The Syllabus Survival Guide
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”. As this semester is soon coming to an end and it’s time to start planning the next one, I thought this is a good moment for a “survival guide” on course planning and syllabus design. This is useful both for those having to create their first syllabi and for those who are looking to refresh their approach or try something new. I’ve put together some tips and ideas on course design and, more specifically, on writing a syllabus. And this time the “Resources” section is a bit richer, comprising “the basics” as well as some more nuanced resources focusing on inclusive, accessible and engaging syllabi. I hope you find this useful and I’m looking forward to hearing about how you design your syllabi and seeing some interesting examples. Have a nice week!
Planning your course
Whether you are designing a new course or revisiting a course you taught before, the moment when you start planning your course “script” and writing your syllabus is a very important stage in the teaching process. It is now that you are clarifying the learning objectives and deciding on the teaching methods and the right mix of learning activities and assignments. Course planning entails a series of steps that can be summarised as follows:
Formulating the learning objectives;
Choosing relevant reading materials and resources;
Designing lectures and class activities;
Creating assignments and preparing exams;
Writing the syllabus- to reflect all the above steps.
One very important principle to keep in mind throughout the entire process is that of “constructive alignment”. In essence, this means that the learning activities and assessment methods have to link back to the learning objectives. An effective way to keep that in check is planning your course backwards: starting from your goals (what is it that you want your students to achieve?), deciding on assessment (how can you best evaluate if they achieved the expected result?) and, last but not least, designing activities that support the students in reaching the respective goals. You can read more about these approaches in the resources recommended below.
Storyboarding can be a very useful way to plan your course, as it allows you to visualise the various elements and move them around until you found the optimal structure and sequence. It also helps you focus on what’s important: what story do you want to tell your students? You can read more about this approach and find some examples here.
Writing the actual course syllabus means wrapping up your planning process by drafting a clear and concise document which will serve as a main reference point for your students in relation to your course.
A contract or a map?
The fundamental purpose of the syllabus is to communicate all the relevant information about the course to the students in order to manage their expectations. That is why it should be written with the target audience in mind and it needs to be as well-structured and precise as possible. Moreover, the tone and style used are very important, as they can influence the way you are perceived by the students; friendly but professional, with an emphasis on rewards and not punishments is usually a safe bet. Some see the syllabus as a “contract” between teachers and students, but this can often lead to the interpretation of the syllabus as an essentially administrative document (which it partly is, but its essence lies elsewhere, I argue). How about seeing it as a map? It still needs to be comprehensive and precise, but the focus is on helping the users (in our case the students) find their way and have a positive experience.
While each university has its own syllabus template (have you checked yours?), the syllabus usually comprises similar headings/ types of information. These are: course title and description; contact information (and usually a short bio) of the lecturer; practical information (time, room, office hours); learning objectives; learning activities; assessment methods and grading (in as much detail as possible). Moreover, the syllabus usually includes a course schedule/ calendar; resources/ reading materials (with links to where they can be accessed) as well as a reference to course policies (e.g. regarding use of technology, accommodating diversity, absence, etc).
More than just the content
While drafting the syllabus it’s important to come up with a storyline that explains your teaching philosophy, links the different components in a logical way and keeps students motivated. For instance, it is very useful for the students if you can briefly explain how each activity addresses a certain learning objective. As unexpected events can always occur, you may want to keep a certain amount of flexibility when writing your syllabus; the crucial thing is to communicate this clearly to the students and make sure they are aware of any changes at the earliest possible moment.
Because your course is usually part of a programme, your syllabus and especially your learning objectives need to be in line with the overall teaching mission of the institution. It can therefore be useful to organise syllabus peer review sessions with your colleagues, as this can support both the above mentioned curricular alignment and the overall endeavour to exchange teaching and learning experiences.
Engagement with the syllabus
Last by not least, getting students to carefully read the syllabus can be a real challenge. Besides making it accessible (in written form and/ or alternative formats- see some suggestions and examples below), it is usually useful to discuss it in class in the first session, allowing students to ask questions and you can even organise a spontaneous quiz on the syllabus content.
Comprehensive guides on how to draft your syllabus, including further resources and examples; further exploration of course design frameworks:
Syllabus design (Vanderbilt University);
Syllabus design (Harvard University);
Syllabus Functions (Cornell University);
Building an Inclusive Syllabus (Stanford University);
Teaching and Learning Frameworks (Yale University);
The “I want more”
Culturally Responsive & Inclusive Curriculum Resources: Creating Culturally Responsive Curriculum- some ideas about how to make your syllabus inclusive; find some more resources about diversity in teaching here;
Visual Syllabus- ideas for an alternative to the text-based syllabus;
Accessible Syllabus- some tips and resources to make your syllabus accessible, from the text and images you use to the language and style;
Getting Students to Engage with the Syllabus- ideas for getting students to really read and engage with your syllabus;
As You’re Preparing the Syllabus . . .- some tips on how to approach creating your syllabus;
Empathetic Syllabi Review Exercise- interesting exercise to involve students in reviewing syllabi;
Tonic for the Boring Syllabus- some practical tips to make your syllabi less like a boring contract and more like a useful communication tool.
Meanwhile @ The Educationalist…
It is my pleasure to invite you to read our two latest stories, part of the “Around the world” faculty development series:
Crossing boundaries: Reflections by a former academic developer, guest post by Tracy Zou, Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she shares her first impressions after transitioning from a faculty development to a faculty role;
One for all, and all for one: A nationwide vision of inter-institutional faculty development, a guest post by Manuel João Costa (University of Minho) and Sandra Soares (University of Aveiro) where they reflect on a successful inter-institutional initiative to establish a network for faculty development in Portugal.