Professor smiling in class August 28

Tonic for the Boring Syllabus

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It had happened before, sitting at the computer, working on a syllabus, again, fluctuating between excitement about a new course and a vague sense that life itself was being sucked out of me one sterile byte at a time. I was fighting boredom. And this was supposed to interest students? I tried to imagine it igniting their curiosity, but instead I saw them staring at it with the enthusiasm saved for the fine print on a life insurance policy. But they must read it. It is their life insurance policy for a future full of knowledge and wisdom! It defines how we’re going to relate! As I sat there writing my syllabus I had a vision of the Ferris Bueller video of the professor droning on and on while asking for input: “Anyone? Anyone?” That was not where I wanted to go. I had to stop and rethink what I was doing.


a syllabus format that promotes learning April 12

Syllabus Format May Enhance Understanding of Course Requirements

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Over the years, course syllabi have evolved from a simple document that outlines course objectives and requirements to an intimidating, multi-paged contract of terms and conditions for successful course completion. A number of writers have proposed syllabus makeovers, including some who’ve suggested the syllabus be offered in newsletter style. Others have proposed quizzing students on the syllabus as a way to encourage them to read it carefully.

We decided to try these two ideas and investigate if they helped students understand four essential course requirements: course objectives, course policies, procedures for late work, and the number of exams. Each of us created one traditional course syllabus and one graphically enhanced syllabus in newsletter format, randomly distributing each type on the first day of class. We quizzed students on the course requirements on the second day of class. Both syllabi contained identical content.

The newsletter syllabi were designed using a newsletter template readily available in word processing programs. The essential elements of the syllabus were placed in boxes, enhanced with graphic elements, and written in different fonts. We tried for designs that highlighted important parts and were graphically pleasing to read.

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Too many course policies? January 24

Examining Our Course Policies

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Recent pedagogical interests have me wading through research on multi-tasking and revisiting what’s happening with cheating. In both cases, most of us have policies that prohibit, or in the case of electronic devices, curtail the activity. Evidence of the ineffectiveness of policies in both areas is pretty overwhelming. Lots of students are cheating and using phones in class. Thinking about it, I’m not sure other common policies such as those on attendance, deadlines, and participation are all that stunningly successful either. I’m wondering why and guessing there’s a whole constellation of reasons.


Writing an effective syllabus January 10

As You’re Preparing the Syllabus . . .

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The “find and replace” feature in Word quickly makes an old syllabus ready for a new course. Use it too many times and thinking about the course settles into a comfortable rut. Yes, we may change more than just the dates, but when was the last time we considered something beyond what needs to go on the syllabus? The literature answers that question with a few definitive conclusions and a host of possibilities. Here are some thoughts, offered with just a bit of provocation, in the hopes they might reenergize our thinking about the syllabus and what it can accomplish in the course, for students and for the teacher.


course design and planning January 4

Creating a Course Calendar that Aligns to the Rhythms of the Semester

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Do you have a system or standard process for prepping a course you’ve taught before? Where do you start? Early in my career, “one chapter per week” described my course outline. It wasn’t an effective system. Poor planning left my students and me burnt out at the end of most terms. For some, planning revolves around syllabus revision, closing loopholes, and adjusting dates. When time’s abundant, some teachers read books like Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design, a thoughtful, research-based system. I highly recommend their work.

But as I write this article in mid-December, the reality is there are papers and projects to grade, events to attend, holidays to celebrate, and a short break before spring courses commence. Few of us will be able to work through a comprehensive system at this time of year.

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writing on sticky note December 1, 2016

Preparing a Learner-Centered Syllabus

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The Oxford Dictionary defines “syllabus” as “an outline of the subjects in a course of study or teaching.”

“Students who read a good syllabus are more likely to feel that course strategies have been designed to help them reach their goals, rather than merely as busywork or, worse, to torture them” ~ Slattery & Carlson, 2013, p. 159.
The syllabus literature tends to focus on “Here’s what makes a good syllabus,” but hasn’t addressed the following questions nearly as well: “What are the purposes of the syllabus?” and “What are the syllabus’ implications for learning?”

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student engagement November 27, 2016

What Are the Characteristics of a Learner-Centered Syllabus?

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A learner-centered syllabus shifts the syllabus emphasis from “What will be covered?” to “How can the course promote learning and intellectual development in students?”

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professor with students in library May 25, 2016

The Syllabus: Indicator of Instructional Intentions

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The literature on teaching and learning has improved so much over the years. Researchers are now covering important aspects of both in depth, analyzing with creative designs and exploring for practical and theoretical implications. One case in point is a 2015 syllabus review published in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education (a cross-disciplinary teaching and learning journal that ought to be on everybody’s radar).


student at white board July 29, 2015

A Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning

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At its most basic level, the syllabus is used to communicate information about the course, the instructor, learning objectives, assignments, grading policies, due dates, the university’s academic integrity statement, and, in some cases, an increasingly long list of strongly worded admonitions on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in the college classroom.


5 things to do on the day of class August 21, 2013

Five Things to Do on the First Day of Class

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I don’t know if the first day of class is the most important day of the course, but I don’t think many of us would disregard its significance. What we do and how we do it matters. There are lots of good first-day activities—we’ve shared some in this blog over the years. In this post I’d like to move our thinking in a different direction and suggest five first-day essentials that go beyond the activities. These are the goals for the first day that we can use the activities to accomplish.