for under-prepared students. A common source of instructor burnout is dealing with students who are unprepared for academic rigor. While you cannot control your rosters, you canshow students that academic rigor is in their best interest because it helps prepare them for their futures as members of the workforce. By doing so, you can feel good about helping to create a generation of resilient learners.

Pursue positivity. Think about one or two positive events each day and reflect about why they were important. Research shows that this simple activity leads to less depression and improved satisfaction.

Weed out the negative. Track what adds to your energy level and what diminishes it. Add more of the activities that bring personal satisfaction and eliminate those that drag you down.

And last but certainly not least—take it easy over the summer!


Have you experienced burnout? How have you overcome it? Tell us your story.

 

 

 

This is very good! Should we name a source? Or sources?

 

Our Students are Anxious: Should We Help?

by Janet Mizrahi

At the beginning of this term, I was notified that I had a disabled student in one of my courses. Soon thereafter, the student approached me, quaking and with brimming eyes, to discuss her crippling anxiety. She told me there might be weeks at a time when she could not attend class and asked for accommodations, which I agreed to. Nevertheless, by the third week of the quarter, the student wrote me a heartbreaking e-mail, telling me she had to drop the course and perhaps drop out of our university entirely.

Just this quarter I’ve had several other less dramatic incidents, all involving students’ anxiety. In my 20+ years of teaching, I have never experienced such a degree of student distress, and I find myself ping-ponging between empathy over their anguish and irritation when I wonder if I’m just witnessing another example of “generation snowflake.” But I always come back to the same conclusion: As a classroom instructor, I am on the front lines, and therefore I haveto do something. But what?

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education discussing the subject, Brian Rosenberg, President of Macalester College, says it helps to consider our students’ life experiences. He examines the preponderance of fear and worry plaguing our students and offers some explanations for what many consider to be a lack of resilience.

Today’s students, Rosenberg notes, grew up in a post 9-11 world where they have been instructed to be forever on the lookout for anything “suspicious.” They live in a world in which schools seem to be prime targets for maniacs with guns. They’ve seen our financial system collapse and have the sad distinction of being the first generation expected to be less well off than their parents.

Likewise, many of our students are the first in their families to attend college, and once faced with the tasks of managing classes, homework, and jobs, find that they struggle just to eat and pay their rent, no less buy their books and study. And let’s not forget the never-ending posturing on social media these kids face. While every generation has to deal with issues unique to its time, there’s no denying this generation has a full plate.

Many colleges have acknowledged students’ mental health needs by adding services, but often, they simply don’t have enough resources to handle all the students who need help, leaving us, their instructors, to deal with a level of stress and anxiety we have never seen, and for the most part, have not been trained to deal with.

Student anxiety doesn’t look as though it is going away anytime soon. Below are some tips for helping them cope.

Incorporate positive psychology into your classroom. In a nutshell, positive psychology focuses on what is right rather than what is wrong. In the classroom this can translate to instructors helping students move away from their fear of failure to the expectation of success through hard work. Instructors can also remember to comment on what students have done well on an assignment instead of marking only what was done wrong.

Know Campus Resources. Often students are simply unaware of the resources available to them. By listing your campus resources for mental health, financial issues, food insecurity assistance, and tutoring, you can steer your students toward the help they need.

Be flexible.  It may be helpful to remember that mental illness is just that—an illness. Making reasonable accommodations can help a student achieve success.

Understand signs of medication side-effects. That student yawning or late to class may be suffering the side-effects from psychotropic medications. Rather than assuming the student does not care about class or is being disrespectful, consider another scenario in which the student is doing his or her best to cope with a mental disability.

In the end, of course, we are not mental health professionals. While we can certainly attempt to accommodate students who are experiencing anxiety, sometimes the best we can offer is a sympathetic ear.

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Have you experienced an uptick in students’ anxiety? Share your story.