Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine
Winter 2017-18

How to Engage Students With Your Course Syllabus and Content

Education, Training, and Career Development (ETCD) Council corner

Amy G. Huebschmann, MD, MS, ETCD Council chair

In each issue of Outlook, look to the ETCD Council corner for information related to our mission, which is to provide SBM members with opportunities and support to enhance their training and career development throughout all phases of their careers in behavioral medicine. The focus of this ETCD Corner segment is on effective teaching strategies, including how and why teachers should develop a good syllabus.  I interviewed a panel of members from our ETCD council to get their insights. This topic is timely as the ETCD council is currently working with the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) to connect SBM members with the resources that STP maintains on their website. 

ETCD Council panelists:

  • Jamie Bodenlos, PhD, Department of Psychology, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
  • Vicki DiLillo, PhD, Department of Psychology, Ohio Wesleyan University
  • Barbara Stetson, PhD,  Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Louisville

ETCD Council: Why is it important to create a good syllabus? 

Summary of panelists’ responses: The panelists agreed that a good syllabus is very important for numerous reasons.  Each commented that it serves as a roadmap for students to understand the expectations and pacing of the course.  In addition, they noted that planning a syllabus has several potential benefits for the instructor, including engaging students with the material and mapping learning goals with assignments.  Here are some of their specific comments on the importance of a good syllabus:

Dr. Bodenlos: As the instructor, a good syllabus helps me to formulate my plan to the course. I make sure that my assignments and course plan line up with the learning goals. The syllabus also communicates expectations for the course to my students. It is our map for the semester which is why it is critical for it to be well thought out. It is the most important document for the course.

Dr. DiLillo: My overarching goal for a syllabus is to let students know very specific course expectations, including learning objectives; course content, assignments, assessments, and evaluations; classroom behavior expectations; as well as responsibilities for me as an instructor. I strive to be explicit at the outset to avoid any later misunderstandings.

Dr. Stetson: A highly organized syllabus up front makes the actual delivery of content and development of assignments and exams much easier for the instructor. A good syllabus also sets the tone for the class. By conveying enthusiasm for the topic and the relevance of the material, student engagement may be enhanced. Up to date syllabi are also critical to keep up with changes in the field, current events and even accreditation standards for programs (e.g., American Psychological Association site visitors review all course syllabi and comment on depth, breadth and timeliness of graduate level syllabi readings).

ETCD Council: What are some challenges you have experienced when developing a syllabus for a course that you are going to teach for the first time?  What advice do you have for others who are developing a syllabus for a new course?

Summary of responses: The panelists agreed that there are many challenges when developing a course —each panelist commented that predicting the optimal pace of a new course is particularly difficult, as it is difficult to accurately judge how long it will take to cover a particular topic. In terms of advice to address these challenges, most panelists suggested reviewing an example syllabus from colleagues who teach a similar course, as this provides a starting point on what is typical for the learners at this level in terms of course content, assignments, and pacing. The need to tailor the pacing of the class to the level of the learners was another common theme.  Each panelist also comments on some specific challenges and potential strategies to address them:

Dr. Bodenlos: The learning goals are always challenging when developing a course for the first time.  Go over your learning goals and assignments with a colleague or someone in your teaching and learning office to get some feedback. It’s often helpful to put multiple course assignments on a large calendar to take a look at when assignments and exams are to spread out grading.

Dr. DiLillo: The first time I teach a course, my biggest challenge is predicting the pace.  To address this, even when I’ve taught a course several times, I build in one or two catch-up days during the semester to allow some built-in flexibility.

Dr. Stetson: Two other challenges include: a) keeping large classes continuously engaged while also covering core content; b) teaching undergraduate courses with enrollees who have a wide range of backgrounds and skill levels. By getting to know the student populations, these challenges may be met with a range of assignments, such as letting students choose between assignments (in some cases), and assignment exam options that play to the strengths of various students. To keep learners engaged, it helps to use interactive approaches during class. Encourage attendance and emphasize the importance of critically thinking about the content in each class, as learners will otherwise tend to simply focus on exams. Be sure to clarify how students will be evaluated and policies on accepting assignments.    

ETCD Council: Going beyond the syllabus, what advice do you have about developing a course?

Summary of responses: The panelists agreed that educators should not expect to “nail it” the first time they teach a course. Rather, they all recommended adapting the course to student feedback.  The panelists also shared insightful recommendations on some specific ways to track and incorporate students’ feedback, and other tips on developing an outstanding course:

 Dr. Bodenlos: I always save a copy of my syllabus labeled “future classes” and keep notes/comments throughout the document to remind myself of what worked, what didn’t, and what I want to change the next time I teach the course. Also, make material relevant for your students, whether you have them monitor their own health behaviors or you bring in guest speakers from the field. When students reflect on how the material relates to their life and their own behaviors, that is often just as helpful as real world case examples, and it’s more personal.

Dr. DiLillo: In my opinion, it’s critical to know both your goals for the course and your student audience.  For example, teaching health psychology to first and second year pre-physical therapy students in a large lecture course is very different from teaching health psychology to more advanced psychology majors in a seminar format.  I find it helpful to go to the teaching and learning literature to identify any particular pedagogical strategies that are particularly well suited for the course I’m developing.  Furthermore, I always view my courses as works in progress. In particular, I see my first iteration of a class as a bit of an experiment. I make my best educated decision about content, pacing, assessments and assignments, and modify subsequent versions of the course based on student feedback and course-related data I collect during the semester.  

 Dr. Stetson: Consider using a blend of existing textbooks and curated journal articles. Online resources such as TED Talks and YouTube© videos can be immensely helpful for anchoring readings and engaging students. It is useful to gather student feedback about course content throughout the course. For example, administering open-ended fill-in/short answer recall items at the end of class, is a helpful way to ascertain the degree to which students understand what was actually covered, and whether the content you are covering is at the appropriate level. For undergraduate teaching, this can also supplement the class participation evaluation. I also advise instructors to be very clear about course policies and encourage students to be proactive in their instructor communication (e.g., during class, before and after class, during office hours, email).