Annotate Your Syllabus 2.0

September 2020 Update: View all #AnnotatedSyllabus posts and resources.

In August of 2018, prior to the start of this school year, I shared some thoughts on Twitter about students annotating their course syllabi. The thread, in turn, motivated me to publish “Annotate Your Syllabus.”

Welcome to version 2.0.

Whether you teach in a K-12 or higher education classroom, whether you teach online or in a small face-to-face seminar, and whether you incorporate various learning technologies into your courses or prefer little digital activity, inviting students to annotate your course syllabus during the first week of class is a tremendous learning opportunity. Students can annotate online using a web annotation tool like Hypothesis. Or they can annotate big pieces of paper taped all around a classroom. Students can annotate by themselves, asynchronously, at their convenience. Or they can collaboratively annotate together, synchronously, and in shared online or classroom space. You can structure annotation through specific questions and prompts. Or you can encourage open-ended commentary.

As we educators prepare for a new semester in 2019, I’m revisiting the social, technological, and pedagogical supports that meaningfully encourage students to annotate their course syllabi. Before I share some of my recent thoughts, I’m pleased to highlight reflections from other educators who annotated their syllabi with students this fall and were also kind enough to share about it (check out #AnnotatedSyllabus, too).

If you are considering an annotated syllabus in 2019, here are four additional thoughts that you may find useful (and a reminder that if you haven’t already done so, read my first post, too).

Emphasize social reading. Students typically read a course syllabus on their own. When we educators ask students if they’ve read the syllabus, we presume a solo experience – “Did you, Student A, read the syllabus?” Even if students annotate your syllabus asynchronously, their commentary and questioning can become a shared resource among a group of learners. Annotating the syllabus turns the act of reading into a social experience. Annotation among a group is interactive and meant to spark shared conversation and collective inquiry. Emphasize that annotating your syllabus is a social and collaborative activity. 

Annotate with familiar technology. Are you using a web annotation technology, like Hypothesis, to support discussion of course readings? If so, then annotating your syllabus with Hypothesis is a great way to onboard students, introduce the technology, and practice technical skills. Maybe you and your students regularly use Google Docs. If so, create a GDoc version of your syllabus and use the built-in commenting and suggesting features. Alternatively, if you prefer printed pages and poster paper, put pen (or marker or highlighter) to paper. The important point is this – don’t let technology become a barrier to annotation and discussion. Use familiar technology. Annotating your syllabus doesn’t necessitate that you or your students learn a new tool or set of technical skills. The goal is to annotate, to ask questions, share thoughts, and start a discussion about learning together. 

Prompt students and focus commentary. Is the entire syllabus open for annotation? Are their certain course policies or assignments that are non-negotiable? Maybe so. While some educators may invite their students to an open-ended annotation experience, other educators may prefer to “seed” the syllabus with annotations in advance. Indicate – via annotation – areas of the syllabus that could use some tweaking. Highlight course details that are set in stone, those that may be more flexible, and those that require some co-design in consultation with students. Use your annotations to ask questions throughout the syllabus that students can then answer with their own annotations. While I may prefer a more open-ended approach, the proactive placement of annotations may be an effective strategy for other educators because of their discipline, or course content, or many other contextual factors.

Your syllabus is an ongoing conversation. Many educators and their students will annotate their course syllabus during the first week or two of the semester. And when, if at all, do you return to the syllabus? What if an assignment does change? What if the course schedule is adjusted? It’s important that an annotated syllabus function as an ongoing conversation about your course. Return to the syllabus every few weeks. Ask who has added a recent annotation or reply. Use the growing annotation layers to reflect upon the course’s progress and students’ learning. My hope is that an annotated syllabus is not engaged as only a unique beginning-of-the-term activity, but works to shift longer-term course conversations and assist in the ongoing refinement of shared learning experiences.

I hope educators welcome 2019 with an annotated syllabus. If you do, please share your thoughts and experiences via #AnnotatedSyllabus, too.

And finally, a few related resources for educators who want to dig deeper into aspects of syllabus design:


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