Getting students to read the syllabus is often a challenge in online courses. It is not uncommon for students to ask faculty questions that have answers easily found in the document. Even if students do read the syllabus, they may only skim through it. Ways to encourage a thorough reading include strategies like “easter egg” hunts where students find particular items to pass a syllabus quiz. This article will explore another method that uses a software application called Perusall, which is designed to encourage close reading.
Perusall is used at the Oregon State University Ecampus as a learning technology integration with Canvas, the learning management system. Using Perusall, students can highlight, make comments, and ask questions on a document. There is a grading interface with Canvas and a variety of settings, including reminders for students to complete the assignment. It offers a useful way for students to engage with the syllabus together, which can lead to closer reading than if they had done so individually.
To test this idea, a professor used this approach with a 400/500 class that involved multiple assignments in Perusall throughout the term. If the syllabus assignment proved useful in Perusall, then it would also serve as an introduction to the platform for students. Here are some examples of student engagement that resulted from this activity:
- Requests for additional background material to check for prerequisite knowledge.
- Interest in the website of the professor (linked to in the syllabus).
- Shoutouts to the course teaching assistant.
- Concerns about the prerequisites for the class, which were addressed by the professor specifically.
- Questions about technology used in the course based on students’ previous experiences in other courses.
- Gratitude for ending the course week on Mondays instead of Sundays.
- Confirmation by a student that the textbook is available as an electronic copy at the library.
- Inquiries into the length and other logistics of Zoom office hours.
- Excitement expressed by a student about a focus paper requirement.
- Queries about how grade numbers are rounded and types of quiz questions.
- Exchanges between a TA and a student looking forward to further discussions in Perusall.
- Clarifications about the different work expected for undergraduates and graduates.
- Ideas about how to communicate as a class.
- Questions about the details of major assignments.
- Appreciation of opportunities to participate in frequent knowledge checks.
- Thanks for the late assignment policy and statements about flexibility.
- Advice about how to check assignment due dates.
Students’ comments and conversations helped to initiate a feeling of community in the course. Many logistical issues were clarified for students by providing and encouraging a forum for discussion. There were highlights and comments by students on seven of ten pages of the syllabus. The three pages that were not discussed were university required policies. There were no negative comments about using Perusall as a syllabus activity. So this seems like a good method to engage students at the beginning of a course to prepare them for success. It may be especially helpful for classes using Perusall in other assignments because it provides a way to practice using the application.
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