Lunch and Learn: Constructing a Comprehensive Syllabus

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Thursday, February 16, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching—for the 2016-1017 academic year. Katie Tifft, Lecturer Biology, and Jane Greco, Associate Teaching Professor Chemistry, shared best practices for creating a comprehensive syllabus.

Tifft and Greco presented as a team, reflecting their commitment to collaboration, and gave an impressive overview of the process they follow. Here are their slides for review. They started by sharing a quote by Gary Gutting “Why Do I Teach?” [New York Times 5/22/2013]: “College education is a proliferation of . . . possibilities: the beauty of mathematical discovery, the thrill of scientific understanding, the fascination of historical narrative, the mystery of theological speculation. We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls.”

This represents an ideal, but in real world practice your experience may differ. One way to ensure that students leave your classroom with the knowledge you hope they will gain is to think about how to construct your course so that the desired learning outcomes align with your pedagogical approaches.

Tifft and Greco noted that standard course planning path is to choose a textbook/readings, produce a syllabus, write or revise lectures and prepare slides, and then create assessments (exams and assignments). This is a teacher-centric approach as it revolves around the content that you as the instructor plan to disseminate.

But what if you wanted to develop a course that was student-centric? Then you might take an approach known as backward design. With backward design you start the course planning process by formulating broad learning goals, then defining specific, measurable learning objectives. To clarify, learning goals express what you want students to get out of the course, while learning objectives detail the specific skills and level of understanding you want students to obtain. Next you design the assessments that will be used to evaluate the students’ mastery of the learning objectives. Finally, you develop the course content and activities and choose supporting texts and readings. This process will help you to create a syllabus that informs the students what you expect them to be able to do at the end of the course, as you will share both the broad learning goals for the course and the learning objectives for each course section on the syllabus.

Tifft and Greco reported that research has shown that the longer and more detailed a syllabus is, the more comfortable students will be, because they can see ahead to what will be coming in the class. They suggest keeping a positive tone, focusing on rewards rather than consequences. They both emphasize collaborative work in their courses, and on the syllabi, which fosters a student-centric environment.

What should the syllabus include? The course schedule in some detail, along with the A sign with an orange background reading "Keep calm and read the syllabus."detailed learning objectives for each unit. The course content will be a major part of your syllabus. Policies for absences and missed work should be included and should be transparent, fair, and set an easily achievable bar by accommodating situations that are bound to occur, such as illness, sports team events, etc. One way to do this is to drop the lowest score if you give multiple quizzes, exams, or homework assignments. Tifft and Greco noted that well thought out and clearly written policies are essential in a large enrollment course, and will help reduce the number of emails from students.

The syllabus should give information about assessments and assignments including due dates, descriptions, the link to learning objectives. Setting the test and assignment dates in stone, so to speak, on the syllabus will help your students know what to expect when. Having a variety of assignments is a good practice as it speaks to the diversity of student learning styles. This isn’t always practical in a large lecture class, but should be considered.

If you are using clickers (classroom polling devices) you will want to include policies for use, credit given for participation, credit for correctness, and contribution to grade. Tifft and Greco do not give credit for correctness as they see that getting something wrong contributes to the student’s learning process.

Grades are a major concern for students at Johns Hopkins; Tifft and Greco said that it is important to be as specific and transparent as possible when describing grading criteria and distribution on the syllabus. Doing so will reduce student complaints and misunderstandings. Some practices to consider in creating a grading scheme include the concept of revision/redemption—giving students a chance to drop a low score or revise a paper. They recommend against grading on a curve to reduce competition and facilitate student collaboration.

Don’t forget to list sources of help for students: office hours, names and contact information for teaching assistants, dates and times for recitations/review sessions, and information about the Learning Den tutoring program or PILOT (peer led team learning) program if applicable.

Finally, Tifft and Greco mentioned the required and recommended statements of policy, such as those on ethics, accommodations for students with disabilities, and copyright compliance. And in closing, they recommend adding a line in your syllabus that reads: “The information on this syllabus is subject to change at any time for any reason.”

Discussion by the faculty in attendance followed. One question asked was “How do you get students to read the syllabus? Should you go over the syllabus in class?” Greco stated that since she is teaching first semester freshman, she spends about 20 minutes on the first day of class going over key points, especially the learning goals and her teaching philosophy. Tifft, who teaches upperclassmen does give a brief summary of key points.

Faculty also shared experiences with grading schemes. Many like the idea of dropping the lowest scores on tests and/or assignments and the concept of redemption, especially when based on how the student has done on other parts of the course work. Some faculty give several section-based exams followed by a comprehensive final. Students who have aced the section exams, are not required to take the final.

The use of extra-credit and make-up work to improve grades was debated. It was agreed that it was important to be transparent in these cases, and to make sure that all students are offered the same opportunities. Greco recommended that faculty not allow students to wait until the end of semester to do make up or extra-credit work as it puts too much burden on you as a grader.

The session ended with Tifft and Greco sharing this cartoon from PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper) by Jorge Cham, something anyone who has ever created a syllabus will relate to.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image generated by http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/

A Tip of the Hat to Tomorrow’s Professor

For writing The Innovative Instructor blog posts I read a lot of books and articles related to teaching and follow various educational blogs.  One resource that I’d like to pass along is the Tomorrow’s Professor e-Newletter. Sponsored by the Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning, Tomorrow’s Professor is edited by Richard M. Reis, Ph.D., a consulting professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford.

Screen shot of Tomorrow's Professor website logo.Twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays) during the academic year Reis passes along articles from journals or excerpts from books on a wide range of topics in the following categories:

  • Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning
  • Tomorrow’s Academy
  • Tomorrow’s Graduate Students and Postdocs
  • Tomorrow’s Academic Careers
  • Tomorrow’s Research

“Tomorrows Professor seeks to foster a diverse, world-wide teaching and learning ecology among its over 49,000 subscribers at over 800 institutions and organizations in over 100 countries around the world.”

The more than 1250 posts to date have been archived so you can search for past posts as well as subscribe to receive new postings via email.

As an introduction, I found a recent post on The Three Most Time-Efficient Teaching Practices [#1218] to reflect some of the pedagogical best practices that The Innovative Instructor tries to promote.  The author, Linda C. Hodges, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and Director of the Faculty Development Center,University of Maryland, Baltimore County, states:

What constitutes productivity in teaching is a point of debate, of course, but many of us agree that we want to facilitate student learning. When faculty are challenged to change traditional teaching practices to promote better student success, all we may see looming before us is additional class preparation time. The best kept secret, however, is how much more time-efficient some of these touted teaching practices are.

The three practices she describes are 1) beginning planning with the end in mind by using backward course design, 2) generating criteria or rubrics to describe disciplinary work for students, and 3) embedding “assessment” into assessments.

Hodges asserts that spending time in the planning and development of your courses using proven pedagogical methods will save you time in your teaching in the long run. Taking a few minutes each week to peruse Tomorrow’s Professor could help you in all aspects of your academic life.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Screenshot of Tomorrow’s Professor logo
http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/cgi-bin/tomprof/postings.php

Summer Reading

If you are like many faculty, you probably have stacks of books, journals, articles (whether print or virtual) accumulating on various surfaces in your work space and home. So the last thing you are looking for is something else to read. With that as a given, The Innovative Instructor still wants to recommend another book for you.

Stack of books in a library.Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston (MSEL catalogISBNdb for online shopping price comparisons), is well worth perusing if you ever have to be teach a subject with which you are less than familiar. This situation is increasingly a common reality for faculty. Sometimes the gap between what you are asked to teach and your specialty interest is short — you’re a historian of British 20th century politics asked to teach a course on the political changes in Europe between the two world wars. Sometimes the gap is wider — Huston cites the example of a chemistry professor asked to teach a freshman year seminar called “The Common Intellectual Experience” where topics included the Declaration of Independence and slave narratives, two topics not generally covered in chemistry training (p. 11).

Huston discusses the advantages the experience can bring to an instructor who is a “content novice,” but more importantly, offers concrete steps that can be taken to teach a course outside of one’s disciplinary expertise. For example, she emphasizes the value of backward design.

Backward design involves 1) determining what you want students to be able to do as a result of taking the course, 2) deciding how you will assess their competency, and 3) based on 1) and 2) deciding what and how you will  teach. (For more on backward design see: Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. “What is Backward Design?,” in Understanding by Design. 1st edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall, 2001, pp. 7-19.) However, backward design is just one of a number of strategies Huston offers.

She examines common mistakes made (assigning too much work, underestimating preparation time) and outlines tactics for surviving in the classroom. She also covers active learning strategies and other activities to engage students. These can be especially useful when you are concerned about your level of expertise in the course subject matter.

Huston is reassuring with her statement, “It may not be the world’s most comfortable teaching, but students can learn as much, if not more, than they can in classes where you’re teaching form the core of your expertise.” (p. 8). After all, the chances are excellent that no matter what you are teaching, you will know more than your students.

In fact, Teaching What You Don’t Know is full of great advice for anyone teaching, whether or not familiarity with the subject matter is an issue. There is also a section with guidelines for administrators, such as department chairs, who may be in the position of making these teaching assignments. While not a primary source for instructional basics like how to build a syllabus or stimulate engaging class discussions, the curriculum design descriptions, teaching activities, and strategies for classroom management Huston offers make the book well worth a read.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art