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

Good Reads (and Views)

I’ve been collecting articles that might be of interest to readers of The Innovative Instructor. Here are several to add to your weekend reading list.

Stack of books in a library.Too late for this semester, but Syllabus Design for Dummies, by Josh Bolt, Contributing Editor, for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae career hub (a good service to be aware of), will give you a head start on preparing syllabi for your spring courses. The introductory guide covers writing expectations and objectives, assignments and grading, which policies and procedures to include, and how best to present your course schedule.  Vitae has also announced that it is building a syllabi database.

Another post from Vitae, The Best Teaching Resources on the Web by David Gooblar, (another good resource), annotates a number of great sites for instructors, including blogs, non-profit sites, teaching and learning centers, and a list of top pedagogy journals courtesy of the ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries).

And take a look at this piece from Inside Higher Ed on The Future of MOOCs by Steven Mintz, the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.  Mintz describes ten challenges facing the next generation of MOOCs and offers possible solutions: “For the most part, however, MOOCs today have not evolved significantly in approach beyond those available in 2012. If next generation MOOCs are to appear, they will need to draw upon the experience of online retailers, journalism, online dating services, and social networking sites.”

And, speaking of MOOCS, it’s not too late to sign on to the CIRTL MOOC An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching as long as you are in it for the information rather than a certification. Week 5 starts on Monday, November 3, but participants have access to the materials for the entire course. There have been some great videos on topics such as learning objectives, assessment, peer instruction, inquiry based labs, learning through writing, and problem based learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

Quick Tips: Creating Your Syllabus

With the fall semester rapidly approaching, it seems like a good time to provide a post on syllabi.

Stack of book in library.

I’ve written about this topic in the past (see: Rebooting Your Syllabus from November 2013), but just came across a post in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog ProfHacker, From the Archives: Creating Syllabi, that is chock-full of great advice.

The article covers the basic elements you should include such as contact information and institutional rules and regulations as well as course objectives, technology policies, and accessibility statements. There are also suggestions about logistics and design.

As you move from summer mode back into the swing of the academic year, these will be some useful tips to consider.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art







Rebooting Your Syllabus

Recently a faculty member was overhead making the comment that syllabi are just chapter headings arranged by week. The Innovative Instructor hopes that the syllabus for your course meets a higher standard. This post provides guidance and resources towards that end.

Old style and new style syllabi presented side by side

Syllabus “The Fiftes” with permission from Dr. Tona Hangen, Worcester State University, Massachusetts

Richard Shingles, a lecturer in Johns Hopkins Department of Biology who also directs the Center for Educational Resources TA Training Institute, offers graduate students in his workshops a number of suggestions for preparing a syllabus. He suggests first looking at examples to get an idea of what to include. Other faculty in your department might share their syllabi, but there other resources awaiting your perusal.

There have been several attempts to build a database of university and college level syllabi, including one by Dan Cohen, the director of the Digital Public Library of America, which unfortunately is no longer functioning. Just recently the Open Syllabus Project was announced. This initiative includes partners from Columbia, UNC, Harvard, Parsons, The New School, and has Dan Cohen on its advisory board. Its goal is “…to promote institutional cooperation in the task of gathering and analyzing a significant corpus of syllabi.”

A new online, peer-reviewed journal, called Syllabus is devoted entirely to the display of examples from a wide range of disciplines. At the other end there is always Google. Try searching on “syllabus your discipline” (e.g., syllabus art history) to get started.

A syllabus should be more than a list of class topics and readings. In her book Tools for Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 1993, p. 14), Barbara Goss Davis tells us, “A detailed course syllabus… gives students an immediate sense of what the course will cover, what work is expected of them, and how their performance will be evaluated.  …Further by distributing a written explanation of course procedures, you can minimize misunderstandings about the due dates of assignments, grading criteria, and policies on missed tests.”

Dr. Shingles recommends trying to anticipate and answer student questions with information provided in the syllabus, and keeping the schedule flexible when possible by giving topics for the week versus the day. As for what should be included in your syllabus, think in terms of more rather than less. Here is his list:

  • Provide basic information
  • Describe course prerequisites
  • Give an overview of the course’s purpose
  • State general learning goals or objectives
  • Describe the course format
  • Specify textbook and readings
  • List supplementary materials for course
  • List assignments/papers/exams
  • Describe grading and evaluation
  • Stipulate course policies
  • Provide a list of university support offices
  • Provide a course calendar
  • List important dates (add/drop, grade appeals)
  • Indicate supplementary study aids

For the instructor use of the syllabus doesn’t end with distributing it to your students on the first day of class. Keep a copy handy and annotate it as the semester progresses. Perhaps you find you need to spend more time on a particular topic, or that the first assignment might work better if it came a week later. It’s also good to have a copy on hand to remind students that yes, you did state that you have a no make-up policy for quizzes.  You should post the syllabus online as well.  Posting online could be to your Blackboard (or other LMS) course site. But Dr. Tona Hangen, a professor of history at Worcester State University in Massachusetts, has raised the bar to a higher level by sharing her syllabi via an application called flipsnack.

Flipsnack allows you to publish material online in an application that simulates page-turning. You can create a basic account for free. Another similar online application is ISSUU.  ISSUU also is free for a basic account. As a side note, ISSUU has been used by at JHU for the Scholar’s Bookshelf project: – collaboration between the Sheridan Libraries Rare Books Collection and the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures.

Dr. Hangen inspires with her beautifully designed syllabi. She has an archive of examples from the past several years. While the ones on flipsnack may seem daunting to the design challenged, some of her PDF versions are more easily emulated. These could be created in Word or a basic design program such as Microsoft’s Publisher, which is often included in the Microsoft Office suite.

Barbara Goss Davis reminds us: “…a well prepared course syllabus shows students that you take your teaching seriously. (Tools for Teaching, p. 14).

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: IntentEffect Dr. Tona Hangen, Worcester State University, Massachusetts