Easy Things You Can Do to Improve Your Course and Your Teaching

We would all like to improve our teaching and our courses. However, we’d also like to finish up that one article, wrap up those edits, and take these last moments to relax before the fall quarter crushes all dreams of quiet moments (oh, just me?). Below are some simple things you can do to make your courses just a little bit better, featuring lists and the amount of time and difficulty entailed. 

The areas I focus on when revising a course are: the learning management system delivery (aka Canvas), and the content of the course itself, and course activities (in-class and otherwise). Select a few of these each year and you can adapt your course to make it easier for students to navigate expectations (as well as Canvas) and keep it fresh with current, manageable information and more engaging activities and assignments. 

Use Canvas

Here, I mean use Canvas and take advantage of its capabilities. This is how students are better able to understand expectations and resources. Canvas will even nag students on your behalf with annoying sidebar reminders of looming deadlines once you enter assignment dates!

  • [easy; 10 minutes] Add your syllabus on the syllabus page and link in the menu bar. This can be rolled over into future courses and is nice because students don’t have to download a hard-to-read pdf when scrolling on their phones. 
  • [easy and more accessible; 2 minutesSet a home page on Canvas. The home page is where students land when they go to the page for your site. You can have it be the assignments or modules pages (see below for more on those!) or even the syllabus.
  • [simple if you have them already drafted; 2-15 minutes depending on features you want to allowAdd your assignments (with instructions) to Canvas to allow online submissions. Note: from personal experience, DO NOT ADD ATTENDANCE!
  • [moderate-to-advanced, 30 mins-2+ hours] Add modules to organize content. I’m not going to lie -- this is annoying and time-consuming but it can be rolled over into subsequent versions of the course. It helps students stay organized and is worth the effort.
    • Check out the NU course page examples for ideas. These can inspire you for how to make Canvas work better for you and your students!

Check the Content

Is your syllabus current? Is there new work out that you’ve been wanting to read? Add it! Is there old work that doesn’t help the discussion? Remove it!

  • [easy; 5-45 minutes] Find syllabi for similar courses to see how yours compares -- get ideas for what to keep and what to shelve. Your discipline might have some examples/a repository -- look around to see. 
  • [easy; 5-45 minutes] Look at syllabi in your department. Are students asked to read the same work in multiple courses? Many departments post their syllabi on faculty pages or you can ask a member of your staff to see what others are doing.
  • [easy; 5-45 minutes] Evaluate your reading load -- if you have many heavy readings, considering dividing them up. For example, I’ll have students with first initials in the first half of the alphabet complete one reading and students with first initials in the second half of the alphabet complete another. 
  • [easy but potentially time consuming; 25+ minutes] As an aside on the (physical) content: I’ve been moving toward free or low-cost texts and resources in my classes to help ease the burden on students. Check to see if you can find an online alternative to some of your readings. If you’re only using a small part of a book, the library will scan it for you (and put it on Canvas)! 

Analyze Activities and Assignments

This offers you the opportunity to consider how you’re getting the course content to students. I put these as moderate because you can easily get sucked into a rabbit hole on them where you’re clicking link after link. I find it easiest to start small (just objectives for now, for example, or just one class session or just one assignment).

  • [moderate; 25+ minutes] Create course objectives and learning objectives. I understand that this might seem like extra work but this is an important first step -- after students take your course, what do you want them to have learned/be able to do? I always ask, ‘how do you want a student to describe your course to a friend?’ 
  • [moderate; 25+ minutes] Think about how your assignments are helping meet your objectives -- if you want students to explain ideas to an outside person, perhaps consider an op-ed instead of an essay. If you’re presenting a complex social issue, maybe consider a timeline.
    • See this table we created regarding assignment ideas and supported learning objectives with examples 
    • Check out cool visual tools available through the Knight Lab 
  • [moderate; 25+ minutes] Think about lecturing versus other in-class ways of providing information and discussion. You could do something as simple as doing one simulation or one class session with a new technique (jigsaw readings, concept mapping, think-pair-share). This doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul! Research shows that active learning techniques are more effective for student learning. 
  • [easy; 10 minutes for each of two queries] Survey your students: what are their expectations? At the beginning of class, have students fill out notecards with the following questions. You can check in at midterm and see if there are any (simple) course corrections you can make. 
    • Beginning of class:
      • Name, year, major
      • What is one thing you hope you learn from this course?
      • What is one thing you are excited about in this course?
      • What is one thing you are concerned or wondering about in this course?
    • Midterm:
      • How would you say the course is going? (scale)
      • Why did you give the answer you gave above?
      • What is one thing that is going well. Explain why/what about it is going well.
      • What is one thing that is not going as well as you’d like. Explain specifically why it is not going well.
      • Provide one suggestion for your response above. Be specific!
      • What is one thing you can do to improve how things are going?
  • [easy!; 25+ minutes] Familiarize yourself with the many (many) great resources on campus. For example, Northwestern has a number of workshops, faculty opportunities, and consultations you can take advantage of! 

Reach out!

There are a number of communities and groups of teaching-focused individuals on campus that we’re working to build and develop. Reach out to a colleague to swap syllabi, join the active learning community, or start up a discussion at a faculty meeting to get ideas. Hearing what has worked (or failed!) for others can be so helpful.  

Want to discuss more? Contact Dr. Clipperton