Using Your Course Outline as a Learning Tool

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Written by Carmen Larsen, TCDC Curriculum Consultant

Some students are used to taking a passive role in their learning, expecting that instructors will transfer their knowledge and wisdom to them through lectures and photocopied PowerPoint slides. These students are likely unaware of the research coming from the learning sciences illustrating that learning happens when people actively engage with new information, and so they are surprised and a little uncomfortable when instructors ask them to do so throughout the semester.

One way to set the tone for active learning in your course is to get your students actively exploring course content right from the start: with your course outline.

Course outlines are contracts between you and your students that outline important administrative and logistical information, and clarify expectations for assignments, grade allocations, and behaviours. But perhaps most importantly, your course outline invites students to your course by explicitly communicating to them what the course will be like and what they can expect to learn. Unfortunately, upon receiving their course outlines, many students quickly skim the evaluation section, and then stuff this valuable document into their books or bags, never looking at it again.

Here are a few activities you can use on the first day of class and throughout the semester to help your students retain important information from your course outline and begin to take a more active role in their learning.

First Day of Class

  1. Course Outline Quiz
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One way to communicate to students that you want them to take an active, engaged approach to their learning is to give them an “open book” course outline quiz on day one rather than reading it to them. Students can work on their own or in pairs to answer questions about important information in the course outline. They can then hand this quiz in for participation points, and you can review the quiz, not by telling students the answers, but by eliciting the answers from the class. This sets the active learning tone for the class right on the first day of class, and also helps you check that students understand the key information on the course outline. Here are a few different ways this quiz activity can be done.

Option A: Individually, students write their answers to the quiz questions (5 mins), then they are paired with a classmate they don’t know (great way to get students meeting each other on day one) and they compare their answers. Partners must come to a consensus (3 mins). The instructor collects all quizzes and then shows a blank quiz and quickly elicits answers from the class, clarifying information as necessary.

Option B: Each student is given a course outline. In pairs, students complete one quiz (3 mins) and then compare answers with another group (more opportunities to break the ice on day one). Again, the instructor collects all quizzes, shows a blank quiz, and quickly elicits answers.

Option C: Individually, students complete the quiz for homework. At the start of the second class, students are paired up or put in small groups (preferably with people they haven’t met yet), and compare answers. The instructor collects all quizzes, shows a blank quiz, and quickly elicits answers.

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Option D: Instructors can use a jigsaw method to have students interact and share the key information contained in the course outline. Prepare 3 different versions of the course outline, each missing different pieces of information. Label each version A, B, or C to keep track of the different versions. Put students in groups of 3 (again, preferably grouping students with classmates they don’t know) and hand out one set (A, B, C) of course outlines to each group, asking individual students not to show the papers they receive to their partners. In these groups, after introducing each other, students work together to fill in missing information and complete the quiz (5-7 mins). As each student has different information, there is more incentive for them to authentically interact. The instructor collects all quizzes, shows a blank quiz, and quickly elicits answers. NOTE: It is recommended that instructors hand out complete course outlines to all students after completing the jigsaw.

This type of jigsaw activity can also been used as a homework assignment in which students research different college policies included in the course outline and then teach them to each other at the beginning of the following class. (This type of activity also works well with course reading material.)

  1. Engaging with Course Learning Outcomes and Course Alignment

Another way of communicating to students expectations around active learning using your course outline is by giving them time on day one to reflect on the learning outcomes and their alignment to course assessments and materials. Activities that require students to stop and consider outcomes and course alignment help them understand the purpose and relevance of course materials, activities, and assessments and allow them to take more control of their learning. Here are a few strategies:

Option A: Individually, students take a few minutes to read the course learning outcomes (CLOs) and label them. A “K” beside a CLO means that the student feels that they already have the knowledge and skills required to complete this learning outcome. An “F” beside a CLO means that the student feels they are familiar with some of the elements (theories, terminology, concepts, skills etc.) of the learning outcome and could complete it partially. A “?” beside a CLO means the student doesn’t have any knowledge related to the learning outcome or doesn’t understand it. Once students have labelled the CLOs, they sit with a partner or in a small group and share their answers. If they’ve written “K” or “F” beside any of the CLOs, students are invited to share their knowledge with their group (while the instructor walks around the class listening and doing an informal diagnostic of the knowledge and skill levels of their new students). 

Option B: Individually, students take a couple of minutes to read the course learning outcomes and rate the CLOs based on interest/intrigue level or need-to-know level based on their educational and career goals. After rating the CLOs on their own, they then share this rating with 1-2 classmates to break the ice.

Option C: After completing one of the activities above, or another task that encourages students to reflect on the CLOs, in pairs or small groups students try to match the CLOs to the assessments. For example, students can consider which CLOs they might need to demonstrate through the quizzes or exams and which might align to projects, papers or other assignments listed on the course outline. This activity can only be done if the assessment descriptions are a bit detailed on your course outline. If your assessment descriptions are more concise, you can simply describe a few of the assignments orally and have students work in groups to identify the related CLO. Wrap up this activity by handing out a weekly syllabus that makes this alignment between CLOs, assessments, and class materials and activities explicit and have students check their answers.

Throughout the Semester

As the weeks go by, you can use the course outline to help students reflect on and monitor their progress and plan and prioritize tasks. Here are a few ways to do this.

Week 3 or 4 (and again in week 9 or 10)

At the beginning of class, ask students to pull out their course outlines again, and review and update the labels (K, F, ?) that they wrote next to the CLOs on day one. Can they change any ?’s into F’s or K’s? This can also be done using a can-do checklist activity that asks students to reflect on their progress toward achieving the learning outcomes that have been explored in class so far. This can be quite motivating for students as they can explicitly see their progress as well as compare what they thought they knew on day one with what they know now.

Image by Анастасия Гепп from Pixabay

To help the students with planning, organizing and prioritizing (skills that many students struggle with), you can also ask them to complete a short written reflection for homework in which they identify which CLOs they’ve made the most progress on, those they are struggling with, and the steps they’re going to take to make further progress and/or get support (i.e., going to instructor office hours, finding a peer to study with, going to the Learning Commons). This is a great way to help students practice self-regulated learning, and it also gives you, the instructor, important information about how your students are doing in your course.

These are just a few of the many ways instructors can use course outlines as learning tools on the first day of classes and throughout the semester.  If you have other strategies or tips for using course outlines to enhance learning, please share them in the comments section below. 

Langara Course Outline Resources

Policy F1003: Course Outlines

Course Outline Procedures