Laura Gibbs

An UnSyllabus of Open-Ended Activities

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Aug 24, 2018

It's the end of a long but great week, and I wanted to write up a few notes here about the first-week experience before I forget!

What I want to write about is the syllabus in my classes.

Or lack thereof.


cat in tree

Who needs a syllabus? I'm busy EXPLORING.


Yes, I have a syllabus, because occasionally I am asked to submit that for some bureaucratic purpose (like if a student wants to get a course approved for their major, etc.). I put my syllabuses on-line:

Course Syllabuses 

And I keep them super-short (one page), because the audience for these syllabuses is really bureaucrats or maybe prospective students, not students who are actually in the class.


But what the students encounter when they start my classes is not the syllabus, but instead the Orientation Week. Here is a link: Orientation Week.

This IS the syllabus. You can consider the items listed below to be the syllabus, broken up into separate sections covering all the class procedures and guidelines. If you would like to look at a simple one-page overview in a more traditional syllabus format, you can do that here: course syllabus


The idea is that by working their way through these Orientation Week activities, the students are learning about the DIFFERENT ways they can design this course, and they are gaining skills and experience that will help them when the regular class activities begin in Week 2 and they are choosing what to read, what to write, what assignments to complete.


Even better, as the students complete these activities, I am learning more about them at every step, which is really just as important as the students learning about the class. It's a mutual thing: for this class to succeed, the students need to know what possibilities await them, and I need to know how they are reacting to those possibilities -- what are they excited about, anxious about, unclear about, etc. And I also need to know about their larger goals and personal passions so that I can start helping them to find ways to connect that existing motivation to things they could do and learn for the class.


Here's a quick overview of how that works assignment by assignment; where the assignment results in a blog post, as they all do after students create their blogs, you can browse through the blog stream and see for yourself!


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Design Your Course. There is a Google Form to fill out here, and when students tell me what 6 hours they want to use for the class, I show them how the weekly assignments can be arranged to fit that schedule. Any 6 hours will work! (They then review this schedule at the end of the week to see how it looks after they learn more about what is going on.)


Create Your Blog. When they send me their blog address, they let me know if they have blogged before. Most of them have not blogged before, so they might be a little bit nervous, but most of them are also excited to learn how this works... and pleased to find out that it is not really hard after all.


Picture a Favorite Place. (see their posts) This assignment is such a pleasure. People often go in completely different directions with it (from a full-blown fully illustrated travelogue to just a single picture, and it's all good; anything works), and I make sure to comment on these promptly. It lets me see if there is anything about blog posting that is causing them trouble (rarely happens, but sometimes they might need some tips), and I also start trying to build connections to the class content, especially the India class where the content might be totally unfamiliar. So if they post about loving the snowy mountains of Colorado (as many of them do), I comment back about the sacred places of the Himalayas that are part of the Indian epics, etc. This semester I learned that one student saw a moose in Montana, or maybe it was Colorado (anyway, it was definitely about a moose), and that the moose is his favorite animal, so of course I am already urging him to a do a Moose Storybook (something no one has ever done for my Myth class ever!).


Browse the Storybooks. (see their posts) This is also such a fun one to watch: the students browse past projects looking for inspiration. It's a way to get them ready for the idea of building a website in addition to having a blog, and also to see the range of storytelling that goes on in the class. The most important class content is what the students create, and so I am glad that the first piece of content they meet in the class is content created by former students. I learn a lot from seeing which projects attract the most attention. (The Twine-based Dungeons and Dragons choose-your-own-adventure project from last semester is, not surprisingly, getting a lot of attention, so need to write up some Twine Tech Tips!)


Introduce Yourself. (see their posts) I take a quick look at these as they go by, and I'll start commenting on all of those over the next two weeks. Right now, though, the main goal was to build the comment randomizer so students can start commenting on each other's posts! I got that up and running first thing this morning, and the students have indeed started commenting. That commenting assignment is not due until the end of next week, but some of them are really into the social aspect of the class and ready to start meeting their classmates right away, so I was really glad I got the randomizer up and running (here it is).


Learn about Growth Mindset. (see their posts) I love reading these posts. Some students have heard of Dweck before (especially if they work at a tutoring center on campus or do volunteer work with young people), but most students have not. Some students totally get it; some students are not so into it (like many teachers, they initially think that Dweck's "not yet" is a self-esteem thing, not realizing that it is about process and feedback... but they'll learn more about that next week)... and for some students, this assignment provokes a huge blog post, where they find themselves looking back over their school career in a wholly new way. What I learn from these posts can be a big help to me when I am giving students feedback about their writing and their websites (which is the main way I end up interacting with students in the classes each week).


More about the Class Assignments. (see their posts) This is another really useful assignment for me to learn about the students' interests, while also helping the students focus on how they will strategize from week to week. For some students, it is the extra credit options that will bring real meaning and value to the class, and that is absolutely fine with me. There are lots of different ways to look at the "extra" options in this class (do students need help maintaining a really impossible set of demands on their time? are they eager readers who want to read a LOT for the class? do they want to take this chance to learn more about web-based technology? etc. etc.).


More about the Class Tools. (see their posts) It really helps me to know what kinds of technology students are interested in, and it's also a big help to know if a student is feeling really anxious about the class being fully on-line and using technology tools that might be new to them. How much (or little) feedback I give people about the technical aspects of their blogs and websites often depends on what I learn about in this post (and from other clues they give me too).


Time Management. (see their posts) This is the last assignment of the week and it is designed to help students move smoothly into the regular assignments starting in Week 2. I ask them to look back at the tentative schedule I had suggested for them earlier, and they can decide if that still sounds good to them or not. Time management is often the single biggest challenge that students face in school, and I want to be as proactive and helpful about that as I can. I was delighted when I got this email from a student who wanted to share these same materials with his mentees in the freshman engineering program: yes!!!


screenshot of student email


I am always so happy if students can find those moments of transfer, connecting what we are doing in these classes to other aspects of their lives.


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And yes, that is a lot of assignments! It's that way every week; I use a "microassignments" approach to make the coursework more manageable, and also to help keep the focus while also building connections from one assignment to the next. In a sense, it becomes a kind of data analytics because the students' work in the class happens in these discrete moments, each time leaving behind a trace in the blog stream or blog comment stream or (later) at their class websites. To me, that is the data I need to do a good job as a teacher; for more about that, see a post I wrote earlier today about UX and observations.

So, I know some people advocate doing a syllabus-quiz or something to get students to engage with the syllabus. For me, though, I've found it best to just ditch the whole idea of a syllabus and turn the week into a series of learning activities. I really enjoy it... and I always hope that it can be enjoyable for the students too, while building lots of good momentum for Week 2. :-)