Managing Course, Program, and Faculty Information to Help Students Make Better Enrollment Decisions

Excerpt: Getting students enrolled in the right programs and courses at the right time can have a big impact on their success. Students often select majors and enroll in a course with a set of expectations that are very different from reality. Providing richer and more relevant information can reduce these problems. By studying this article and its linked resources, and by using the associated shared files, you will be able to: • Explain the most important sources of course and program information available to students. • Develop a design document that clearly communicates the expected learning accomplishments and course structure of a program. • Develop a plan to improve the quality of syllabi and their accessibility by various constituents. • Develop a plan to improve the management process for catalog and syllabus development, approval, and publishing. • Develop a rubric to help faculty author and review syllabi. • Construct a Course Bulletin/Prospectus that enables students to select courses based on their preferred instructional mode and other important characteristics. • Construct and share end of course surveys and faculty online portfolios that provide relevant information that helps students select courses and instructors.

Introduction

There are essentially three documents that students consult most when making decisions about the programs and courses in which they enroll – the Catalog, the Course Prospectus, and course syllabi. In addition, if available, the may look at data from end of course surveys or online instructor ratings. From the perspective of helping students make better enrollment decisions, all these sources offer opportunities for improvement.

The Catalog in print at the time of a student’s admission is a contract between the institution and the student that defines the programs of study that must be completed for each credential. It generally contains short course descriptions that give limited insight into the actual learning experience. It also lists courses within the colleges and academic programs that deliver them. The time-frame for updating the catalog can be long – changes often must be submitted up to year in advance of publication. In addition, since some faculty do not submit timely changes it is not unusual for course descriptions to be out of date, and in some cases totally disconnected from what is taught in the course.

Syllabi are more comprehensive and current documents about the course but may not be distributed until the first day of class, or only accessible in the learning management system to students who have already enrolled in the course.

The Course Prospectus/Bulletin is essentially an online interactive database, generated within the Student Information System (commonly Banner or PeopleSoft). It provides students with information about which courses are scheduled to run in which terms, usually a semester or two into the future, and enables students to select the courses in which they wish to enroll. It has basic information extracted from the Catalog and course syllabi such as the course title, type, number of credit hours, contact hours, and pre- and co-requisite courses, but adds specific days and times, location, and instructors assigned. It also usually indicates enrollment caps, the number of seats available, and special conditions for enrollment such as permission of instructor.

Inadequate information and restricted access may mean that students make poor decisions about the courses in which they enroll. Significant drop-add activity at the beginning of each term may result, as students try to figure out which courses best suit their needs. This may result in students starting classes late and missing critical content or tests, affecting their performance in the course. Lack of access to, and clarity about programs and their courses may even result in students changing their major, with a resultant loss of valuable credits. The opposite is also true – the richer and more accessible the information we share with students about programs and courses is, the more likely they are to make good decisions about course selection and majors.

Documenting and Sharing Course and Program Information

The Program Design Document

Students benefit greatly from understanding the learning expectations (henceforth understood to be the outcomes and incomes) of the programs and courses in which they enroll. Providing them with a program design document that describes the relationships between program goals, program and course learning outcomes and incomes (see Figure 3 in Defining What, Where, and When We Want Students to Learn), and the sequence of course as described in Figure 1, would ensure that they have a clearer understanding of the course of study they are considering. This program design document could form the basis of an orientation, perhaps as part of a major day. The information could also be included in the catalog and made available to students on the institutional web site. If consistently implemented, this would reduce the number of changes in major. The program design document would also be invaluable to student advisors, helping them determine which courses are needed to complete programs, and to conduct what-if scenarios with students considering alternate majors.

The Syllabus

The syllabus is the document that should clearly defines each course. Faculty use the syllabus to plan its learning expectations, activities and evaluations, and to communicate policies. Students use it to make decisions about which courses to choose and, once enrolled, to plan their schedule and track due dates, etc. Committees use it as a resource document when planning and approving curricula. Program and institutional reviewers, such as accrediting bodies, expect to have access to them during site visits. Syllabi are therefore very important documents that should be considered the property of the institution and not individual faculty.

Syllabus Contents

The contents of syllabi vary across institutions. Some of the information is (or should be) common to all sections of the course offered so that, for example, all students are equally well prepared for subsequent courses in the curriculum. Some of the section information may be unique if it is taught by a different instructor – for example, academic freedom dictates that each instructor may select their own learning activities. At some institutions this information may be contained in a separate document – at Mercy College NY for example, there is a common syllabus for a course but a separate course outline for each section. The following information is usually found in these documents:

  • Common information
    • Course name. *
    • Course description for the university catalog (since the catalog usually limits word count this can be expanded upon in the syllabus). *
    • Course number reflecting the level which usually indicates whether it is part of an undergraduate, masters, or doctoral program, or in some cases, serves multiple degrees. *
    • Course learning goals and how they might serve the program goals. *
    • Course learning outcomes and how they might serve the program learning outcomes. *
    • Co- and pre-requisite courses which must be completed. *
    • Courses for which the current course serves as a pre-requisite. *
    • Credit hours awarded for the course. *
    • Contact hours required for the course. *
    • Course format – lecture, lab, etc. *
    • Support services (tutoring, accessibility, etc.) available to students.
    • Special course fees.
    • Textbooks (if the department has decided that a common set of text books should be used in all course sections).
    • Statement on cheating and plagiarism.
    • Statement on cell phone use, computer use, and other professional and personal behaviors.
  • Section specific information.
    • Instructor information.
      • Name.
      • Office hours and location.
      • Contact information.
    • Learning Management System or other course web site links.
    • Class, lab, and other meeting locations.
    • Textbooks (if defined by section instructors) and other assigned reading, such as articles.
    • Learning activities – lectures, projects, papers, etc.
    • Out of class activities and associated costs.
    • Overall grading scheme (what constitutes an A, etc.).
    • Evaluations (tests, assignments, quizzes, class participation, etc.) and their relative weighting.
    • Course schedule and activity locations – class times, testing dates, assignment due dates, etc.
    • Attendance and participation policy – online and face-to-face.
    • Policy for tests (open book, what can be brought, what can be worn, etc.).
    • Student expectations of the instructor – turnaround time on grading, response time to communications, etc.

The quality of a syllabus may be improved if faculty are provided with a rubric (1)developed by Dr. Tori Mondelli and the faculty support team at Mercy College, NY, such as the one shared in the document library, that provides guidance on its content and structure. The rubric can also be used by the curriculum committee to provide feedback to the faculty responsible for the course during initial and periodic reviews.

In his interview for Innovations in Education, Stony Brook University’s Dr. Norman Goodman discusses why syllabi are such important documents and what a syllabus should contain. In addition to the standard description of class schedule, textbooks, objectives and grading, the syllabus should clearly define what the instructor expects of the students and what they can expect of the instructor. Learning objectives help focus the students and provide structure to the course to ensure that appropriate material is covered. Norm constantly refers to the syllabus as he teaches and makes it available to his students in the Blackboard course management system. http://tinyurl.com/yt-Goodman

Syllabus Approval

Few courses exist in a vacuum. Most are part of a program curriculum, either as part of a credential (degree, minor, certificate, etc.) or serving the General/Liberal Education program. As such, each is a piece in a larger jig-saw puzzle and must fit the program requirements. To ensure this fit, courses are reviewed and must be approved by the Curriculum Committee (experimental courses may be allowed to run for a defined period without approval as faculty test demand and hone the design of a course). The syllabus is a critical document in the review process. Some of the information is core to the nature and purpose of the course and therefore usually part of the information requested by the curriculum committee during its review. These items are indicated by an * in the list above.

Each course review takes significant time investment by the committee members. Courses do and should evolve, but not every change requires a review by the curriculum committee. It is good practice to clearly define the threshold beyond which committee re-approval is required. For example, a cumulative change in 20% or more of the course learning outcomes since its last review might trigger the process.

Syllabus Access

As a rich source of information about the course, the syllabus should be available to students considering taking the course and not just to students enrolled in it. For faculty who believe that the course syllabus is their personal intellectual property, online access can easily be restricted to employees and current students at the institution. In addition, only the components of the syllabi that aid in course selection, such as the description, goals and learning expectations, delivery methods, etc., would need to be accessible, although the more information that is available the better. Ideally, for each course, the relevant sections of the catalog, course syllabus, course prospectus, and program design documents should be interconnected and cross-referenced online.

Improving Catalog and Syllabus Management

Given the importance of the catalog and syllabi, and the complexity of the change management and approval processes, it is not surprising that several software systems have been developed to manage the process. Most of these are now cloud-based services which have the advantage of off-campus access, and access that is independent of enrollment in the course. These systems may offer the following advantages (features vary by vendor):

  • Course descriptions in the catalog can be linked to the respective syllabus.
  • Common standard statements on support services can be added automatically to all syllabi, as can information on the academic calendar for the semester.
  • An online form can be provided which acts as a syllabus template, reminding faculty of the information which should be included, and doing so in a consistent interface for the faculty and students. Field editing can be restricted by role. For example, the department chair might be allowed to change the approved course learning outcomes, whereas each section instructor could change their contact information.
  • A workflow system can enable faculty to submit, and the curriculum committee to review, approve and publish proposed changes to courses.

It is a good practice that the institution designates by policy, that the online system is the official version of the syllabus / course outline which is the contract between the student and the instructor about what will be taught and tested in the course. This ensures that all sections of courses cover the required core material approved by the faculty body and curtails curricular drift – the gradual unapproved change in a course over time. For example, it is not unheard of for professional adjuncts, who teach similar courses at multiple institutions, to provide their own syllabus to students so they do not need to redesign the course for each. Other strengths of broader access include:

  • Clear and available online learning outcomes make it easier for admissions staff or faculty reviewers to compare extramural and intramural courses to determine transfer credit.
  • Other instructors, especially those teaching pre, co-requisite, and subsequent courses, can get a better sense of the course and adapt their learning expectations around it.
  • Online access can assist tutors in identifying the learning expectation with which a student needs assistance.
  • Learning outcomes can more easily be transferred into other systems to track, for example, student progress, early alerts, etc.
  • Advisors can get better information about courses.

Improving the Course Prospectus/Bulletin

Learners come to courses with a wide range of capabilities, learning styles, and biases. One student may excel at writing papers and would choose courses that focus on this method of evaluation. Another may enjoy group-based learning but be terrified by public speaking. Since instructional style and methods of evaluation vary by instructor and with the nature of the course, each section/instructor combination could have metadata associated with it in. These flags might include the following characteristics:

  • Community service opportunity
  • Experiential learning opportunity
  • Game based learning
  • Group learning activities
  • Inquiry-based learning
  • Math intensive
  • Problem-based learning
  • Project-based
  • Public speaking intensive
  • Short term study-abroad
  • Undergraduate research opportunity
  • Writing intensive

Publishing this information in the course prospectus/bulletin would enable students to make better informed decisions about the courses they take. Students could group and filter courses to find those that offer specific opportunities/learning modalities or take advantage of their preferred learning style.

A White Paper available in the shared document library, provides a tool to start the discussion at your institution about appropriate course information sharing.

Instructor Information

Most institutions conduct end of course surveys in which they ask students to rate the effectiveness of a course and its instructors. Students are often asked to do participate with little understanding of how this information is used, and the impact it can have on faculty evaluations. They complete the surveys with limited exposure to or understanding of the wide diversity of teaching techniques that are available to instructors, and with little or no training on how to provide constructive feedback. It would be valuable to address these issues in orientation and courses that prepare students to be successful in college (see the section on Transitioning to College in the article Defining What, Where, and When We Want Students to Learn). Student feedback to instructors would as a result be more useful. As educated consumers, students would therefore become a force for positive change within the institution.

Course evaluations contain rich information about courses and instructors that can help students in their selection process. The section on Preparing Students for Each Instructor in Ensuring Students are Prepared to Be Successful Learners addresses enhanced information about the nature of the course, the teaching and testing style of the instructor, resource recommendations and success strategies from students who have completed the course, that might be collected in the end of course survey.

When students are not given access to course survey results, they often resort to using less pertinent sources such as RateMyProfessors.com. In addition, certainly at public universities, survey results must legally be released if the institution receives a request under the Freedom of Information Act – some companies are routinely doing this to use the data as a hook to market other services. With the advent of online course evaluation systems, it is very easy to make the results available to the student body. However, there can be varying degrees of support for this within the faculty. One of the biggest concerns expressed by the faculty at Stony Brook University when this was proposed was with sharing the student comments, as these could occasionally be unprofessional and even defamatory. To address this concern the resolution presented to the Faculty Senate gave faculty access to the data two weeks prior to publication and enabled them to request of their supervisor that any comments that were defamatory or violated the student conduct code be removed from survey results. The complete resolution is provided in the shared document library.

Faculty might also be encouraged to voluntarily share additional information about themselves in an online web site or ePortfolio. This information might include a statement of their teaching philosophy, and experience in teaching, assessment and the scholarship or teaching and learning.

Impact

Improvements in access to, and the breadth and quality of content within the Catalog, Course Prospectus, course syllabi, end of course surveys, and instructor ePortfolios, would improve student understanding of program and course learning and other expectations. This should result in a reduction in drop/add activity, greater success in courses, and fewer changes in major for students.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Managing Course, Program, and Faculty Information to Help Students Make Better Enrollment Decisions by Graham Glynn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

References   [ + ]

1. developed by Dr. Tori Mondelli and the faculty support team at Mercy College, NY

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Managing Course, Program, and Faculty Information to Help Students Make Better Enrollment Decisions by Graham Glynn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



Categories: Chief Academic Affairs Office Staff, Dean’s Office Staff (Deans, Executive Deans, Associate/Assistant Deans, etc.), Department Chair Office Staff (Chairs, Assistant Chairs, Program Directors, etc.), President’s Office Staff, Vice President Student Affairs Staff (VP, Assoc./Assist. VP, etc.)

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