writing an effective syllabus
We know students do not take it upon themselves to read the syllabus. Yet syllabus indifference still bewilders me after teaching for 25 years, given that my syllabi are conveniently available online and in hard copy, and are replete with information virtually assuring success with my courses.
In “Good Teaching as Vulnerable Teaching” (The Teaching Professor, December 2012), Rob Dornsife of Creighton University invites us to embrace the uncertainties teachers encounter. The article prompted me to invite colleagues also to embrace being strict when the conditions warrant it.
I was recently asked by a friend and colleague to review her syllabus. She wanted to make sure she had enough policies to address all the classroom issues that now emerge. Policies regarding plagiarism, class cancellation procedures, references to various official university handbook codes, and even mandated contingencies for an H1N1 virus outbreak were dutifully laid out. Indeed, the syllabus, despite some mention of the course itself, read far more like a legal document than an introduction and a guide to a classroom experience.
I recently attended the annual conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL). The conference allowed me to reflect on questions about the scholarship and practice of teaching and learning, and it fueled thoughts that eventually led to this article on how we might go about modeling scholarly practice.
I was looking at participation policies in a collection of syllabi this week. I wouldn’t give most of them high marks—lots of vague descriptions that don’t functionally define participation and then prescribe instructor assessment at the end of course with little or no mention of criteria. But I’ve voiced my concerns about participation policies previously, so I won’t do again here. Instead, what I would like to share with you is a policy that’s impressive in its specificity and in the intriguing idea it contains.
Every now and again I come across a quote that follows me around for the rest of the day, if not several days. That happened this week and here’s the quote, “I see myself as a learner first, thus I create my classes with learners, not for them ….”
The ability to teach is not something that one either has or does not have. Teachers are not born. Rather, they are made, through hard work, research, continual learning, and practice. Any teacher, no matter how experienced or new, can improve, and even the best teacher’s skills can degrade if he or she does not pay attention to continual improvement. Teachers are made through hard work and persistence.
Are we old fuddy-duddies when we ask (demand) students to put away their cell phones in the classroom or clinical areas? Students tell me this is just the way it is now, but I disagree. I teach courses in health sciences. Students practice in the hospitals, interacting with and caring for real patients. My colleagues and I have found students with their phones in their pockets, in their socks, and in their waist bands in order to have access to their precious smart phones but still hide them from instructors. We have found students sitting on stools texting while the hospital preceptors did the work. Some students are one phone call or text away from dismissal from the program before they stop using cell phones in classroom or clinical setting. What is the answer to this problem? Are faculty members being too demanding by placing cell phone restrictions in syllabi or clinical handbooks?
Not being a visual learner, I always struggled with ways of graphically representing course content. I was never very successful until I discovered that students could do what I couldn’t. During those summary times at the end of a class session, I often asked them to show graphically their sense of how the ideas related. I was surprised how clearly those visual representations showed whether or not they understood. Even more surprising, they sometimes depicted relationships I hadn’t thought of or positioned ideas so that they highlighted different aspects of a relationship.
Much has been written about the course syllabus. It’s an important tool for classroom management, for setting the tone, for outlining expectations, and for meeting department and university requirements. It’s an essential document in a higher education course, but do your students read it? And if they do read it, do they see the real purpose of the course beyond the attendance policy and exam dates? Here’s one strategy that will not only encourage your students to read the syllabus, but it will also allow you to stimulate discussion, create curiosity, and assess students’ knowledge on the first day of class.