Polishing the New or Old Syllabus

Even if you are teaching a course you teach every single year, it’s worth spending a little time reflecting on your syllabus, making sure it contains the information that is most helpful to your students.

What is the most important information to have in a course syllabus?

  • The goals of your course
  • How the course grade will be determined and/or your expectations in terms of assessment and mastery of course material
  • The rules of the road: policies about assignments, late work, absences and the like
  • A calendar of readings, due dates for assignments
  • A statement about procedures and College policies for students with disabilities.
  • Often a syllabus will also contain information about institutional policies about academic honesty

Even though many courses use an online syllabus tool like Moodle or Blackboard, it’s still important to have a document that can be printed out and stuck into a course notebook for handy reference.

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What aspects of your syllabus worked and what aspects didn’t? I often find that I wish I had a firmer late policy in my syllabus or a clearer statement about extensions on assignments. I usually have a couple of students who have great difficulty turning their work in on time. There are middle-of-the-night email pleas for extensions because of anxiety, personal problems, illness, family problems/disturbing news from home or friends…..It’s hard not to feel sympathy for these issues. It’s hard to just follow a late policy that you wrote when you hadn’t met the students in your class yet. Many of us will go ahead and let a student turn something in late or we won’t take the full penalty for the late assignment- in other words we don’t follow our contract the same way for all students. For how long will you accept late work? One week? Two? As long as classes are in session? What if the student has issues that interfere with every assignment? Should a syllabus have a statement about that? Now is a good time to think about these issues while the previous semester is still pretty recent in your memory. A number of my colleagues have “grace days” that students can use throughout the semester. If you have three grace days, a student can decide which assignments could really benefit from the additional time. I like this idea and plan to use a version of this in my syllabus this coming semester.

What about your assignments? Did you have too many the last time you taught the course? Too few? Did you cluster most of the work to be due in the final two or three weeks of the term? How did this play out with your class? There may be very good pedagogical reasons for having all the big assignments due at the end of the semester. Often these big assignments (term papers, research papers, final projects) are designed as culminating assignments that integrate the course material. But, if a student has one of these in each course due the last day of class AND then has a cumulative final exam or project on top of that, the amount of stress and anxiety surrounding all these large, weighty assignments coming due in a short period of time might not result in the best learning outcome. You might instead be measuring how your students handle stress, rather than how well they learned the material for your course.

A lot of courses have several weeks at the beginning of the term without any assignments coming due. This often feels like the honeymoon period of the course. We tend to think the students are interested and engaged in the course material, we are building our relationships with our students, getting to know them. The relationships can turn just a little bit adversarial once you hand back the first graded exam or paper, so we often want to postpone that change for as long as possible. It’s crucial to have an early graded assignment, however. Students need to know if the effort they are putting into the course is effective. We need to know if our students are learning what we hope they are learning. This early feedback is really important.

Why are the contract details important? Think back to last semester. Did you have a student who turned things in late routinely or asked for extensions on assignments the night before they were due? Did your syllabus have a clear policy about late work, about extensions? If so, did you abide by your course policies? What about assignment due dates? Did you change due dates routinely? Why?

A course syllabus can also set the stage or serve as an advertisement for your course.

Some course syllabi also provide a little bit of context and advertisement about the course, a little spice. I like to give students some ideas about why the course is of interest or how it will be useful for them or what outcomes I hope for them.  I usually also provide some information about some of the formats they will encounter in the course. For example, if the classroom sessions will involve student-led discussion or lecture or small group work/activities. I usually put this sort of information at the beginning of the syllabus and the rules parts later on.

image from: indiatoday.intoday.in

A well thought-out course syllabus is a key ingredient to a successful course. This contract you make with the students will give them clear expectations, both what you plan to do and how you plan to do it AND what they need to do to be successful in your course.

How will you make certain your students read the syllabus and understand it? Some faculty go over the syllabus on the first day. Some have their students take a short quiz on the syllabus. Another idea might be to incorporate syllabus policies into an in-class group assignment, like a speed-dating style activity. It’s a good idea to review assignment and attendance policies every now and then, too. Or you can wear this shirt:

image from: http://vitalsourcelife.wordpress.com/2010/10/24/syllabus-hell-week-james-beuerlein-d-c-student/