On the first day of classes, I, like other instructors, share either a hard copy or electronic copy of the course outline with students. (Actually, at McGill, the course outline must be provided to students during the first week of classes according to the McGill Charter of Students’ Rights (Chapter One, Article 10.2 – amended by McGill Senate 21 January 2009 – of the Handbook on Student Rights and Responsibilities, available as a PDF). I hope all students will be motivated to read it attentively on their own because it has information that is important for them to succeed at the course. But my hope has been repeatedly dashed. So, I tried a more directive approach: orally “walking” students through salient points of the course outline (can you say tedious?) and asking students to pose questions about anything that’s unclear. No questions. Great. It’s confirmation that I write clear course outlines. Probably not. More likely, students don’t have enough time to take in the content of this truly important document.
So, I switched approaches again. On the first day of class, students now have to engage in an awareness-raising activity whereby they have to find important information in the course outline. I’ve coupled this activity with another that allows students to learn to navigate the course website. I call the activity Find It in myCourses. It’s like an online scavenger hunt. From a list I’ve compiled over the years, I select 6-8 search questions that will draw students’ attention to important information in the course outline and to main features of the course website. Using a mobile device (e.g., laptop or tablet), students work in pairs or small groups to search for the answers. The activity takes 10-15 minutes of class time.
Find It in myCourses
Work in pairs or small groups to find the answers to the questions below. When you’ve finished, each pair or group should post the answers to the discussion forum in myCourses entitled Find It in myCourses. Include all group members’ names in the posting.
[Remember: I select only 6-8 questions.]
Find the course outline. Search it for the answers to these questions:
- Where are the assignments and assessments described? [I post the details and example assignments in myCourses, not in the course outline.]
- How should you submit your assignments?
- On which days will there be in-class quizzes?
- Will hard copy assignments be accepted?
- What’s the policy in this course for submitting late assignments?
- Where are the textbook and course pack sold?
- What does the policy on Academic Integrity say? Summarize it in 140 characters.
- How quickly will I (the instructor) reply to your e-mail or phone messages?
- What’s the policy in this course for the use of electronic devices in the classroom?
Return to the myCourses course home page and find the answers to these questions.
- What are the instructions for the first assignment?
- You will have online quizzes in this course. Find the Surprise Quiz. What’s the first question in the quiz? You don’t have to do the quiz.
- Find the supplementary course readings. What’s the title of the first reading?
- Which of the Quick Links are you most likely to use on a regular basis? [I’ve created a Quick Links widget for the home page.]
- What information is in the calendar under today’s date? [Assuming you’ve posted some information.]
- What information appears under Announcements? [Assuming you’ve posted some information.]
- Find the Email icon. Send me an email that says, “We’re really enjoying this activity.” [Humour can help establish rapport.]
I skim students’ answers before the next class to check that they’ve done the activity the way I’d hoped. To date, my hopes have not been dashed. If I do notice gaps in students’ ability to find the requisite information, I can address them in the next class or online by posting an “answer key.” I still state explicitly to students that it remains their responsibility to read the entire course outline, and I still provide students the opportunity to ask questions about the course outline and myCourses content.
While this approach to getting students to attend to important course information can benefit all students, it might be especially beneficial for students who are new to the university and/or unfamiliar with myCourses. This approach also encourages students to manage their course responsibilities. It makes it harder for students to say “I didn’t know which text to read” or “I couldn’t find the assignment instructions” or “I didn’t know we had a quiz today.” My hope is that students will be motivated and able to find the course information they need, thereby improving their chances of succeeding at the course.
How do you get students to pay attention to your course outline?
What features of your course website do you want students to pay attention to?
When preparing your course outline, check out McGill’s Course Outline Guide, which offers a template that you can use as you develop or revise your own course outline.
Interested in learning about the different myCourses features that are available? Check out McGill’s IT Knowledge Base: Index of Documentation for Instructors
Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!
(Photo credit: Owen Egan)