One of the most important homework projects for faculty is happening right now, before the start of school.
Developing course syllabi.
Here are three tips for creating a syllabus that will be a foundation for success for the semester for both you and for your students.
Tip 1 – Start by determining your course goals and then structure your course timeline to meet those goals
Too often we as teachers can get caught up in letting the textbook structure our teaching. Although a good textbook (or textbooks) can play an important role in the course, you, as the teacher, need to plan the course.
Start by determining your course goals. Those goals can be established by the curriculum that your course is part of. Read the course catalog description for your course and the other courses in the curriculum. Talk with colleagues. Find out if your course has identified Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) that must be fulfilled as part of the course.
Once you know what the outcomes are for the course and know what skills the students should have upon entering your course (based on the previous courses they have taken), you can determine the reading assignments, class activities, and assessments (i.e., papers, tests, projects, presentations) that students must complete to meet those outcomes.
From there, look at the calendar for the semester and map out the assignments. Consider pacing of the assignments so that students receive feedback during the semester and not too many assignments are due at the end of the course. Plan due dates that take into account school vacation days (such as Thanksgiving and Veterans Day), school events (big sporting events), and religious holidays.
Tip 2 – Include course policies and procedures, and look to your university for guidelines
Having policies and procedures in writing in your syllabus can help avoid many problems for you and for students. Most students will follow class procedures and rules, but they need to know what those rules are. Remember that your students will have three or four other courses, and those other professors may have different expectations than you have.
Here are some of the issues to consider:
- Attendance policy – Will you take role? Will grades be lowered for missing a certain number of class?
- Tardy policy – Any consequences for being late to class? Will points be deducted?
- Late work – What happens if a student turns in an assignment late? Will points be deducted?
- Use of technology in class – This has become a greater challenge with smartphones and laptops and the fact that many classrooms are now wireless.
- Food and drink in class – The campus or building may have a policy about food and drink in rooms. You need to adhere to that policy. You may need to clarify that a bottle of water is OK but not an open-top cup of coffee.
- Bringing visitors to class – This doesn’t happen too often but can be surprising (or disruptive) if students bring their sick children to class or their parents or girlfriends/boyfriends.
- General classroom behavior – Include a statement about appreciating everyone being on task in class, not talking with classmates, working on other assignments, or sleeping.
By having a written policy in your syllabus and discussing your policies in class, then you aren’t singling out an individual but are enforcing a class policy.
Your university or college should have policies and information on several important issues:
- Academic dishonesty
- Accommodations for students with disabilities
- Counseling and mental health services
That information will be on the university’s website, and you can provide condensed information and a URL in your syllabus.
Tip 3 – Consider what is the best way for students to interact with you outside of class
One portion of your syllabus will be general information about you, including your contact information and your office hours. You want to be available but within reason. You want to help students realize what is reasonable in a professional setting.
- Contact information – What do you want to be the way students will contact you? From my experience in teaching and working with teaching assistants, I’d advise using email or messaging through a course management system. I wouldn’t give students your cellphone number. Also provide guidelines about contacting you. Students often expect that if they email or call that you’ll respond immediately. So you may want to include in your syllabus that you’ll respond to email within 48 hours. If you respond sooner, that’s great, but you have let students know not to expect an immediate response.
- Office hours – Find out what the expectations are for the number of office hours you should hold each week. Holding office hours either before or after class can work well for many students. But you don’t want to have office hours before class if you need that time to prepare for class.
Developing a syllabus is a lot of work — especially for new teachers or when you are teaching a new course. But the time you invest before the class starts can have real benefits for you and your students throughout the semester.
You know you’ve structured the course to maximize connections between topics and to pace assignments. The students will know what your expectations are both for assignments and for their classroom conduct.