Best Practices, Pedagogy

Is Your First Day of Class “Syllabus Day”?

At college campuses across the country, a new semester has begun, allowing us to once again begin anew.  Few professionals have the opportunity to start fresh every couple of months but professors, if they’re so inclined, can modify their classes every semester based upon self and student evaluations.  One part of teaching that I have consistently reflected upon is the very first day of classes.  How much time should I spend on the syllabus?  Are there any icebreakers that aren’t incredibly corny?  Should I teach course material that day?

Do I even need to go

If students’ social media posts are any indication, professors can’t seem to win:  if they spend time talking about the syllabus, students complain; if they launch right into course material, students complain.  Check out the Twitter hashtag #syllabusweek for a glimpse into the minds of our students.

So what’s a professor to do? Based upon my own experiences and those of many other professors I’ve learned from, here’s my advice:

Read Aloud

Don’t make the first day of class “Syllabus Day.”  Avoid reading the entire syllabus to students.  This is a waste of everyone’s time.  Students who care about their learning will read the syllabus on their own.  If you’re wary of putting that onus on students, include a syllabus quiz the first week or ask students to sign a syllabus contract.  Perhaps more importantly, why not write a syllabus that students might want to read rather than one that looks like a Terms of Service agreement.  For tips on making your syllabus more student-friendly, check out “Crafting a Learner-Centered Syllabus.”

Don’t let them go after five minutes.  What’s the point of meeting if nothing is going to be accomplished the first day?  I used to think students would perceive me as “cool” if I let them go after only a couple minutes.  Not so.  Most students felt their time was completely wasted.  Put yourself in their shoes.  If you were asked by a colleague to come to campus for a meeting then, after just a couple minutes, they said “Eh, let’s just continue this conversation later,” you’d likely be frustrated.

Only Lasted 5 Minutes

Focus the first class on making connections instead of giving directions.  Rather than spending 50 minutes telling students what they can and cannot do in your class, spend time getting to know one another.  That first day tells students a lot about who you are and what kind of teacher you will be.  If you spend it giving them “do’s and don’ts” they won’t learn much about you except you like rules.  According to Joe Kreizinger from Northwest Missouri State University, focus the first class on:

  • connecting students to instructor: put your teaching philosophy into student-friendly language and explain how you approach classroom management and student learning.
  • connecting students to content: explain why this class matters and how it applies to your students’ current and future lives.
  • connecting instructor to content: tell students the story of how you discovered your discipline.  How did you know it was the field for you?
  • connecting students to students: icebreakers can be corny, but they are also effective at forcing students to talk to one another rather than stare at their cell phones while they wait for class to begin.

Build icebreakers into the entire first week, even beyond.  Most professors include some type of “getting to know you” activity on that first day.  But the class roster doesn’t solidify until after the add/drop deadline.  Therefore, I suggest icebreakers are even more important during the third and fourth class periods.  This doesn’t have to take much time.  I typically incorporate self-introductions into roll call, asking students silly questions to make them chuckle.  I’m consistently surprised by the number of times students find unexpected connections: “Seamus Finnigan is my favorite Harry Potter character too!!!!”  Some students may be grumpy about icebreakers, which is understandable considering they do them in every class, but that encourages me to find new ones each semester.

I hope these tips help you design an engaging and productive first-week routine.  Best wishes for an enjoyable semester!

three people talking about iPads and Airsketch
1-1-1, Collaboration, Faculty Technology Institute, iPad, Mobile, Presentation, TLT

Guest Post: Using the iPad and AirSketch for In-class Activities and to Facilitate Discussions

Our guest blogger is Faye Hicks-Townes, a faculty member in Teacher Education.

I was a participant in the Summer 2013 Summer FIT.  Initially I was overwhelmed with the sheer number of available apps. Although I must admit I was impressed with AirSketch when I first saw it.  I wasn’t certain how I would use it in class, but I was attracted to the freedom it provided.  I could present, discuss, and highlight material without being tethered to the computer. I have used AirSketch in two types of assignments, a primary source analysis paper and in-class assignments requiring visual representations.

I am teaching a class that requires the use of primary documents for a writing assignment. Students are required to read and interpret primary source materials to respond to questions on the history of education in Charleston and the Lowcountry.  To help introduce my students to this type of material and I wanted to work with them as a group to facilitate discussion.  AirSketch fit this role perfectly.  The primary documents the students are using are located at the Avery Center and available on line in digital format.  I was able to download some of the material to use in class.  The material includes diaries, interviews, and minutes.  Many are handwritten. After downloaded examples, I was able to take pictures of the documents to share with students by using AirSketch.  To use AirSketch, I just had to open the app and type in the displayed URL into the computer in the classroom.  It was very easy and quick.  I then chose the document that I wanted to use.  Once I had the document up on the screen, I could walk through it with my students.  It was also easy to select a writing tool to highlight or circle specific information for discussion.  As the students asked questions or responded, I was able to give them my tablet so that they could also highlight or circle information.  The students did not have to get up from their seats and go to the front of the class.  They could respond, ask questions, or discuss while highlighting or even writing on the material on the screen.  I liked being able to focus on sections of documents by highlighting and circling.  The students and I had clarity throughout the discussion and were able to easily address areas of concern.

Using the iPad’s camera and mini scan was easier than making copies for students and it was very useful in facilitating discussion.  The students were more involved and I found it easier to interact with them.

I plan to continue to use the app for classroom presentations.  It is very easy to use and that’s definitely a plus for me.

This spring I have also begun to use AirSketch for classroom activities.  When we discuss philosophies, theories, and perspectives, I often ask students to create a visual representation of their views or their interpretation of others’ views.  For instance, I may ask them to create a visual of behaviorism or progressivism. In the past I have used ELMO to display these visuals.  It was a hit or miss.  Sometimes it worked well, other times, not so well. Now I have begun to use AirSketch.  I can take a picture of the student’s visual and display it.  The student can, from his/her seat, discuss the visual, and even make changes as the discussion continues.  The students do not have to present from a finished product.  They can create as they explain their thoughts.  I have found that some students are more comfortable sharing when they do not have to stand before the class.

I am pleased with AirSketch because it is easy to use and an effective tool for discussion and presentation.  I’m certain I will continue to find uses for it in my classes.  The only drawbacks I have experienced now are not being able to zoom in on sections of the pictures.  At least I haven’t found out how to.  I would also like to be able to use the keyboard instead of the pen.  Overall, AirSketch has been a useful addition to my class.

Screenshot of Playback app
Distance Ed, instructional technology, iPad, Mobile, Presentation, TLT

iPad Screencasting Apps to Create Demonstrations and Lectures

With more people flipping their classrooms and teaching online screencasting has become a popular way to deliver content.  Screencasting is a video recording of what occurs on a computer screen.  Normally, computer screencasting apps will allow you to record anything that you do on the computer.  Screencasting on an iPad is slightly different.  Currently there is no app that records everything that you do on the iPad but there are apps that let you record many of the things that you would use in a lecture or a lesson.  Over the past few days I tested ten different screencasting apps (some paid, some free).  While they all allow for voice recording over a whiteboard many of them offered extra features that set them apart from each other.  I was looking for the ability to add presentations, images and files, a whiteboard, and overall flexibility.  The iPad Screencasting App Matrix is a full matrix of each app’s features, price and restrictions.  Below are the apps that I evaluated and my thoughts of each.  Keep in mind that this is my opinion.  I encourage you to choose a couple and try them yourself.

Playback – Screencast Creator for Dropbox (free)

Screenshot of Playback app
Image 1

Playback is a free screencasting app.  It’s primary focus is as a whiteboard app.  You can create a Playback session from an image or a PDF but you have to do it at the beginning, before you begin the recording.  You can’t add images or PDFs on the fly.  What I don’t like is that you have to open these PDFs and images from Dropbox or your iPad and then send them to Playback.  Playback also has the ability to record the camera on the iPad (see image 1).  It allows you to have the small camera image in the upper corner or you can have it display larger in the middle of the screen, which is a unique feature.  However, on playback, the video in the corner, shot from the camera, was way behind the audio and it was very distracting.


Explain Everything ($2.99)

Explain Everything screenshotThis is my personal favorite. It allows the most flexibility of any of the apps I looked at. You can import most any file type (doc(x), ppt(x), xls(x), pdf, jpg) which gives you so much freedom.  You can also insert a web browser that allows you some basic web navigating to allow you to show websites and discuss them.  You can also insert video and audio files.  All of these can be added on fly while recording the session.  Because it has so many features it is not as easy to use as some of the others and zooming and scrolling requires a special tool instead of just allowing you to pinch and stretch like other apps.  It does allow you to add a video recorded with the iPad camera but it’s not a constant recording like in Playback.  Overall, I think it’s worth the time to learn to use it.

ShowMe (free)

ShowMe ScreenshotShowMe is a simple to use app and is good for those who are wanting a whiteboard app for uses such as explaining math problems or diagramming.  You can only use the whiteboard feature and import images from the Camera Roll.  When it comes time to export and share you upload it to ShowMe’s public website.  This makes it easy to share with your students via a web link but it’s also available to anyone who goes to the public site.  I don’t like that you can’t import other formats or from anywhere else but the Camera Roll.  For me, I like an easy upload but I also like to have the option to save it to my Camera Roll so I can edit it if necessary.  One feature that I didn’t like was that the recording paused when I added an image.  I’m assuming this was to save recording time but the problem I encountered was remembering to turn the recording back on after I added the image.  I ended up annotating and speaking over the better part of a slide that didn’t record due to this feature.

Knowmia Teach (free)

Knowmia Teach ScreenshotKnowmia offers many of the same features in Explain Everything but with the iPad camera recording like in Playback.  There are several things I really like about this app.  First it is set up in Stages and you can record each stage or slide individually instead of recording straight through like in other apps.  There is also a area at the bottom where you can add additional items that you can bring into the session on the fly.  It’s feature rich and fairly easy to use.  My two complaints are as follows:  First, while free to both instructors and students, videos created with the student account are only kept on their server for 30 days then they disappear.  They are not downloadable so they can’t be kept.   Second, it kept freezing up on my.  I estimate it froze 10 times while trying to create a 5 slide session.

These are just a few of the apps that I tested out.  For a full listing of the features compared check out the iPad Screencasting App Matrix.  If you are interested in incorporating any of these apps into your course contact your Instructional Technologist.  We’re happy to help.