Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Ultimate Contract: Syllabus Design

Hi GTCers!

How many times have you heard the phrase, “The syllabus is a contract”? For most of us, that concept runs like a mantra though our minds. But why? What is it about this seemingly innocuous document that causes so much strife and heartache for students and teachers alike?

During our eighth workshop of our “Course Design” series, we engaged with a presentation by Avi Jones entitled “The Ultimate Contract: Syllabus Design”. Syllabi, as we all know, are some of the most important and fundamental documents we create, and often set the stage for larger trends of success or failure in the classroom. Given the importance of such a document, it only makes sense for teachers considering course design to give some serious thought to what syllabi are and how they work.

Avi started off asking a basic question: what’s in a syllabus? Some of the possible information we thought up included:

            Lecture schedules
            Contact info
            Exam dates
            Course Overviews
            Required Materials
            Resources/Accessibility Statements
            Grade Breakdowns

We also gave some time to a discussion of course philosophies - the reasons why professors teach a class, and how they think it contributes to their students’ educational goals. On this point, Avi recommended that we all review the ideas upheld by the UCD Principles of Community statement. “It’s one of those things that nobody talks about,” Avi said, “but it’s something that everyone should know.” Understnading the POC - and taking the time to consider where your course aligns with those statements - can really give you an edge on the job market. Why? Because hiring decisions aren’t made by departments alone. Administrators are the ones who ultimately have to sign off; knowing administrative policies and being able to articulate them demonstrates an interest in the institution as a whole, something most administrators view as hugely attractive. Considering the POC, then, has benefits that stretch well beyond course design.

We also spent a few moments going over what not to list on a syllabus. This included personal phone numbers, facebook profiles, home addresses, or anything else that might lead to uncomfortable situations down the road. While most of us strive to be open an accessible to our students, maintaining professional distance is always something we need to keep in mind. Creating that atmosphere of authority is essential for classroom management, and it begins with the syllabus.

Following this discussion, we did a short activity that asked us to look at a real course syllabus and consider the following prompt: Based on your own experiences as an educator, critically assess one of the four course goals below with a partner. Are they realistic, measureable, or plausible?

This was followed immediately by a second prompt: Based on the provided syllabus, determine what you as a student in this course are responsible for.

Dissecting a syllabus with these questions in mind revealed several interesting perspectives. The first was related to course goals - not everyone includes them when designing a syllabus, but as we learned, students use syllabi to figure out what those goals might be. It often plays a major role in whether or not students who are unsure about taking the class will eventually drop. Even if we don’t explicitly include a statement of goals, then, instructors should still make sure their intentions are clear. As Avi pointed out, students have trouble questioning the wording of goals, especially early on in the quarter. But the misunderstandings and misconceptions that can result from lingering questions can lead to trouble down the road. It’s important for all of us to consider what elements of our syllabi might be unclear, why, and how to fix them. ESL teachers, for example, can address confusion in their syllabi by considering other ways of demonstrating the information. Including visuals (flow charts/timelines/etc.) might help clarify what they expect from students.

This discussion about clarity led to an often-asked question to be posed: Is it at all worthwhile to make things a touch confusing in order to force cohesion among the students? To make them think critically? To make them actively engage with their education, advocating for what they need? The response was: not very. Why? Because the responses from our students will almost always be equally bad. While it’s important to think positively about the capabilities and skills of our students, we also need to accept the fact that the skills required to overcome that kind of planned confusion - critical thinking and intellectual advocacy being two of them - are often skills that they develop during the course of class, not before.  

Another question that came up addressed the sometimes problematic issue of instructor syllabi. If the professors we teach for are ambivalent about the confusing nature of their syllabi (or their teaching style more generally), how should we as TAs address this? Should we situate the professor as a drill sergeant (the common enemy) and ourselves as the buffer between? Lots of opinions were offered on this question; some of us create our own, clearer syllabi. Others take extra time to explain the professor’s meaning during sections. Others took a more hands-off approach. But despite the differing opinions, each of us agreed that the primary goal should be to create a clear, coherent and concise syllabus at the start.

Avi’s workshop helped to demonstrate the many, many ways that the syllabus serves as an essential tool for instructors, TAs, and students. If that tool isn’t what we need it to be in order to achieve the goals of our course, the result is going to be an impossibly difficult situation. As Avi so colorfully phrased it, “We just can’t herd cats into a sprinkler with a blowtorch”. Now that’s something to think about!

For more information on syllabus design, check out the following resources:

Website on Syllabi from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan

A huge catalog of resources related to syllabus design from the Center for Excellence in Teaching at the University of Southern California

(Posted by Sarah Messbauer)

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