SIP 4.1 Creating Inviting Course Documents

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

We put tremendous time and energy into formulating our course assignment guidelines and scoring criteria, as well as communicating them to students. Unfortunately, our students often aren’t actually reading or understanding them. When we create course documents that are inviting to our diverse student population, we can increase the likelihood that students will read them and understand them.

Take a SIP of This: Creating Inviting Course Documents

Think of the planning you do for your course assignment as separate from the assignment guidelines you will give to your students. The planning is for you, the instructor, to figure out what you want students to produce, the process you want them to go through, and how you will assess the product they create. But the way you write up these guidelines for your students should be done with a clear sense of your students as an audience. Separating the two operations helps you communicate your expectations with a clear sense of audience in a voice that is helpful, engaging, and inviting.

The assignment sheet you give students should convey your enthusiasm for the assignment, your willingness to support students throughout the process of completing the assignment, and the idea that the assignment itself is a learning experience (not purely an assessment of their ability to do something).

Here are some ideas you might keep in mind as you are writing the document for students:

  • Just as a good introduction should include a “hook” to get readers interested, the first part of the assignment sheet should include a “hook” to entice students to be interested in the assignment. Will this assignment help them develop important skills? Does it relate to an interest they have? What’s in it for them? Why are you excited about them doing this assignment?
  • Keep the document positive by focusing on what students should do rather than on what they shouldn’t. If you want students to avoid Wikipedia as a source, tell them “use only scholarly sources.” If you want them to refrain from simply copying and pasting source material into their drafts, tell them “remember to paraphrase all source material into your own words and properly document it.”
  • If there are multiple steps students need to engage in to complete the assignment, consider conveying this with a numbered list. Many students become overwhelmed by a large project; breaking it down into smaller, manageable steps can help them understand exactly what they need to do and in what order.
  • When you are writing the assignment, keep in mind that your students are not a homogeneous group. You might have veterans, working parents, first-generation college students, English language learners, and others in your class. Write the assignment to be accessible to all of them, not just the “good students.” In addition to clearly written assignment guidelines, this may mean reviewing the assignment in class, pointing students toward particular pages in the textbook that are relevant to the assignment, and/or reminding students of resources on campus, such as the Auraria Library and Writing Center, that can offer support.
  • Help students understand what is most important about the assignment by devoting more attention in the handout to the important things. If formatting is not the most important aspect of the assignment, do not put more words toward describing formatting than you do other aspects of the assignment.
  • Consider incorporating infographics or other non-textual elements into the assignment sheet to help students digest the information. You might include an image of a calendar with a reasonable timeline to help students understand how much time to devote to each element of the assignment.
  • Instead of stating that confused students should come see you, which stigmatizes the students who come talk to you, try something like “I would love to talk to you about your draft or research. Please come see me during office hours or make an appointment.”
  • When you are done writing the assignment sheet, put it aside. The next day, read it and ask yourself, “Who would feel invited into this text? Who might feel excluded?” If you are not satisfied with your answer, revise the assignment sheet.

Finally, on the day you give the assignment to students, consider presenting the assignment in a way that engages them rather than simply reading the document to them. For example, you could hand the assignment out, give students time to read and annotate it in class, then ask them to pair up with someone and talk through the questions they have. Then have a whole-class discussion about the assignments.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Creating Inviting Course Documents

  • For information about user-centered document design check out UsabilityNet.
  • Tulane University’s Accessible Syllabus page has helpful information about how to frame requirements more positively.
  • focuses on creating inviting syllabi in particular, but many of the principles can be applied to other course documents.

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