Things I Think About Before I Ever Walk Into A Classroom #2: What do I want my students to get out of my class?

This post deals with two issues: First, “What do I want my students to get out of this class?” and second, “How am I going to accomplish those objectives through course readings and assignments.

I. What do I want my students to get out of this class?

Truly, just about anyone can come up with a syllabus crammed full of cool readings and activities. It takes a professional, thoughtful, and reflective teacher to design a syllabus.

That’s right, I said “design”—that’s really what you’re doing when you are doing it right: you are designing a class, making deliberate choices that reflect the pedagogical aims and goals that you have for the class, for yourself as the instructor, and, most importantly, for your students.

In this post, I’ll talk a little bit about my ambitions for my students in one of the classes I teach, English 101. What do I want my students to get out of this class? The answer to this question can be very different, dependent upon the course subject matter, the student learning objectives you are working with, the level or type of class you are designing, and many other factors. But it is in your best interests to think about the matter carefully before you design your syllabus, because the goals and aims that you have for your students need to be reflected in the readings you choose, the assignments you create, and the assessments you use. If your entire syllabus doesn’t reverberate with unity of purpose, at some point things are going to be wobbly, or seem off-kilter, or be confusing to your students. (For example: you have allotted 35% of the final grade to an essay, 45% to exams, 5% to a group project, and 15% of the final grade to class participation, but you make the claim that “class participation is a highly values component of this course and students should actively participate in every class session.” Well, if class participation is so important, then why are tests and papers worth so much more? Or, let’s say you tell them you value revision, and their grade is partially based on their ability to revise their essays, but then you don’t allot any time in class towards either discussing in depth or, better still, practicing revision techniques, instead telling students to conduct revision on their own time to “preserve valuable class time.”) In such cases–and they happen all the time in college syllabi–what you’ve done is to not practice what you preach, and it gets confusing for the students–you SAY you are focusing on and interested in one thing, but then your class is designed in a completely different way. This makes it tough for students to feel like they can succeed in your class and worse, it often leads to their doubting their abilities in a broader sense, because “this is college” and “they should be able to do the work.” Well, if you’ve blown it in course design by not creating a class that speaks to the expectations you say that you have and the goals you tell them you’re trying to accomplish, that’s not their fault. This is the kind of thinking you need to be doing before you ever go into actual syllabus drafting, and it should be based on what you want your students to walk out of your class knowing/being able to do.

In my English 101 course, which I design and implement myself, but according to University Writing Program guidelines, the final product—the portfolio—must reflect a student’s clear growth and development as a writer over the course of the term. Students are required to include in this portfolio 20 polished pages of prose and a 4-6 page critical rationale explaining the choices they have made as writers in the individual pieces and their portfolio overall in pursuit of satisfying the course objectives. The course objectives for this class are as follows:

English 101 Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs):

At the completion of this course, students will be able to:

  1. Analyze the content and structure of complex texts (written, oral, and/or visual in nature);
  2. Compose cogent, evidence-based, argumentative texts;
  3. Identify and employ the rhetorical triangle, the canons, and the appeals in both formal and informal discourse;
  4. Summarize, quote, paraphrase, and synthesize source material in support of an argument;
  5. Employ drafting, peer review, and revision techniques in order to improve content, style, and structure of their own writing;
  6. Appraise their own composing abilities and composing processes through critical reflection.

So, I have my marching orders there—these are the student learning outcomes my students have to achieve in order to pass the course, and they must be reflected in the students’ final portfolios. BUT, this is only half of the puzzle—what my students need to accomplish according to University guidelines and standards in order to pass the class. It does not address the question posed in this blog post: what do I want my students to get out of this class?

In this class, I have four main things I want my students to walk away with:

  1. Confidence in their ability to think of a topic or subject, generate an argument from that topic or subject, and write a competent essay or generate a multi-modal essay or project making that argument.
  2. Knowledge of and hands-on experience with the University resources and assistance available to them to accomplish the first goal.
  3. Insight into their own composing practices and why they write, how they write, with a solid plan for how they can continue to work on areas in which they want to see improvement even after the class is over
  4. The ability to transfer the writing skills they learn in this class to their writing endeavors in any other course and beyond.

II. How Am I Going To Accomplish Those Objectives Through Course Readings and Assignments?

While these more personal objectives I’ve listed are corollary to the SLOs for the course, I think it’s pretty clear they are also distinctly different, student-oriented goals. They also inform the readings and assignments in my class in important ways; to wit:

First, I never tell my 101 students what they can and cannot write about, or give them a pre-determined topic or subject to write about, for their essays. I offer advice on what subjects I think might prove problematic for them, I offer prompts to get them thinking of what subjects and topics they are interested in, and I offer support while they develop a topic or subject into an argument—but I don’t say, “you can’t write about x, y, or z” or “for your first essay, write about A.” This is because my first goal for my students in this class is not for them to be able to respond to a professor’s prompt—they’re experts at churning out 5-paragraph essays on a given topic—but rather, for them to be able to independently select a topic or subject of interest to them and refine it into an argument that matters to them—a skill they can transfer to any course they take that includes an essay or research paper. So, there are no prompts or topics to write about on my syllabus; it simply says:

Essay One (SLOs 1-5): 5 pages, 10% of your final course grade

Essay Two (SLOs 1-5): 5 pages, 10% of your final course grade

Essay Three (SLOs 1-5): 6-8 pages, 10% of your final course grade

The assignment sheet for each essay gives a blueprint of the process students should use to create these essays, but again, there is no suggestion of what topic or subject they should choose. Over the course of the term, this forces them to be more thoughtful and deliberate in choosing essay topics that matter to them and refining them into manageable-sized arguments—a skill they will need in every class they take for the rest of their college career.

Second, I don’t just tell my students about the University Writing Center, Speaking Center, Digital Literacies Center, and Library; I schedule orientations with each of these offices within the first few weeks of class and during class time, and for the library research orientation they have an assignment that is tied to their first essay, so they get a hands-on opportunity to use the library research tools with a research librarian present to guide them through it. This way, I know that my students are aware of all of the assistance available to them to write their essays and improve their research and writing skills, and they know that I think it is important enough to use class time to make sure that they are aware of it. I remind them periodically throughout the term to take advantage of these resources, and point out that these are resources they can use for any class, not just my own. This demonstrates my support not only of their endeavors in my class, but of them as developing scholars in their own right, and that is one of my major focal points in teaching at this level.

In order to help them understand their own writing and composing practices, and to understand some of the issues they are dealing with and working through as writers, I include theoretical readings in my English 101 class. I know a lot of people who think the focus should be on writing, drafting, revising, and working on the portfolio, but I value process as much as product (as evidenced by the fact that class participation and the essay drafts count for the same percentage of the course as does the final portfolio.) Because I am focused on both the process and the product, I want my students to invest in the process as well. In order for them to invest in the process, they need to better understand what the class is trying to help them accomplish and work with and through. Readings like David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” or James Gee’s “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics” are helpful starting points for students who are trying to figure out “what academic writing is,” Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” is a reassuring text to read while one is in the throes of composing the first draft of a first-ever college-level essay, and although the majority of my students in this course are freshman, they are fully capable of understanding and even applying theory, with a little professorial assistance. One of the things I notice over the course of the term is how the students are able to make use of the theoretical texts we look at for their own purposes. For instance, I had a student who wrote a first draft of an essay on evolution that hinged on the argument that evolution isn’t a real thing because her religion said so. When I pointed out that her opposing argument—a scientific study—clearly proved that there was such a thing as evolution, she felt very stuck in terms of how to salvage her essay. Then we read Gee’s text, and she realized that the problem she was running into was a conflict between her primary discourse—the lifestyle values and beliefs she was brought up with—and her secondary discourse, academic writing and critical thinking. Her essay took a dramatic shift to discussing the difficulties college students face in negotiating multiple discourse communities when they conflicted with their personal values—a much better and easier argument for her to make, and resulting in a much better essay! I also see the students making clear and meaningful use of the theoretical texts in their portfolio rationales. It gives them a better language for talking about things like “I tried to sound smart” (“I was ‘inventing the University’”); “I had a really hard time figuring out how to make my roughdraft a polished final essay” (“I had to make a lot of rhetorical choices to get my ‘shitty first draft’ into a version I was proud of”) and so forth. It also models for them how to put into use the theory that informs academic thinking and discourse—and isn’t that what we’re trying to achieve?

Finally, when they go into revisions towards their portfolio, I ask them to do two things—the first, is to take one of the essays they have written over the course of the term and to turn it into a multi-modal essay, making use of at least three different modes—they can use Powerpoint, Prezi, video, podcast, blog post, Tweets, and the like—but they have to find a way to convey their argument in a form that is accessible to a general audience, but NOT a formal essay. This helps them reconceptualize their argument and present it in different (and sometimes, even better!) ways, a skill they can use in any class and even beyond class into the workforce. The second thing is to take one of their essays and rewrite it towards an audience in their major field of study—i.e. for nurses, for teachers, for scientists, for businessfolk, for athletic trainers, or whatever area they plan to go into. This helps them think about ways to transfer their writing skills to the service of a different discipline, going beyond English 101 and conceiving of their work as potentially meaningful to an audience beyond me and their peers. Additionally, I structure each week of class around a theme—ethics, minority experiences, relationships, pop culture, environmental issues—and every week, the students have to locate and summarize the rhetorical structure and function of an outside reading on the theme that is NOT formally English or Literature-based—so, scientific journals, magazines, newspapers, academic journals, personal essays, blogs, videos, podcasts, images, and similar. This practice forces them to find the theme for themselves (rather than having me just hand them the relevant readings) in places beyond the English classroom, and in turn, going beyond the classroom lets them further develop their ability to transfer their rhetorical skills gained in English 101 to real-life scenarios and experiences. In this work, I always encourage them again to try to find things related to their chosen major or field of study, so they can see more clearly how the skills they’re learning in my class can be used to support the work they are doing towards professionalizing in their chosen field.

So, that’s how I design my English 101 courses around what I want my students to get out of that class. The goals are very different for an introductory literature course, for a general survey literature course, for a topical course, for a seminar course, for a lecture course, for an online course. Every time you sit down to write a syllabus, you should start with the student learning outcomes that your college or University requires of your course, but also, with the basic question: what do I want my students to get out of this class? Your syllabus should, of course, then follow suit, as I have demonstrated above.

How about you? How do you decide what you want your students to get out of your class, and how do you design your syllabus to meet those needs?

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About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
This entry was posted in Course Development, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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