The Course Syllabus: A Report
Copyright © 2005 Bill Petkanas
There are as many ways to create a syllabus as there are types of professors.
The course syllabus is an important document. It is usually the first contact with our students and it sets up the expectations and requirements for what is to follow. It's worth asking, then, what should it be? How should I construct it?
I addressed this question to the literature on college teaching with the expectation that I would discover the answer. Surely, I thought in my innocence, the considerable interest and research on pedagogy would have produced the recipe for excellent syllabi. I was not disappointed.
There are, it turns out, as many different recipes for great syllabi as there are research projects dedicated to discovering them. It seems an excellent syllabus, like an excellent pot of chili, is a matter of taste and style. Good cooks know how to review recipes and take from this one and that one, the elements which will help them create their own fabulous chili. It seems that the same is true of the course syllabus. The recipes for a great syllabus below are available for you to follow or to use to generate ideas for your syllabi.
All of them come from research in which excellent college teachers have been identified through some set of criteria and those instructors were observed and/or interviewed. One aspect to be aware of is that many or all of those studied are institutions which allow course "shopping" (the practice that allows students to sit in on courses for a week or so and then decide on which ones to register for). This system may place a great deal more importance on the syllabus than we experience. Even so, the researchers found many good reasons to create complete, detailed syllabi. Keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive review of how to make a syllabus.
The Promising Syllabus
Background: Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do studied teachers who were identified as excellent (criteria involved student satisfaction, evidence of sustained influence on students, and a sense of excitement). The study then examined these teachers to see how they prepare, teach, relate with students, conduct classes and evaluate their students.
The Syllabus as promise contains three parts.
- The Promise. Lay out the educational promises and opportunities that this course will make available to students. It is an invitation to participate in a set of educational goals. It may begin with a story to set up what is exciting about the content of the course and then make the promises about what students will be able to do when they invest their effort in the course.
- Ways to fulfill the promise (formerly called "requirements" or "assignments.") This section explains what is expected of the students with full explanations of how these activities, papers, etc., work to fulfill the promise. The section insists that students are responsible for making the promise come true, which include the learning objectives and whatever habits of the heart or mind that may accompany the objectives.
- Ways to assess the nature and progress of learning (formerly "grading policy.") This should address grading as a dialog, e.g., "we will look at the following in order to provide feedback and assess your ability to _____."
The Learning Centered Syllabus
Background: Judith Grunert is at the Center for Instructional Development at Syracuse University. She advocates moving from instructional paradigms to learning paradigms. In terms of the syllabus, this means shifting the focus from what is covered in a course to what students need to be successful learners in a course.
The syllabus should be a very detailed document, more like a handbook than the one or two pages which is typically given to students. It should set high expectations for the students and for the instructor. There are six steps in planning to construct a syllabus.
- Develop a good rationale for the course. Consider writing a syllabus as an act of scholarship, complete with grounded assumptions and rules of evidence. Determine why the course begins and ends where it does. Consider what students should find fascinating. Explain where this course fits in with other courses.
- Determine goals and how they will be assessed. Consider how the means of assessment will be connected to the learner's world and frames of reference. Consider multiple ways of assessing learning and include some forms of self-assessment.
- Define the content. Consider what is worth knowing in terms of the course. Focus on the most important knowledge, skills and values. Be aware that too much content often means poorly learned (and soon forgotten) content. If critical thinking is an element, develop the problems, questions, issues that will best support it.
- Structure active involvement. Decide where different approaches will best suit the desired outcomes and use accordingly. A mix of modes of involvement may work best, choosing from training and coaching, lecturing and explaining, inquiry and discovery, groups and teams, experience and reflection.
- Identify and develop course resources. Identify what people, material and strategies will facilitate learning. List what readings, panels, speakers, lectures, collaborative activities, videos, maps, studios, labs, data bases, internet sites, etc., will assist in learning. Consider how you might challenge students to identify further resources.
- Focus on student learning when constructing the syllabus. After completing steps one through five, you are ready to begin writing the syllabus. This document establishes a point of contact, sets the tone for the course, describes purposes, logistics, expectations, and responsibilities. It can serve as a resource document and as a learning contract, among other things. Grunert suggests the following checklist for a syllabus:
- Title page
- Table of contents
- Instructor information
- Letter to the student
- Purpose of the course
- Course description
- Course and unit objectives
- Course calendar
- Course requirements
- Grading procedures
- How to use the syllabus
- How to study for this course
- Content information
- Learning tools
As you might guess from the length of this list and the fact that she suggests that all handouts, assignments, etc., be distributed in this package, the syllabus becomes a long, detailed and complete document. She suggests the title "course handbook" rather than syllabus and, judging by the examples of tables of contents, are likely to run more than 75 pages. Examples of each the categories on the checklist are included in her book.
The Demanding Syllabus
Sharon Ann Baiocco
Background: Sharon A. Baiocco's Successful College Teaching is based on extensive interviews with 30 award-winning professors. Their teaching situations ranged from nine student labs to 400 student lecture classes. She found their syllabi to be rigid frames to communicate course information, model good planning, and demonstrate that the instructor understands the demands of the class and cares about the student. The demands are challenging and serious, but the language shifts between stern and warmly supportive.
Course objectives should be explicit and behaviorally oriented. Students should know what they will be expected to do and how this relates to the course content. For example, Demonstrate knowledge of ___ through ___ (discussion, term papers, examinations, written reports, etc.).
Course policies should be firm and limited to that which is essential and enforceable. Some examples include: all work must be typed, will not be accepted after the due date, no incompletes, no exceptions will be made, do not make travel plans before the exam date, do not enter after the scheduled start time of a class, and so on. These statements are emphatic, clear, and designed to encourage an expectation of high quality and conscientiousness. For some of these it is desirable to have the students decide on the requirements so that they buy into the due date, paper, report, etc.
In concert with the rigid frame is the supportive language which conveys a sense of interest on the course as well as the student. For example, "This particular material may be hard to understand at first, but trust me that after we reach a certain point, it will become clear. Don't get overwhelmed, just hang in there with me." And "individual assistance is always available by appointment," which also forestalls excuses that schedule conflicts were a problem in seeking help.
The Practical Syllabus
Barbara Gross Davis
Background: Barbara Davis's Tools for Teaching is a compendium of strategies for improving the teaching practices of college instructors. She describes teaching tools that cover traditional practical tasks as well as newer, broader concerns.
A well prepared syllabus will introduce students to you and your course, guides them through the weeks ahead, and demonstrates that you take you teaching seriously. For new faculty, she suggests looking over your colleagues' syllabi to get started and gives some practical advice on how to proceed.
- Anticipate students' questions. These often include, why should I take this course, what are the requirements, how will I be assessed, what are the course policies, how does it fit with my education, and do I have enough previous knowledge?
- Keep the syllabus flexible. Be prepared to issue a revised schedule mid way through the semester.
- Include more, rather than less, material. Richly detailed syllabi reduce student anxiety and can be a valuable tool for negotiating a course. Using headings, lists, tables, or charts to make information accessible. Informal language helps students feel comfortable with the instructor. If it becomes very lengthy, include a table of contents.
- Provide basic information. Explain the ways students can contact you in detail and when you're available for consultation.
- Describe prerequisites or other assumed prior knowledge so students can assess their readiness to succeed in this course.
- Give an overview of the purpose of the course. Explain what the course is about and how it fits in with the department or program. Consider writing an essay on the topic of the course to include in the syllabus and refer to it during the semester.
- State the general learning goals. Highlight the three to five major knowledge goals, competencies, or skills that you hope each student to master.
- Explain the structure of the course. Clarify why the course topics are arranged the way they are and the logic of the concepts and their order.
- Describe the requirements and format of the class, especially any fieldwork or other meetings at times other than the scheduled class time.
- List the readings and their availability (bookstore, on-line, on reserve, etc.) in detail. Describe any other physical requirements.
- List assignments, term papers, exams, and their due dates. Explain how these assessments relate to the expectations of the course. List the requirements for papers.
- State how grades are determined and what weight is given to each requirement. This can help students budget time and effort. If there are any special circumstances (extra credit, dropping the lowest quiz grade, etc.) articulate that here.
- Discuss course policies. Explain your housekeeping rules as they pertain to attendance, lateness, late assignments, extensions, classroom behavior, etc. Invite students with special needs to see you about accommodating them.
- Provide a course calendar or schedule. Update as needed. Include reading assignments, test dates, etc.
- Schedule feedback periods for you to get information from students as to how they see the course progressing. List important drop dates.
- Estimate student workload. Give students some idea of what they should expect to do outside of class to prepare for class and to complete assignments.
- Include helpful hints and ideas. Some possibilities include: how to study for this class, a glossary, references, copies of past exam questions, campus resources/labs, list of campus activities related to the course.
- Leave space for and encourage students to write down the names and numbers of a couple of classmates to contact if they miss a class.
The Minimalist Syllabus
John M. Carroll
Background: John Carroll, a professor of computer technology and psychology is an advocate of minimal information. The concept of minimalism in training is borrowed from the teaching of computer skills. John Carroll and the contributors to his books on computer training claim that less information is better, especially for technological skills or where the use of technology is an important element in a course.
This approach stresses ownership of information via experiential learning. Reading a syllabus (or anything else) is viewed as a passive activity. Learning is best when the student actively engages in the practical application of the subject matter. In this view, the more skeletal the instructions (or syllabus) the better. Students would need little time to absorb the basic requirements and ideas in the course and be able to spend more time involved in the application of skills, leading to better learning.
Carroll, J., ed. (1990). The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill. Boston: MIT Press.
_____. (1998). Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel. Boston: MIT Press.
Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Baiocco, S.A. (1998). Successful college teaching: problem-solving strategies of distinguished professors. Needlam Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.
Grunert, J. (1997). The course syllabus: A learning centered approach. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.