Planning learning with the Syllabus

When we think about teaching, we usually think about what goes on in the classroom, but most student learning occurs outside the classroom. Planning assignments and out-of-class activities are even more important than planning for class meetings. A syllabus typically contains such a plan, with assignments correlated with topics to be discussed in class. As a contract, a syllabus should help students understand both their responsibilities and yours.

Constructing your syllabus will force you to begin thinking about the practicalities of what you must give up in order to achieve the most important objectives within the limitations of time, place, students, and resources. If you have taught the course before, what worked? What didn’t?

How Much Student Time Does Your Course Involve? It is easy to imagine that your course is the only one your students are taking. After all, it is the only one you see. Exactly how many hours you have and are taking up is rather important.

What Should be in the Syllabus? There is no one model. Take the following as suggestions, not rules.

  1. When you start with the syllabus, you have a list of goals, have chosen a textbook, and have a general schedule of when you will cover each topic and maybe a flowchart showing how things fit together. The core of your syllabus wilt be that schedule. In introducing the schedule, explain the purpose for the organization you have chosen.
  2. Under the topic headings, you can schedule assignments and the dates when they are due. I make a calendar of the semester showing the important dates and topics. This relieves you of the task of making assignments every few days and of repeating the assignments for students who were absent when each assignment was announced.
  3. The most successful teachers probably vary their methods to suit their objectives. Thus, you may wish one day to present some new material in a lecture. You may then follow this with a class discussion on implications of this material or with a laboratory or field exercise.
  4. State your expectations and policies about class attendance. As you lay out your schedule, consider alternate ways students might achieve the goals of a particular day or week of class. You wilt seldom have perfect attendance at every class. Why not build in periodic alternatives to your lecture or class discussion?
  5. You may include any special rules you want to emphasize, such as a statement to the effect that assignments for the course are to be completed by the dates indicated in the course outline.
  6. Be sure also to consider the diversity of your students. Alternative assignments can help. Students who have options and a sense of personal control are likely to be more highly motivated for learning.
  7. You may also include other items that will be helpful for student learning, such as sites on the World Wide Web, interesting readings to supplement textbook assignments, strategies for maximizing learning, and what to do when having difficulty. But just as in considering other resources, ask yourself, “Will this help my students learn more effectively?” or “Will this save me and the students time and effort by enhancing communication?”
  8. In most courses students spend at least as much time studying out of class as they do in class. Thus, you need to focus as much on what you expect students to do outside class as on what goes on in class. Look at your objectives. If you want students to become better problem solvers or critical thinkers, they need to practice these skills. Reading an assignment passively will produce poorer learning than reading with an activity in mind, such as preparing a question for class discussion, drawing a concept map, or writing examples or possible applications.
  9. Be clear about when and how learning will be assessed. What students do is strongly influenced by their anticipation of the ways learning will be evaluated.

McKeachie (2010)

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