Tag Archives: syllabus

CollegeQandA asks: Do professors know about Course Hero and similar sites, and what do they think about them?

Do professors know about Course Hero and similar sites?

There are many resources on the internet that will help you in your courses.  Some of these sites do have material that students upload from previous years that you can purchase or upload your work and sell it – such as Course Hero.  Do professors know about these sites?  I would say a good number do, but definitely, not all of them.

Course Hero Screenshot

The existence of test banks (groups keeping records of all the tests and in some cases answers), course notes from previous years, and the accumulation of information as related to a course is not new.  The internet and its all-to-all communication model has just made it a little easier for this information to be archived and searched, and the existence of these types of sites was inevitable.  In the future, there might be some legal battles fought out on who owns what in the case of a course, but until then here are some basic ideas.

What do professors think about these sites?

I can’t speak for all professors, but I’m certain that universities and their faculty have a mixed opinion of this type of information being available, and a bigger concern on how it could be used.  For example, most professors would agree that using this material in the form of copying would be considered a violation of academic integrity.  In other cases, however, this material could be useful for a student to model solutions, answers, or responses that is a goal for a student to achieve.   Using material in this way might be fine.  So there’s a mixed feeling on this information being available.

Note, there are some course syllabi that strictly state that material from the course is not to be shared.  In these instances, uploading that course material is a clear violation that might result in further academic and legal battles that I can’t guess how they might proceed.

The future is active and tailored learning

In my opinion, these types of sites will have less and less impact as we proceed into better higher education.  For those courses that are template based and use traditional information transfer that is assessed through basic tests, then these types of sites are a concern.  For most of my courses, which are active learning with some student proposed work, these sites offer little benefit when a student has to learn to perform.

In the big picture of a degree, information is always available and is ever more accessible.  Information is useless unless it can be used in our ever theme of “doing”.  You won’t get a good job or a great career or achieve anything meaningful unless you learn to do.  Learning to do is hard, and there is no easy path.  Sites like these promise the potential for an easy something, but my guess is they rarely lead to any great achievement – just a way of skipping the work.


CollegeQandA asks: What should I do the weekend before classes start?

What should I do the weekend before classes start?

Your family has dropped you off at college or you arrived at campus by yourself, and you have a few days before classes start – that first weekend.  Is there anything you should do before classes start to pave the way for a good semester?  At Miami the excitement of the new semester has started, and the streets are alive with youthful vigor.

Uhaul van moving in

Get the basics done

For those of you who are in your first-year or new arrivals to campus, your first weekend is about discovering where things are, how to do the most basic activities, and figuring out who might be your new friends and acquaintances.  In other words, expect to be disoriented for the next few days, but make sure you ask questions to everyone so that you do everything you should to just have the basics down.

Your priorities are:

  • If you don’t have your University ID card, then where and how do you get it.  This thing will do a lot around  campus for you.
  • You need to figure out where and when your classes are.  I would find the rooms ahead of time so you’re not late on class one.
  • How do you get your daily food and pay for it?
  • Where are the people who can help you if you need information or things?

All these basics are also needed for more senior students, but I would expect that those of you in that category almost know all of these.

Connecting with friends new and old

Take some time to socialize and meet old and new friends.  The reality is that this is probably the quietest time in the upcoming semester, so you should spend time with friends to reconnect.  However, don’t overdo the socializing with friends and party too much.  There’s no reason to start off the semester already tired and disorganized.  You can easily balance your reconnect to friends with solid preparation.

Get a jump on course organization

If your upcoming courses have an online accompaniment, then there is no reason you shouldn’t take a peak at what material is already posted (including the syllabus), needed books, and creating a semester calendar (I would suggest google calendars) with your actual next few months (you can tie this into your goals too).

Do you have your notebooks prepared for each of your courses?  If there are slides for the course, then do you have them printed?  What other materials will you need for these courses?

Most important – Set your semester goals

The big thing you need to do the last weekend before the semester is to nail down your goals for the semester (whatever they might be).  This doesn’t mean a general goal statement such as, “do well in my classes this semester”.  Instead, to achieve a goal you need to break it into smaller goals that will help you achieve your bigger picture.

You need to make specific goals both semester long and short term.  So, if I want to “get in shape this semester”, I need to include short term weekly/monthly goals that I can measure to get me to the big goal.  Smaller goals such as: “work out three times a week at the rec center” and “follow a progression workout for the next month” are steps to my bi goal, and if I truly want to achieve the bigger goal I can check in and see if I’m meeting my smaller steps.

Be prepared and have some fun to get you in the right mode for the fall semester.

Credits: Photo titled: Moving Truck; by CJ Sorg


CollegeQandA asks: When to buy books?

When to buy books?

In particular, when should you purchase a textbook for a course?  We’ve discussed textbooks before (and why to buy them) and what they’re useful for.  This discussion is a challenging one because textbooks are very expensive, but aren’t always necessary for every course just because they are recommended.

Books on a shelf

Start with the syllabus

The syllabus is one of the main resources which will tell you how important the textbook is.  Can you use the textbook in exams?  Do you have to have it to access the assignment or practice problems?  Is there some online resource that you get access to and is needed for the course by buying the textbook?  These are the first questions you need to ask.

How is the textbook used in the course?

That’s the key question, and if the syllabus doesn’t tell you and the courses online portal has no information, then you need to email the professor and ask what the textbook is used for in the course.  Another information source for this question is talking to previous students who took the course with the same instructor(though beware that they might mislead you based on wanting to sell you their used textbook).

Lots of options

Now that you know how the book is used, you can determine in which format to obtain the book.  There are many possibilities in the modern day to obtain a textbook including:

  • The library copy (least expensive)
  • Book rental companies
  • Used older editions of the book
  • Used copies
  • Online copies
  • New (most expensive)

Depending on how the book is used in the class will help you decide which format to acquire the textbook.

One other consideration

The last thing about a textbook, is that there are a few textbooks that not only are used for courses, but are also used by practicing professionals.  If the course is in a field where you might work in someday, then you should check to see if this particular textbook is the one that is used throughout a career.  If it is, then it’s a good buy.

Credits: Photo title: Books (74/365) by: John Liu


CollegeQandA asks: How important is prioritizing in College?

How important is prioritizing in College?

ticket dispenser

Some people would argue that time management is the most important skill that most college students don’t have when they come to college.  I would put a few skills higher, but managing your time is important (especially since the teachers aren’t going to micromanage you like they may have in high school).  The first step is to learn how to prioritize – meaning which tasks should you focus most of your effort on.

The 80/20 rule

First, you should be aware of a general idea – the 80/20 rule.  This is a rule of thumb that roughly states that you get 80% of your results for 20% of the tasks you focus on.  This means that you need to figure out what is that 20% so you can get it done and get 80% of the success.  Basically, this is one form of prioritization.

No is a valid answer

Another challenge with students is figuring out what to say no to or, simply, not do.  In terms of academics, you may be overwhelmed and have to not do something for your classes – we’ll look at this below.  Even more important is saying no to the extra-curricular activities.  I would argue that most extra-curricular activities fit outside the 80% result domain, and you need to forgo those commitments when you don’t have enough time.  Beware of college task bloat that many students experience because they say yes to everything.  I would argue you can have 2 big activities in your college life.  One is academics.  That means you have one more to spend on a sport, club, hobby, social life, etc.  Don’t spread to thin.

Academic prioritization

With an understanding of no and the 80/20 rule, the question is how do you prioritize and time manage your education.  The first place to start is the syllabus.  The syllabus gives you a direct view of what activities in a class are assessed, and how much that assessment impacts your overall grade.

Yes, most assessments and class activities are there to help you learn the material (and you should do them).  If you manage your time well, stay up with a class from day one, and work at the material you really shouldn’t have to prioritize in terms of not doing these activities, but there are times when you need to decide what is most important to do.

Also, consider weighing how well you need to do on various assessments for your overall goals.  If you have a realistic expectation of the grades you want in your classes, then you can shift your workload to focus on the assessments and activities that will allow you to achieve those goals.  For example, if I’m going to get an A in computer science even if I don’t do too well on the final project, means even though I enjoy working on that project, I should reduce the time spent on it to focus on something else that needs more time.

Learn to prioritize to get that 80% success.

Credits: photo titled: take a number; by Mike Mozart


CollegeQandA asks: When should I panic about school?

You need to track and extrapolate your progress

Unicorn statue

When should I panic about school?  Well, you should use the tools available to you to help you predict how you are performing and avoid disaster.  The first tool is the syllabus.  In the syllabus, you should find what are the assessment activities, how much are they worth to your overall grade in the course, and when will they be administered.

This information is about all you need to predict how you are doing in a particular course (and then all your courses).  Based on your current point of time in the course, extrapolate what you should get overall.  For example, if there are 10 assessments in the course and you have performed at an average of 60% on half of these, you should assume that on your current trajectory you will get 60% in the course unless some major change happens.

For some reason, however, students have an optimistic belief that they will perform better than what they have achieved so far.  This is an unrealistic belief.  To change future performance you need to make major changes, and these changes must happen soon and just don’t come with luck.

Panic shouldn’t happen

When a student walks in to my office hours half way through a course and asks, “What can I do?” the reality is it is too late.  We can try to help, but having completed half a course that builds upon itself, this point of discussion is a bad point to be at.  At this panic point, option one is to drop, and I think this is the best option (all the excuses such as financial aid, full-time standing, etc. should have been taken into account way earlier).  Option two is to try and get as many points from the rest of the course to finish with a “C” over a “D” or “F”.

This point should never happen to you, but if it does, then you have to realize that it was your choice and you have to deal with the consequences.  Avoiding this point is simple.  Learn throughout the course, do your work, and seek help when one assessment is not a success so you can figure out how to master the material.  Arriving at this point means you need to mitigate your losses, but you will suffer losses.

Still, I was like many of my students.  For some reason, I didn’t go to office hours when I needed help.  My fault was my laziness.  If you want to succeed, though, you can not get to the panic point, and you need to evaluate your performance at every point of a course.

Extra credit and other unicorns

Life happens.  In these situations, if you are prepared then you can mitigate the problems.  Most teachers and administrators understand that things come up that can wreck a semester, but when they do, you need to seek administration help and withdraw from the semester.  Also, you can drop some courses and put your energy into a smaller subset of others.  Yes, none of these situations are perfect, but that is the reality of the scenario.

Otherwise, excuses, pleading, and “what can I do for a better grade” are not real options.  There must be professors out there that provide these options, but all the ones I know don’t provide such things.  They’re unicorns, as in, they don’t exist.

If you needed a good grade in course X, then you need to work for a good grade in course X.  An “A” in a course demonstrates excellence in the material.  In theory, (is Harvard an exception) the “A” is difficult to earn without putting a significant work effort into the course.

Credit: photo titled: Unicorn ; by: Lemon~art


CollegeQandA asks: How bad is it to drop a class?

What does it mean to drop a class?

Parachute dropDropping a course means removing that course from your schedule before certain dates such that you will not get a traditional letter grade in the course that impacts your overall record, and there might be some monetary refund (if you pay per course).  Depending on dates at your university, a dropped course might appear on your transcript (official record) as dropped, and you might not get any money back.

Typically, in the early part of a semester (first few weeks depending on the university), you can drop a course with no transcript record or cost.  Later in the semester (normally before the half-way point) you can drop the course and this tends to be recorded with an annotation such as “dropped”, “withdrawn – W”, or something similar.  Also, this later type of drop usually does not result in any refund.  Check your universities “academic calendar” that should list these specific dates.

Why would you drop a course?

First off, most early drops are done because a student is still adjusting their schedule and figuring out what their course preference is for the semester.  These types of drops are minor in the big scheme of dropping, so I won’t deal with them and let’s move on to the other types.

Withdrawals later in the semester are the types of drops we are really talking about.  The first factor in dropping is can you drop?  There are different university rules for full-time standing, financial aid, scholarships, staying on campus, etc. which can impact your situation.  Depending on your course load dropping a course can have repercussions beyond academics, so be knowledgeable about the rules for your case.

If you can drop, then the question is should you?  From a repercussion stand point, dropping means that you potentially will delay graduation, which in turn means it may cost you more to complete your degree.  For example, dropping can result in a prerequisite challenge where you can’t take other courses since you are missing the prerequisite, and beware that there are things called prerequisite chains where course A is needed for course B is needed for course C and so on.

On the other hand, you are usually dropping a course because the workload and likelihood of success are, respectively, big and bad.  Given your circumstances, continuing in the course will have a significant impact on your grades, and as little a fan I am of grades, “F” and “D” are not good letters to have on your transcript (“F” is way worse than “D”).  My question as an adviser to students in this situation is, why are you on the edge of failure – knowing that it is probably because you haven’t been continually working on the course.

All sorts of things happen in life that can result in needing to drop a course.  Beyond delaying graduation, what impact might this have on your career?  My perspective is that a few drops have no impact on your career.  An interviewer might ask you why you dropped course X, but these can should be able to be easily explained.  For example, I was overwhelmed that semester and chose to drop that course.  However, multiple withdrawals of the same course Y or a large number of withdrawals can be a red flags for recruiters.

Bottom line

Drop a course if you have to.  Life will throw curve balls that make this choice completely reasonable given your situation.  It’s not a sign of failure, personal value, or anything other than you dropped a course.  Just beware of the rules and repercussions, and try to stay with each of your courses from day one so that this is not an issue.

Credits: photo by: Program Executive Office Soldier; title: Maneuverable Canopy (MC) Personnel Parachute System



CollegeQandA asks: Why can’t I use my phone in class?

Why can’t I use my phone in class?

This question may or may not be something you wonder depending on your professor(s).  In my classes, the syllabus states:

  • Texting, surfing, or any other out of class communication should be kept to the back rows of the classroom. Such behavior has no impact on your grade, but equally, the lack of attention in class means you should not expect me to make an effort in helping you deal with topics you miss in class due to lack of attention.
  • Cell phones should be kept silent (including vibration) during class.

In my classes, I allow devices to be used, but I require two things.  First, you do not cause interruptions for other people who want to learn and focus. This is the reason I ask that laptops and phones to be used at the back.   People like looking at screens, and if you are in the front row of the class on a YouTube page or social media site then a high number of students will be distracted and will look at your screen.  Second, if you are not paying attention, then don’t expect me to repeat materials for you.  Attention (just like attendance) is a choice that you get to make.

Why can’t I use my phone in THIS class?

There are, however, professors who strictly ban devices and screens from their classes.  Is this fair?  That’s an interesting question/debate that I’ve had with many of my colleagues where I come from the allow-in-class side.  What I have found from these discussions is there are two reasons for banning devices.  In their minds, instructors are either trying to help you focus by banning devices or view the activity of checking your devices in their lecture as rude.

I find the second argument, rudeness, fascinating based on my experiences at academic meetings and conferences.  In a room at one of these gatherings of 20 people, I’m happy and surprised to make a presentation where 5 of those people are paying attention without looking at a screen at some point in my fifteen minute presentation (maybe I’m just a bad presenter).  Therefore, since my colleagues can’t separate from their screens, how can I force my students to.  In modern day society, the rudeness of focusing on your screen even in mid-conversation is not considered bad manners in some circles (not all).

cyborg portraitHelping you to focus and control your screen addictions is a noble goal, but I believe that this is a personal challenge for all first generation cyborgs (my designation for anyone with a smartphone).  We all need to learn and practice our ability to focus (to recommended books of interest: Focus and Willpower).

But I need [device X] for …

The counter arguments that I’ve heard from students is the need for the device in class to learn.   Sure, there are certain situations where this makes sense.  For example, I’ve been known to ask my classes if they could look up something online for all of us.

If you think these devices are good for taking note, then you appear to be wrong.  An article (The pen is mightier than the keyboard) written by Mueller and Oppenheimer reports results from their study that finds that a laptop is worse for retaining the lecture compared to traditional pen and paper.

Also, your smartphone is not a good scientific calculator (at present) since it is very unlikely that you will be allowed to use it in exams.  Instead, your base calculator and scientific calculator (my beloved TI-85) need to be used regularly so that you can learn how to use that device.  There’s nothing worse than having to learn how to use a function on your calculator during an exam or quiz.

Some classes have come up with ways to integrate modern technology.  Twitter or other social collaborative methods  (such as wikis) have been effectively used to allow real-time questions and collaboration from students.  There will be other innovations too, but we still seem to be in an era of technology is lauded as the great learning device, but soon becomes sometimes beneficial to learning on rare occasions.

Credit: Photo from Michelle Zell-Wiesmann; title: Cyborg



CollegeQandA asks: What are the first few things I should do to prepare for my classes?

What should I do to prepare for my classes?

I’ll answer this question by, first, telling you what I do prepare to teach a class in, roughly, sequential order:

  1. [months before] I think about what I want to do with this course, what previously went bad, what was good, and what ideas I want to try.
  2. [months before] I come up with what are the learning objectives of this course.
  3. [weeks to months before] I layout the calendar for the course deciding when things will happen and what order we will try to progress at to achieve the objectives.
  4. [weeks to months before] I create the syllabus with these dates and objectives in mind including how to assess students on satisfying the objectives.
  5. [weeks to months before] I create the online presence that we will use to communicate in electronic form.
  6. [weeks to months before] I prepare lectures, quizzes, exams, projects, labs into some depth of the course, though this can vary depending on a number of factors.
  7. [weeks before] I check into the lab and classroom and log into the computer to check out the technology for the classroom.  Where are the lights?  What type of writing board do I have?
  8. [weeks before] I start practicing names for everyone in the class who has a photo.
  9. [week before] I run though the materials I have prepared to check if things look good.
  10. [day before] I review my class plan.
  11. [hour before] I review the plan and check all documents.
  12. [15 minutes before] I warmup my voice, head to the classroom, and prepare the room.
  13. [10 minutes before] In the classroom, I play or show some unrelated/related articles/videos/etc. to start a discussion as people walk into the classroom.
  14. Showtime !!!

In summary, I’m the so called expert and I’ve already spent a number of hours preparing for a class before you the learner walk into the classroom.

Based on that what should I do?

Here’s a few suggestions that you can do to prepare for my classes and others:

  1. Have your notebook (separate one per class), recording devices, and supplies organized and ready.
  2. Print out the syllabus and have it pasted/attached to your notebook.
  3. Read that syllabus ahead of time and scan through any online materials that are available.
  4. Learn a little bit about the topic of the class.  A quick search on Wikipedia should give you some basic ideas related to the course.
  5. Decide what you find interesting or curious about this topic to help motivate yourself.  Even if the topic doesn’t relate to what you really like, frame some questions back to your passions such as, “How will topic X relate back and help me with my interest Y”.
  6. Find the classroom the day before classes start so you aren’t one of the many who come in late because they can’t find their classroom.
  7. See if there is anything online about the lecture that you can read ahead of time to provide you with a framework of what will be done in that class.
  8. Arrive early to class, if you can.
  9. Pick a seat in the front or in the center to sit (the closer to the front the better).  Oddly enough, you may sit in this spot for the rest of the semester.
  10. Introduce yourself to people around your seat and ask for contact information before the class starts.
  11. Prepare yourself to be an active listener as opposed to a passive listener.  This might require thinking about your earlier questions or new ones about the topic that you might be interested in.
  12. Take a deep breath and relax…this is about learning and should be fun.

CollegeQandA asks: What is a syllabus?

What is a syllabus?

Let’s start with this simple question of what is a syllabus?  A syllabus is a document that outlines the details as related to a class and is the contract between you and the instructor.  This can include what will be covered in class, when will it be covered, how you will be assessed, rules of behavior, and other details as related to the class.  The syllabus can be anywhere from one page to many pages depending on what the instructor needs to layout to the learners.  From a student perspective, the syllabus is the first place to look for information about the course, and if ignored it is  a quick way to look bad in front of your professors.

Should you read the syllabus?

Continue reading CollegeQandA asks: What is a syllabus?