At ACU Online, we operate on a short semester system. We have six semesters a year, and each semester lasts seven weeks. Short semesters keep things fresh for everyone involved. Professors and students must quickly establish what some call a “class culture” or “class values.” It’s what I, an Austin-raised hippie, call the class vibe.
We launch a new semester at ACU Online early next week, so I’m busy planning and implementing the newest iteration of a graduate-level course. Fortunately, David I. Smith’s On Christian Teaching provides some useful prompts on trying to co-create the class vibe you want.
In chapter two of his book, Smith explains what the first nine minutes of his course may look like. It seems like a pretty standard opening. However, when he explains the why of what he does, you see that he plans everything to foster the kind of environment in which students will feel supported, appropriately challenged, and ready to develop the skills they need for their given field. You see how much goes into a great class experience. He provides the following prompt to help us plan our initial meetings:
What do you want students to learn in the first days of your course about the values informing it and the ways in which they will be expected to engage? In what specific ways could you communicate respect and care to your students at the beginning of a semester?David I. Smith’s On Christian Teaching, p. 26.
In my Digital Learning Mission Statement, I explain that my core values include servant-leadership, self-determination (becoming), and integration. That’s what I’m about, so that’s the vibe I want in the classroom. I want the student experience to align with the values. Here’s what I’m thinking for the first class:
Unless students have already had me in a class or otherwise know me, it is unfair and probably unwise of me to assume they know my heart and my intentions for them. In my opening messages, I think it’s important to explicitly state that I’m here to help them succeed in their learning and professional goals. I’ll share my contact information and calendar with them, as well as affirming that we can talk about the specific class, the broader field of study, higher ed, or whatever they’d like. I’ll let them know I’m a first-generation college student myself, so if there’s any higher ed advice they’d like, I will help them with that, too.
Finally, I’ll provide them with an opportunity to schedule a 1-1 meeting with me or fill out a quick online survey telling me their goals. If there’s anything they need prayer for or anything specific they’d like me to focus on in the course. I hope all of that says servant-leadership without me ever saying “servant-leader.”
I mentioned earlier this is a graduate class. Adult learners have full lives. They work, they have family and social obligations, and they probably want to get some relaxation every once in a while! That’s important to remember. I’ll query students from the get-go about specific areas they’d like me to focus on in the course. That’s part of self-determination. I’ll mention that I’m trying to help them master the material and apply it to their lives. Some assignments require stricter APA-style prose; other assignments have more freedom. Students can turn in videos, podcasts, slideshows, or any other examples of material mastery. When possible, students can tailor assignments to meet their own needs or contexts. Students can write in their voices.
Integration is about being a whole, unified person. It means values and actions align. It means that a person and the organization and the culture harmonize, as well.
This pops up in the class in myriad ways. While I often look formal in videos, I also share bits of my private life and informal videos. When I started teaching, I kept myself separate. This led to student course evals demonstrating I was difficult to approach and intimidating. That worked well for me as an attorney in my previous position, but it works less well when I want a vibe of integration. It also demonstrated a disconnect between my stated values and behavior.
Another way to build integration in the course is to help model and establish communication norms so that everyone assumes the best of one another and can work together well over the next couple of months.
Finally, the assignments and skills used to complete them should align with the kinds of skills and information used within the field of study itself.