To Focus on Learning, Use Words Not Section Numbers

Dec 30, 2016 by

Since many faculty are now approaching that time when syllabi get written and course shells get built, let’s focus on a very simple change that can increase student attention to learning the vocabulary and learning objectives/goals associated with the subject.

Take examine your syllabus, schedule, and course shell looking for places where you could have written the name of the course, the topics, or the learning objectives in words, but didn’t do it. When schedules and other course materials are passed out without any reference to the vocabulary of the subject, you are missing a great chance to put that vocabulary and learning objectives/goals front and center for your learners.

Consider this real course schedule I saw recently (altered a bit to protect the identity of the course and college).

This schedule contains no course name, no topics in words, and no learning goals. My course schedules used to look like this too (although they did at least have the name of the course at the top). But then I took a deep dive into how we learn vocabulary a couple years ago. Now I use every opportunity to engage students with the words that describe the topic and the learning goals.

This schedule was a golden opportunity for introducing (repeating) vocabulary and focusing on learning objective … and it was missed. Let’s look at a example of the same schedule with vocabulary and focus on learning objectives.

Now every day on the schedule has context to it, and the student is reminded of the language associated with the topic on every viewing of the schedule. If the student is making a judgement call about whether to skip class (face it, they do) or how long to procrastinate on doing their assigned homework, the context of what is in the schedule is very helpful to them. If they recognize no words in the topic, or recall that they have never figured it out in the past (dev math), then they have additional incentive to show up, leave more time to complete, etc.

The reality is that if we want students to actually learn the vocabulary of our subject area, they have to encounter the vocabulary as often as possible. They have to read the vocabulary like they will see it in context, and do that as much as possible. This repeated encounter helps them to begin to see the contrast between important differences. In the example above, there is a difference between solving equations and solving inequalities. The repeated exposure to those as two separate topics helps the student to begin to separate “equations” and “inequalities” as two distinct topics with rules associated with the overlap and contrast between them.

Working with the vocabulary and learning objectives is also helpful to faculty. Instructors need to see more than a section number as they plan out the learning for the semester. We’ve all encountered texts where one section is not equal to one hour of class. Writing out the learning topics / objectives gives the instructor a chance to reflect on where there needs to be supplementary learning activities and where the topic is actually too “lite” for a whole day of class. By planning for this natural fluctuation up front (assuming one has experience teaching the course on a previous occasion), it is more likely that the pacing of the course will match the real learning of the students.

Challenge: Take a fresh look at your syllabus, schedules and/or course shell. Find opportunities to place vocabulary and learning objectives/goals in more prominent locations.

Note: A weekly bite of learning design and a challenge goes out every week. If you’d like to have it delivered to your inbox, sign up at Weekly Teaching Challenge.

Possibly Related Posts:

read more

The Importance of Findability for Learners

Dec 16, 2016 by

How do you feel when you go to find information on a website, and you just can’t find it? This happens to me all the time when I want to find out what some new ed-tech wonder product does, and I visit the website and can’t see any screenshots, any descriptions, or any videos of the product in action. I find it incredibly frustrating and this story generally ends by me giving up on even signing up for a trial. The same thing happens to students when they go to find information and it is buried in a non-sensical place.

As everyone finishes a semester, and prepares documents and course shells for the next, it seems a good time to share this article, The Impact of Findability on Student Motivation, Self-Efficacy, and Perceptions of Online Course QualityWhile the research targeted online courses, many face-to-face courses are now accompanied by a myriad of resources that live in an LMS course shell and I think there are also implications for findability in course packets and syllabi as well.

For this article, one of the researchers, Dr. David Robins, User Experience Design professor at Kent State University, has presented the study in a webinar format available on YouTube. Their research question: What happens when students have trouble finding components of a course?


The researchers took two courses that were well-designed and passed Quality Matters standards, and then “broke” them in terms of findability. The broken courses still technically passed QM standards, but the components were harder to find. Students were asked to perform scenario-based tasks in the online courses.

Sidenote: If you’ve never seen a standard software usability test, here’s a nice “findability fail reel” for a mobile website with questionable usability.

I don’t think anyone will be surprised to find that poor findability correlated with decreased self-efficacy and decreased motivation. However, there was an interesting set of actionable findings regarding navigation and visual design that came from researchers watching participants attempt to navigate the courses. Consider looking for these types of things in your course or syllabus and then improving them:

  • navigation items that are not grouped into logical categories
  • poor labeling (e.g. using the file name instead of a true description)
  • poor categorization (e.g. placing an exam review under “Course Documents” instead of in the section labeled “Prepare for the Exam”)
  • deeply buried content (e.g. syllabus is buried four levels deep)

This article also got me thinking about whether the most important items of a syllabus might be presented in a more 21st-century-friendly manner. There is a whole rabbit hole of syllabi created as infographics on the Interwebs.

Probably your university is still going to want an old-fashioned text version, but maybe students could use more visual infographics for what I would consider the top-5 syllabus items of interest to students:

  • How is this course graded?
  • What are tests like?
  • Are there any projects or papers?
  • Do I have to attend class?
  • Is there group work?

As well as the additional syllabus items that instructors want them to know:

  • What are you going to learn?
  • Why should you care about what you are going to learn in this class?
  • How strict is this instructor on deadlines?
  • What is considered good/bad behavior in this class?
  • What are the instructor’s pet peeves? (come on, that’s a real thing and whole chapters of your syllabi get devoted to these issues)

Challenge: Take a fresh look at your syllabus and/or course shell. Assume that you do have findability issues and look for them. If you don’t think you have them, had over the questions above to a friend or family member and see how long it takes them to find the key components. Revise and improve the findability of important components to lower student frustration for the next semester.

Note: A weekly bite of learning design and a challenge goes out every week. If you’d like to have it delivered to your inbox, sign up at Weekly Teaching Challenge.


Simunich, B., Robins, D. B., & Kelly, V. (2015). The Impact of Findability on Student Motivation, Self-Efficacy, and Perceptions of Online Course Quality. American Journal of Distance Education, 29(3), 174-185.

Possibly Related Posts:

read more