Tag Archives: Syllabus

Closing Time: Managing the End of the Semester

Steve Volk (May 1, 2017)

(Note: This is a revised and updated version of and article written on April 24, 2014).

“I must finish what I’ve started, even if, inevitably, what I finish turns out not to be what I began” (Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children).

Ann Nooney, "Closing Time," The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Public domain.

Ann Nooney, “Closing Time,” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Public domain.

The end of the semester, like the first week, poses specific classroom challenges. Most faculty are rushing to make it through the course syllabus (you remember: the one that looked perfectly well planned in January). And you still have to hand out evaluations (see: “Set for SETs? Student Evaluations of Teaching”), prep students for their final exams, read drafts of their last papers, squeeze all the students who want to present into the available time; and don’t forget the note from the dean’s office asking for fall book orders! The end of the semester is also a time when both student and faculty energy levels have bottomed out, even more so in the spring semester.

All of this can crowd out another important part of the teaching semester: marking the closure of the semester in a way that acknowledges all you have accomplished in the class, all the ground you’ve covered. It goes without saying that the best way to end the semester is the way that works for you. But here are some suggestions that have come up over the years from my own practice and some that I’ve taken from other teaching and learning centers.

Revisit the course goals in your syllabus with your class.

Two aspects of teaching have always struck me as curious, if inevitable. The first is that students are often frustrated at the start of the semester because they do not already know what they will only know by the end of the semester. The second is that students often lose sight of just how far they have come, how much they have learned, over the course of the semester. We can’t deal with the first point, but this is a good time to emphasize just how far you have traveled together. You can synthesize the main points covered in your course by way of a discussion of the goals you established at the start of the semester and what the class was able to accomplish. It’s yet one more way to help students reflect on the design of your course, why you structured it as you did, and how the assignments they have completed (along with the final assignment) were there to help the students achieve the course objectives. The review allows students to step back somewhat from the course content in order to examine the path they have jointly traveled on a broader level.

George E. Studdy, “The End of a Perfect Day,” George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public domain.

George E. Studdy, “The End of a Perfect Day,” George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public domain.

After you have revisited the syllabus and the course goals with students, allow time for student reflection and self-assessment, encouraging them to think about how they have achieved the learning goals set for the course and what they still need to do before taking a final exam, writing their last paper, preparing for recitals, or completing a final project. You can extend this by asking students to write a short (anonymous) self-evaluation that will allow them to reflect on their performance and behavior in the class. Such an exercise goes substantially beyond the self-assessment questions on the Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) forms which they will be getting shortly, and can help them think about their own learning, the next classes they want to take, or how they can apply their learning more broadly.  One instructor (Ted Panitz, a math teacher at Cape Cod Community College) asks his students to think about the following questions:




     Has your approach to math changed during this course or compared to previous courses? How?

     Have your attitudes or feelings about math changed?

     How do you feel you performed in this course?

     What would you do differently if you had a chance to do this all over again?

One question you might want to consider, particularly for a class in which there has been a substantial amount of discussion, is to ask students to reflect on their own participation in the discussions and whether they thought they intervened in a way that supported (everyone’s) learning in the classroom or whether it had the effect of isolating or silencing other students.

If you want, you can also add questions to encourage students to suggest ways you can improve class procedures or ask how they feel about particular teaching approaches you have used that semester and would like to hear specific feedback.

  • Have students create a concept map of the course they are just completing (for tips on how to do this, see here, and here.)
  • Student presentations often occur in the last few weeks of the semester. I know of one instructor who has her students present a short lesson for the class on the issue, topic, or theme that they found most difficult or challenging during the semester. It is an excellent way for students to prepare for exams, since we all know that teaching a subject is the best way to learn it. (And don’t forget to re-read Cortney Smith’s article on “Emphasizing and Evaluating Student Speaking.”)
  • Encourage your students to revisit earlier assignments in the course as a way to measure their own learning in the class, to assess what they have learned and the areas in which they still feel unconsolidated. If the assignment was a paper, you can ask students to bring those papers to class and then break them into smaller groups where they can discuss their work with peers, focusing on what they learned through the writing of that assignment as they look back on it now.
  • In a similar fashion, you can have students in small groups discuss how their thinking has changed over the course of the semester. They can take notes for themselves (and/or for you). This can include new appreciations for the content covered, for their own strengths and weaknesses, or for meta issues as they reflect on their own learning.
  • Encourage your students to discuss what they consider to be the critical moments in the course: insights they have had; content that they have found most surprising; highlights in the course.
  • By way of course review for exams, you can group students to collaborate on one or two typical exam questions involving analysis, synthesis, application, etc.

Learning from the Semester

keep-calm-its-closing-timeIn “Learning from the Semester” (November 25, 2013), I offered some ways for faculty to look back and learn from the semester that just ended. Here (once again) are some questions to think about:

  • What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?
  • Why do you think that happened? Link outcomes to your teaching methods.
  • Do you think you achieved your learning goals for the course? This, of course, should lead you back to your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.
  • What do you think basically didn’t work in the course? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking: next time, I just won’t do that?
  • And, as with the strong points, why do you think you weren’t able to reach your learning objectives? Link outcomes to your teaching approach.
  • Getting concrete: what do you want to at least think about doing differently next time? Jot down some notes to yourself to return to when you have the space to think about revising your syllabus. Points like: “Don’t even think about assigning that book again!” or “Student presentations went really well; leave more time.”
  • Very briefly: If you are not sure what to do to change the results, who are the people you can talk to, and what are the resources you can consult, that can help?

Stress and Anxiety

StressWhile we all know this at some basic level, it is useful to keep in mind just how stressful the end of the semester can be for for faculty as well as students. We all have a lot to do, and there are many crunch-time challenges. In terms of students, we all notice a general increase in their tiredness, some more-than-usually bizarre behaviors, increased illness. But we should also be aware of times when stress turns into anxiety and when our usual techniques for helping students regain their footing and confidence could use extra support. As I noted in last week’s article, the number of students seeking mental health services at college and university counseling centers increased by nearly 30% between 2009 and 2015 (Center for Collegiate Mental Health). More than half of the college students who visited their campus counseling centers during the 2015-16 academic year reported symptoms of anxiety (Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors).

Stay attuned to your students and don’t forget that we provide a lot of support services for students in need. If you are not sure whom you should be talking to, always start with the student’s class dean.

And don’t neglect yourselves, either: easier said than done when the work piles up, but exercise (even if only a quick walk), a good meal, sleep (ah! sleep!), and talking to colleagues, even if only to moan and complain, all are important.

Saying Good-bye…

.… can be a lot harder than you imagine, and it’s not unusual to feel a sense of loss (along with relief) as the semester and the year (and for your seniors and for some of you, a college career), all come to an end. Even after many years teaching, I’m often still amazed at how hard this can be. After all, they get to move on and you stay here!

So, don’t be afraid to share some parting thoughts with your students even though this might sound cheesy. If you mean them, your students will appreciate them.

I often tell my students that, once they have graduated, I’m happy to have them as “friends” on Facebook and that it actually means a lot to me that they keep in touch, let me know how they are doing and what they’re up to.

And, of course, this is the time for any end-of-semester ritual that you may have developed, from donuts to a highlight reel.  I’m not going to go all cultural anthropologist on you, but we develop rituals to serve a purpose, and, at the end of the semester, saying goodbye to students you’ve worked with, whether for a semester or over four or five years, is an important ritual and deserves to be observed. OK, before I get all verklempt, I’ll exit on a (maybe) humorous note. This is the lead graph from a piece by Trish Suchy that recently appeared in McSweeney’s.

Following Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s statement that ‘The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think,’ [which, indeed, she did] the department, nervous that our student indoctrinations were insufficiently ominous, hastily formed a committee charged with investigating the matter and making recommendations at an emergency faculty meeting. To our horror, we found that indoctrination ominousness(ity) is not even measured in our assessment rubric! After a long debate over the existence of the word ‘ominousness’ (some arguing instead for ‘ominosity’ — which does sound like it might be a board game) we opted for the hybrid compromise ‘ominousness(ity)’ and propose the following rubric to measure how ominously we are indoctrinating our students. [You’ll find the rest of this delightful piece here.]

The “Article of the Week” will now saunter off for its traditional summer hiatus of travel, reading, and, even some work. May your summers be filled with seemingly endless hours, pleasurable reading, inspired thoughts, rewarding writing, ocean swims, and whatever it is that makes you happy. See you in August.

And the summer night

Learning from the Semester: 2.0

Steven Volk (April 25, 2016)

[The following is an edited and updated version of a post from 2013.]

From Guy Newell Boothby, "Doctor Nikola" (London: Ward, Lock, & Co,  1986), p. 335. British Library.

From Guy Newell Boothby, “Doctor Nikola” (London: Ward, Lock, & Co, 1986), p. 335. British Library.

As the semester moves to it close (insert fist pump), it’s a good time to reflect on what you learned from the semester as well as considering what you think your students are taking away from your classes. To begin, here are three ways to track your teaching, from the quick and simple to the more time consuming.

End of Semester Snapshop

While you can, and probably should, reflect on your teaching at many points during the semester (see nos. 2 and 3 below), two moments can be particularly productive: Some 2-3 weeks before the semester ends (when you already have a very good sense about how the semester has gone), and about 2-3 weeks after the semester ends (or once you have had a chance to read student evaluations). You are all unbelievably busy right now, but try to set aside 30 minutes to begin to answer these questions – and then return to them when you can. It is useful to engage in this process before you read the students’ evaluations, as you want to be able to consider from your own perspective why the semester turned out as it did.

(1) What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?

What did you accomplish? Try to answer this question concretely. Was it the assignment you designed to help you evaluate whether students were reading the text closely and which worked exactly as planned? The discussions, which were a lot livelier than other times you taught the class? The students’ ability to recall basic materials, as demonstrated by better exam results than in previous years? The fact that you were able to establish a dynamic in class that allowed students to talk about extremely difficult topics? In short: What worked well in the class?

(2) Why do you think that happened? Can you link these outcomes to your teaching methods.

What did you do differently? Was it a matter of the composition of the class or of your methods? If outcomes were different than in previous years, reflect on why that was the case.

"Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 253. British Library

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 253. British Library

(3) Did you achieve your learning goals for the course?

This, of course, should lead you back a consideration of your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.

Did you use assessment methods – papers, tests, projects, etc. – that can help you answer this question reasonably? If you find that you have learning goals that aren’t being assessed, you should make a note to change that next semester.

(4) What were you dissatisfied with in terms of how the course is turning out?

What didn’t work as you would have liked it in your classes? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking, “Next time, I probably shouldn’t do that”?

You can think about this in a variety of ways. For example:

(a) The pedagogy you employed. The mix of discussion and lecture, more active learning techniques, preparation for discussions, group work, student presentations, etc.

(b) Structural factors: Maybe you have found that teaching after lunch is not the best time; that the classroom you were assigned did not help your teaching and should be changed, that the class size did not lend itself to the particular pedagogy you employed.

(c) Classroom management issues. Did you allow one student to assert too much sway over the other students? Did you not step in where you should have? Did you not address management issues early enough? Should laptops be banned in your class as students are not using them appropriately? Should you have a “bathroom” policy to prevent a continual in-and-out of students from the class? How have you responded to challenges to your authority? How have you dealt with tensions that have come up in the class?

(d) Course Materials: Were students doing the readings? If not, why? Was the reading too basic? Too theoretical? Did mechanical issues (not being able to upload files, etc.) get in the way of their being able to complete assigned readings? Were the readings improperly paced (too much right during midterms) or unengaging (even for you!).

(e) Assignments: Too many? Too few to give students proper feedback? Should you be assigning multiple drafts of papers? Would smaller quizzes work better than one or two high-stakes exams? Did you assign collaborative work without preparing for it?

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 328. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 328. British Library.

(5) As with your successes, think about why things didn’t work and what you can do the next time to change those aspects that you can change.

If time doesn’t permit you to plan out a concrete strategy for doing things differently next semester, jot down a note to remind you about the things that you should consider addressing.

(6) Who can help?

If you are not sure what to do to change those aspects of your course that you agree should be changed, jot down the name of the person/people you can talk to or the resource you can use.  Who are the colleagues and mentors, on campus or elsewhere, who you should be emailing to set up a coffee date? Where can you find materials that address the topics of your concern?

After the SETs Come In

Try to go through the same exercise after you have read and digested the student evaluations of teaching (SETs) for your courses. (For advice on how and when to read your students’ evaluations, see the “Article of the Week” from Feb. 7, 2010: Reading Student Evaluation of Teaching).  Get a sense of whether your self-evaluation finds any resonance in the students’ comments, or whether you come to different conclusions – and you need to think about why that’s the case. Reflect on – or talk to a colleague about – any disparities. Just because the students liked your class (i.e., gave you favorable ratings), it doesn’t mean that you met your learning objectives. Just because some students didn’t like certain aspects of the course, it doesn’t mean that those aspects should be jettisoned.

Longer-term Reflection: Annotated Syllabus

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 241. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 241. British Library.

While it is useful to reflect back on your class at the end of the semester, you can gain more insight by reflecting on your classes in real time. This is particularly useful for people like me whose memory, to quote Billy Collins, has “decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones.” Create a “dummy” syllabus for your class. If your regular syllabus doesn’t include information on what you are planning to do on a class-by-class basis, make sure that this dummy syllabus does. So, for example:

Wednesday, November 27: Make goal of class: Help students classify polysaccharides based on function in plants and animals and describe how monomers join to form them.

Each day, after that class has finished, enter some notes on the syllabus as to how the class went, paying particular attention to whether you think that the class helped the students reach the objectives you have set out (in this case classifying polysaccharides). Also think about what evidence you have to answer this question (do you ask for “muddy points” responses at the end of class? Do you use clickers or other audience response systems that let you know whether the students are “getting” it?).

Jot down notes of in your opinion worked and what didn’t: was it the way you broke them up into discussion groups? The amount or nature of the reading assigned? The presence or absence of contextualizing material? The day you chose to examine the topic (The day before Thanksgiving? What was I thinking!).

Finally, enter some notes as to what you would do differently the next time around: Less/more reading; start with a quiz to see where they are at; have them work in groups; make the goals of the class more transparent; work to create an atmosphere where students can talk more easily about controversial issues; etc.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you miss annotating classes now and again. The last thing you need is to be hard on yourself. Maybe your best bet is to try to open a syllabus template that you can get to whenever you can. If you set impossible goals, you won’t accomplish them, and the purpose is not to find another reason to feel guilty (and we all have many of those) but to begin a practice that can be empowering.

In For a Penny, In for a Pound: The Teaching Portfolio

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 226. British Library.

‘Lilliput Lyrics … Edited by R. Brimley Johnson. Illustrated by Chas. Robinson’ 226

To contemplate creating a teaching portfolio is to accept that you’re willing to spend some quality time reflecting on your teaching. At some level, the teaching portfolio is an ongoing conversation between #2 (the daily syllabus annotations) and #1 (the end of semester reflections). The syllabus annotation is at the heart of a teaching portfolio, but the portfolio allows you greater space for reflection on your teaching philosophy, pedagogical approaches, readings on – and thoughts about – learning theory, longer blog posts (either public or private), articles that have influenced your thinking, etc.

You can set up a portfolio quite easily using Google sites or any one of a number of (free) commercial products (WordPress, IMCreator, etc.). The main issue is not to get hung up on the technology. Perhaps all you want is a set of folders (either on your computer or actual folders) into which you can place these materials: standard syllabus, annotated syllabus, reflections on particular classes or on the course in general, emerging “philosophy” of teaching, notes on pedagogy, classroom management style, essays on finding your own teaching style, articles that have proven particularly important in your teaching, comments from people who have observed your teaching, student reflections, student work in response to particular prompts, comments from mentors and colleagues, etc., etc.

The main goal of the teaching portfolio, as far as I’m concerned, is to complete the feedback loop that ties together action, reflection, and reformulation. For example: Tried a very directed set of primary source readings in philosophy class to get students to understand John Stuart Mill’s concept of liberalism and the individual. Don’t think it worked given that their answers to a short reflection piece at the end of the class; papers on topic turned in two weeks later were imprecise and often factually incorrect. Thought about goals for that class, talked about it with a colleague in the department, and read more about what other philosophy teachers do when teaching Mill. Here’s a plan for the next time…

For more on teaching portfolios, consult the excellent handbook written by Hannelore B Rodriguez-Farrar (The Teaching Portfolio: A Handbook for Faculty, Teaching Assistants, and Teaching Fellows) at Brown University, the materials prepared by the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, or the paper (“The Teaching Portfolio”) by Matthew Kaplan at the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning.

Final Reflections: What Have Your Students Carried Away?

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 227. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 227. British Library.

The end of the semester is a time, all too often, of exhaustion and, at some level and speaking for myself, disappointment. In light of this, reflecting on what we think our students have actually absorbed from our classes is a useful exercise.

One of the most complicated issues we face in teaching is understanding in a comprehensive fashion what our students have taken away from the course. I think of this as somewhat different from what they have “learned.” We can get a good sense of that through our students’ written work or quizzes and examinations. What I’m talking about is more speculative: what do we think they will carry with them into the future, what will shape the way they think about the subject of our classes or more broadly? What will they remember 10 or 20 years in the future?

This is, of course, one of the devilishly hard questions of assessment. In the humanities, in particular, we know that more often than not, many students will “get it” only after the course is over. Synapses will be closed that remained wide-open during the class; light bulbs will finally turn on. And, more often than not, when this happens, it won’t be tied back to a particular class or even a particular course.

Of course, there is no way to know what the group of students just completing your class will take away from it. But thinking into the future is actually the starting point of “backward planning” and, as such, the first step for planning your next course syllabus. So, what do we think they will put in their backpacks and carry away with them?

I’ll use my own teaching this semester as an example. One of my classes is on museum studies (“Museum Narratives”). I am quite sure that only a few – OK, no one – will remember anything about exhibition morphology, how depth, ring factor, and entropy work in exhibition design. But I think that most, when they walk into a museum in the future, will think about how exhibition layout relates to content and audience, will search for the museum’s narrative rather than only focusing on its artifacts, and will continue to consider what Stephen Greenblatt meant when he divided museum exhibitions between those that worked through resonance versus those that work by wonderment.

And maybe that’s good enough.

The Dual Life of a Syllabus

by Steve Volk, August 4, 2015

Shark Syllabus - Jack Dowell - CC/Flickr

Shark Syllabus – Jack Dowell – CC/Flickr

If you’re ahead of the game, your syllabi for the fall semester are finalized and ready to go. If you’re like me, they are hardly ready for prime time and you’re probably feeling like the guy in the photo. In either case, particularly if you’re new to syllabus writing, here are a few things to think about as you prepare, revise, or tweak your syllabi.

The syllabus is a strange animal: it is conceivably the most important (and complicated) teaching document you will prepare each semester and yet, after you hand it out, most students use it for one thing only: to find out the readings assignments or when papers are due or exams scheduled.

The root of the problem is that the syllabus is really two different documents serving two different purposes. On the one hand, it is the most comprehensive guide that you will prepare detailing how you plan to organize a body of information in such a way as to reach your educational goals while having the greatest impact on student learning. On the other, it is seen as a quasi-legal contract that sets out your responsibilities to the students and what they must do in order to successfully complete the course. The first purpose is most often invisible and implicit; the second needs to be explicit and unambiguous.

Syllabus as Contract

Signature: Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Signature: Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Since it is the second purpose that often gets the most attention, I’ll turn to it first. The syllabus traditionally serves as a contract setting out rules, regulations, and expectations: when assignments are due, how they will be graded, what is allowed and what is prohibited. To the extent that faculty want to use the syllabus-contract to cover every eventuality, from policies on laptop use in class to the rules for acceptance of late papers, the contractual part of the syllabus can take a lot of space and, often, become both intimidating and unwelcoming: Is your syllabus a long list of what students can’t do or will be penalized for?

Further, as David Parry points out, students will “read” that part of the syllabus about as thoroughly as we “read” the End User License Agreement that comes with new software. Still, the contractual part of the syllabus is important and thinking it through clearly can help you avoid headaches down the line. Kate Susman, a biology professor at Vassar, offers some additional useful advice on the syllabus as a contract. The syllabus divides the course into weekly, daily or other units, informs students what they are responsible for in each session, when assignments are due, where they can find required readings, where they can get help, and how to contact you, as well as college policies on academic integrity, accommodations and matters concerning class conduct.

[How you actually get students to read the syllabus so that they will be aware of all of these issues is a different matter altogether, and I’ll save it for a later post.]

Syllabus as Course Architecture

But it is the first, invisible, part of the syllabus, what has been called the “learning syllabus,”  that is more important both for you, the instructor, and ultimately for the students. As teachers, we develop a set of goals and objectives for every course, and the syllabus should not only state these goals clearly, but embody them in the basic design of the course. The goals set out what we want our students to have accomplished over the 15 weeks they are taking the class. To be sure, we want them to master a body of knowledge, become more skilled in a variety of ways, develop a greater awareness of themselves as individuals, members of a group, and as thinkers. The syllabus is both the road map guiding your students to achieve these goals (and therefore it needs to describe your responsibilities toward the students: this is what I will do to help your learning) and they yardstick you will use to measure whether they have met the goals: this is what you, as a student, must do to succeed in the class. (And, when the course is over, if you find gaps between your expectations and the students’ success rate, you will want to think about ways of changing the course the next time you offer it.)

Residence "Belltrees" for Messrs M. E. A. and V. White - Cultural Collections - CC/Flickr

Residence “Belltrees” for Messrs M. E. A. and V. White – Cultural Collections – CC/Flickr

A good way to approach the syllabus, then, is to start at the end, with your course goals and objectives. Backward planning is a central concept in learning design. It suggests that you start with where you want your students to be at the end of the course (what they should know, be able to do better, have thought about, etc.). I modify that somewhat and imagine what I want my students to have retained from the course some ten years after they took it. I have found this to be an important exercise in thinking about student learning and recall in the digital age where so much information is available instantly on your smartphone. Concepts, approaches, and skills have become so much more important than memorization.

With your goals specified, the next question is how you will know if the students have met the goals you have set. For example, if one goal is the ability to analyze and evaluate conflicting secondary sources and you only give exams in which memorization is the key component, you will have a hard time assessing student learning vis-à-vis your goals. So the next step is designing assignments to flow logically from goals.

Scaffold - Andreas Levers - CC/Flickr

Scaffold – Andreas Levers – CC/Flickr

But how can you assure that your students are best prepared to succeed in meeting your final goals and that these goals are scaffolded appropriately, moving from easier to more difficult tasks, providing opportunities for recovery after failure? Perhaps one of your goals is to develop greater skills at collaboration. We know that our students will have to collaborate productively if they are to succeed when they leave school. How do we best prepare them? If collaboration is one of your goals, but the only activity you have that requires collaboration is a co-authored final research paper, it’s quite likely that many will not succeed. Collaborative writing is difficult, and unless students have more low-stakes practice at it, they will have an unreasonably hard time with that final project. Go back over the syllabus and find those occasions where you can insert more group work, opportunities when the students can write short, non-graded collaborative memos, etc.

With your goals determined and your assignments properly scaffolded, you can then go back to the task of determining which content best fits into which week and how that builds on the learning from the previous week.

The thought that goes into your syllabus, the architecture that supports learning in your course, will remain largely hidden from the students. What they see are the contractual elements and their weekly obligations. Because of that, I have always found it useful to make explicit what is hidden: tell them why that assignment is scheduled when it is, what its purpose is at that moment, and how it will help them achieve the course goals. Continually engaging students with the underlying structure of the course helps them both understand the work that went into preparing it and what its goals are beyond the transfer of knowledge.

Back to the Document

A few more thoughts on syllabus preparation:

Carry On, Marc Johns, Serious Drawings: http://www.marcjohns.com/blog/2015/03/carry-on.html

Carry On, Marc Johns, Serious Drawings: http://www.marcjohns.com/blog/2015/03/carry-on.html

Paper or Digital: We are required to provide our students with a syllabus for the course, but that can be either in paper or online. Many faculty have moved to online syllabi as a way of saving paper, permitting direct access to online materials, allowing instructors to make alterations in the course as it evolves, and sharing it with a wider world. (Many of these points require further discussion, but I’ll save them for a later discussion.) There are numerous web-building sites (or here, or here), for example, beyond Blackboard, that can allow you to develop an attractive online syllabus with no technical skills. (If building a digital site, make sure that it is fully accessible to students with disabilities.)

Putting it all together – here are some things to keep in mind, many of which come from Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning.

  • Use accessible, inclusive language. Students may not yet be versed in your field, so avoid unnecessary jargon and technical terms.  Make sure your syllabus (and your course) is accessible to students from diverse backgrounds and does not inadvertently make some feel excluded.
  • Set the right tone. Think about the learning environment you want to create in your course and use your syllabus to help you do this. Consider whether you want to include language on preferred gender pronouns in the syllabus. Try to avoid writing a syllabus which is largely a list of things that students can’t do in your class.
  • Articulate the course goals and communicate what students can expect to learn. Communicate to students what they will know, understand and be able to do upon completion of the course.
  • Make your syllabus is visually appealing. Make it easy for students to skim the syllabus and find key information.  White space, indenting, bold, italics, underline and large/small caps can help make your syllabus easy to read.
  • Think about questions and concerns students might have about your course.  Use the syllabus to answer as many of these as you think appropriate.
  • Include basic information about the course and the instructor. Syllabi typically include the course title, course number, meeting times, classroom location and URL for the course website.  They also include the instructor’s name, office location, office hours, phone number and email address. I strongly recommend that you also include how you prefer to be contacted (email, text, in person) and when  (e.g., “The best time to reach me by email is before 9:00 PM. I cannot guarantee that I will read any messages after that time”).
  • Use the course description to provide a brief introduction to the course. Clarify the scope, purpose and relevance of the topic.  Introduce the course format and organization.
  • Let students know – in detail – what you expect of them. Have explicit course policies that communicate – again, positively if possible – what you expect in terms of attendance, tardiness, laptop use in class, class participation, missed exams, etc.  This will save you time later in the semester.
  • Let students know what materials are required and where they can buy or access them. Beyond these required materials, you may also wish to provide students with recommendations of additional resources for those who are interested.
  • Explain how students will be evaluated. Build in opportunities for low-stakes feedback and scaffold assignments carefully.  Explain how final grades will be determined.  Clarify how grades will be weighted or if you grade on a curve.
  • Include a section on Academic Integrity and the Honor Code: Provide a link to Oberlin’s honor code.
  • Clarify the kinds of academic support available. Make sure students know about campus resources that support their learning.
  • Include a statement about disabilities and accommodations: For example: “If you have a documented disability and wish to discuss academic accommodations, please contact me as soon as possible.”

The Blank Syllabus

There are other possibilities to syllabus writing, which I’ll just raise here and return to in a later post. Some faculty co-create a syllabus with their students. This can involve only parts of the syllabus, for example selecting readings from an anthology, inviting students to submit a number of units that students would like to see covered but aren’t on the syllabus (and what they would replace by adding new material), information on contract grading (also here), an invitation to students to establish their rules of conduct, etc. For those interested in co-curating a class with their students, the syllabus can be a great starting point.

Other advice? Send it along.

(Modified on August 5 to add information about digital syllabus preparation.)