At the start of every semester at the University, students enjoy the great tradition of syllabus week. The time is marked by shortened lectures, cancelled discussion sections and the only time outside of exams that almost every student will attend class. While this process is a decent way to start the semester, the three weeks following syllabus week should be quite the opposite.
Currently, I’m taking two different courses, either of which will complete my distribution requirements and allow me to graduate in April. One is a natural science course about the environment, and the other is a philosophy class about symbolic analysis. While both courses are interesting, taught well and will help me in life after I leave the University, I’m not sure which course to take because I cannot tell how I’ll do on the exams and papers. The good news is that both have assignments due this week that I can use to gauge how I’ll fare during finals, and I can use the drop/add period to evaluate the course work that will ultimately evaluate me. Unfortunately, many courses don’t provide similar feedback to students to determine their ability to succeed.
The drop/add deadline at the University is 20 days after the first day of classes. This deadline is designed to afford students a period of time to better understand the content of their courses, determine their ability to interact with the professor and assess how much they’ll likely learn. During this time, students should receive some feedback about their ability to perform throughout the semester. Instructors can accomplish this with small — even non-graded — assignments that students can complete in the first three weeks of the semester. These assignments could be responses to prompts that might appear on a midterm, math problem sets, or abbreviated versions of larger assignments. These tasks should only take a small portion of students’ time, but provide at least some basic idea of how the student will perform in the class.
I’m not suggesting that students should be allowed to game the system by taking only courses in which they will find success. However, I think students should be given a solid idea and expectation of what is necessary for them to perform well in each course they take. This is good for students because they will have a realistic understanding of their capacity to succeed in the course, and — ideally — more courses will evaluate students on more than just a few exams or papers.
There are a few ways to increase the amount of relevant feedback students receive in time to impact their decision to select courses. First, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts must take action to ensure that all new courses provide students with some grade or other feedback early in the class. The LSA Curriculum Committee — the body that recommends which courses should be offered in future semesters — should have a policy to only approve courses which include basic assignments in the first few weeks that are included on the course syllabus. This policy doesn’t need to be a specific requirement for course approval, but those who serve on the committee should only recommend courses that include work for students to complete within the first 20 days.
Beyond LSA making an effort to welcome new courses that provide students with timely and relevant feedback, students should recognize instructors who help them determine if courses are a good fit. LSA Student Government should provide awards and recognition for instructors who provide feedback to students to use in making course selections. In recognizing instructors who serve students in this way, their methods should be a resource for instructors in all departments. This resource will list the leading practices in LSA for providing graded and non-graded work to students within the drop/add period.
Some instructors use the first three weeks as to review old concepts and establish guidelines. This time shouldn’t be employed just to review how students earn their grades. Instead, the time should be used to help students verify they can be successful given the format and requirements of the course. Students know their academic strengths and weaknesses and should use the period before the drop/add deadline to determine if courses fit their capabilities. LSA must help and require instructors provide feedback in time for students to add or drop their courses.
Jeff Wojcik is an academic relations officer for LSA-SG. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.