January 15, 2017 2:19 pm

Norman Eng

Sorry, but college students couldn’t care less about your course.

It’s just one of many hoops they jump through to graduate and get a good job. While they care about doing well, more often than not your students feel powerless. They’re a captive audience.

That’s why you must sell what you’re teaching.

No, selling your course is not sleazy. In fact, psychologist Daniel H. Pink argues in his book, To Sell is Human, that teachers sell ideas every single day. Even more so in what entrepreneur James Altucher calls the idea economy.

Start by rethinking your course syllabus.

It is, after all, the first piece of communication your students read. Think of it like a sales brochure:

  • What problem does your customer have?
  • How can you address it?
  • What are the benefits (of your product/service)?
  • How can they learn more?

To help, think of the marketing acronym, AIDA, which stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. To be effective, your syllabus needs to: 1) get students’ attention; 2) get them interested in reading further; 3) increase their desire to learn; and 4) get them to do something—in this case, to show up to class every day ready.

Let’s look at three ways to incorporate AIDA into your syllabus.

1. Rewrite your course description and objectives

The best books hook you in the first sentence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” In journalism, they say, Don’t bury the lead. Yet most syllabi start with dry course descriptions and objectives.

Students gloss right over them.

To change that, answer the question they want to know: Why is this course important? Here’s how I rewrote my course description for Child Development:

Did you know that telling a child he or she is “smart” is not such a good idea? That listening to adults talk is not necessarily the best way for young children to learn? That “failing” can actually be a good thing? This course helps you better understand the young learner and how to develop them into successful adults.

For a would-be teacher, this (shortened) course description intrigues by challenging their pre-existing notions of educating children. Yours might answer big picture questions, like How does your brain work? Or What is the nature of justice?

As for the course objectives, use easy-to-read, every day language (“You will be able to …”) rather than formal wording (“Students will be able to …”). Think: sales brochure, not contract.

2. Incorporate sidebars to address student concerns

Students scan your syllabus for clues. They’re asking themselves, Is this textbook expensive? What does a typical class session look like? How much work do I need to put in? What’s the deal with this professor? Will I be able to handle the work? How likely will I get an A?

I use sidebars—like the ones you see in magazines articles—to provide “inside” information. This includes a preview of a typical session, the best websites to get the textbook, tips for doing well in the course, and information about me. Actually, I provide a short bio/profile, like the ones you might find on social media. Why not incorporate formats they know?

3. Think about what makes your course unique

What separates Coke from Pepsi? Apple from PCs? That is your unique selling proposition, or what marketers refer to as your USP. Apple’s USP is ease of use. Domino’s Pizza guarantees delivery in under 30 minutes or else the pizza’s free.

What do you provide—or what can you provide—that increase students desire to learn? Remember AIDA. Maybe you have proprietary material—your own work (blog perhaps?). Maybe you use hands-on practice other course sections do not, or have a killer guest speaker. In my theory courses, I teach students how to present (something they all do but never learn to do well). Nobody ever shows them how. My syllabus highlights this.

In the end, the best marketers and salespeople aren’t trying to rip you off. They’re thinking, How can I provide value to my customers? In your case, you have ideas—content—students could benefit from. With the amount of distractions in their lives, however, they don’t always see it. The syllabus is a great place to show them.

Disclaimer: With some departments, you have little leeway with your syllabus. They require you to follow a standard template. However, I would still revamp my syllabus to be more student-centered while including the necessary language and/or elements. Show it to your department head. What do you have to lose?

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