Red Hot Boilerplate: How to Make the Start of a Course Interesting

A riveted piece of steel, red hot.

Most online courses start with a section of boilerplate that outlines the structure of the program, the rules of the course, and provides other information that usually doesn’t vary much from course to course within a curriculum. With any luck, students will peruse the pages when they begin a program, but it’s unlikely that they will spend much time on them, let alone revisit them for subsequent courses, especially if they are exactly the same as those they’ve previously encountered.

Boilerplate is a little like the safety announcements at the start of a flight: vital information that we all ignore, even at our own potential peril, because we think we’ve heard it a thousand times. If you’ve taken a flight recently, however, you may have noticed that some airlines are trying to capture the attention of their passengers by making entertaining safety videos that people will actually want to watch.

Instructional designers would do well to take inspiration from the airlines’ tactic and look for ways to get students to pay attention to important material, even if they’ve encountered it before. Since the start of a course sets the tone for it, designers can impart a sense of levity and ludic interaction before an earnest educational experience. In another blog entry, I talk about the usefulness of humor to keep students engaged, a theme that also threads itself throughout the suggestions below. Although online courses should not need to distract and placate students the way airlines do their customers, the introduction of a course presents an often overlooked opportunity to get students excited about the learning to follow.

In addition to acting as preparation for the  substance of the course, introductory materials also provide an opportunity to cultivate your presence as an instructor. Even if the content is standardized, how you introduce the material and what you ask students to do with it can give them some sense of who you are as a person, as the examples that follow demonstrate.

Elements of an Introduction

The first step to making the course introduction interesting is to decide what information you need to convey and how to organize it. Potential subjects to address include:

  • An introductory welcome to the degree program and the department in charge of it.
  • An overview of the degree program’s requirements, including an explanation of how the particular course fits into the curriculum.
  • A description of how the course works, i.e., an explanation of the way it is organized, recurring due dates, learning outcomes.
  • Expected time commitment per assignment, per week, or for the course as a whole.
  • Expectations for behavior, particularly standards for communication, collaboration, and community formation.
  • Information about institutional resources available to the students, such as libraries, software, or databases the program has purchased, etc.
  • Directions for submitting work. This may include required file-naming conventions, instructions on how to use tools like Google Docs, etc.
  • Welcome discussions, where students introduce themselves to each other.
  • Ongoing fora where students can confer and seek help.

The above information should be in addition to that found in the syllabus, which itself has a different function (and is a topic for another post). Although there may be some overlap between the introduction to a course and its syllabus, preliminary materials should be presented in a less dense and more interactive way with the goal of familiarizing students with the course, whereas a syllabus usually sets parameters and acts more like a contract between the instructor and the student. Note that the above list is meant to be suggestive; academic programs most likely already have introductory information at their disposition.

Getting Students to Think About the Course

Once you’ve established a list of what needs to be accomplished in the introduction to a course, the next step is to follow the tenets of good pedagogy and consider the learning goals attached to each task. If, for example, you want students to plan for fitting classwork into their existing schedules, you can design an activity asking them to do so. Requiring students to submit their schedules is neither the instructor’s right nor necessary, since public knowledge of the class’s extracurricular time commitments is not the learning objective. The stated goal of getting them to plan (and verifying that they have done so) can be accomplished by requesting such information in a discussion topic, for example. The following prompt requires students to examine their schedules without asking for too many personal details:

As you have seen in the description of the work for this course, it requires approximately five hours of reading and five hours of writing or other work per week. This is an admittedly significant commitment that requires thinking ahead to accomplish. One of the goals for this course is to form a community of support that will help its members learn. To that end, please write a post addressing the following:

1. What advice would you offer to your colleagues that you have learned from previous educational experiences, online or not?

2. What will be the biggest challenges to getting your work done? How do you plan to overcome them?

3. Describe an assignment from a past course that you found hard to complete, perhaps because of time limitations, and explain how you did so.

Although the above discussion post addresses issues of overcommitment and scheduling directly, responding to it also asks students to think about how they will meet the rigors of the semester more generally. Mutually sharing this information will allow students to get to know each other as individuals, not just as classmates.  

(Note: For a more efficient, but less reflective and interactive means of getting a sense of students’ availability, free websites for scheduling, like Doodle, or for surveying, like Survey Monkey, can be useful for synchronous meetings or live lectures.)

Getting Students to Remember the Details

If the adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it, then asking students to act on what they learned must be the second best. Impending assessment is a typical, but nevertheless effective way to get students to study material. (Moreover, quizzing students in the introduction to a course will introduce them to the assessment tools before they are responsible for learning any course material.) Although it could seem condescending to test students on information about the course, completing a cleverly designed activity about such material can be fun. Quiz builders in Canvas and Blackboard allow instructors to pose many types of questions and to import a variety of media, which allows for great creativity. A humorous way to teach students netiquette would be a video showing how not to interact with class members online, and then asking them to take a quiz on the subject. They could, for example, comment upon a video dramatizing how not to act during a live web-conference, or analyze humorous, but poorly written emails, as in the video “Email in Real Life” below. (Please note that subsequent videos are not relevant to this article, although YouTube may start playing them automatically.)

Show and Tell Me

Some introductory material may be too detailed or too abstract to ask students to learn before having to do so for the course. Accessing and identifying peer-reviewed articles through the institution’s library site, for example, requires not only many steps, but an understanding of what you are looking for. Modeling multi-step or intricate tasks through screencasts or video tutorials and then asking students to repeat the task themselves has the dual benefit of providing a resource to which they can return, as well as accommodating various learning styles. It also is another chance for instructors to make their presence felt, since even something as simple as the professor’s voice individualizes the course, as shown in the video below on how to find peer-reviewed articles at the library made by Professor Susan Krauss of Concordia College New York.

 

As pointed out, asking students to do something with what they have learned is an effective way to get them to retain it. Revealing the value of what they are doing will make introductory assignments seem even more worthwhile. Susan Krauss’s video on navigating the resources of the Scheele Memorial Library could, for example, quite naturally lead to an assignment on how to do research and compile a bibliography related directly to the subject of the course. Generally speaking, it is always good strategy to make the purpose of assigned work readily apparent, which means tying as many elements of the introductory material to the actual topic of the course as possible.

Tying It All Together

If there is a common thread to the above suggestions, it is the idea that meta-information is no different from subject-matter material in terms of pedagogy. In other words, use good teaching principles when presenting even standardized content. Boilerplate’s parallel status to the primary course material leaves room for fun and experimentation to capture students’ attention. Although serious in intent, introductory material can still be presented in a manner that will make students will find it engaging and worthwhile.

Tom Armbrecht has a PhD in French Studies from Brown University. Formerly a tenured Professor of French, he taught literature and philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students at an R1 university before deciding to focus his career on online learning. Tom has been involved in educational technology since its inception, first as a student, then as a professor, and now as an instructional designer. His current position as an Online Learning Architect allows him to capitalize on his pedagogical expertise to create courses that engage and inspire students and teachers alike.

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Red Hot Boilerplate: How to Make the Start of a Course Interesting

by Tom Armbrecht
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