Monday, January 20, 2020

Five Rules for Creating the Perfect Syllabus

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I don't know if it is possible to create the perfect syllabus for a college course but we all try. In the past, I sometimes felt too tied to the course schedule and grading scheme. Plus, I always ran into new reading material or content that I wanted to add long after I posted the syllabus. Over the years, I developed five rules to make my syllabi more flexible and student-friendly while also keeping me sane. Let me know what you think or if you have any other ideas:

1. Keep grading flexible. From personal experience, I know that stuff happens during the course of the semester. The lives of our students are complex. They are young adults taking tons of courses while navigating one of their most socially challenging times of their lives. It is common for a great student to have a bad week or two. Should this impact their final grade in your class? You can make things easier for them by providing some degree of flexibility in your evaluation scheme. Perhaps they can drop one test or select from a range of options for the final project. The point is that by giving students a degree of choice as to how to demonstrate competency you empower them to make choices that work for them and for you. 

2. Provide rubrics for final projects. I know lots of professors who ask for a final paper or project but provide limited guidance as to what is expected to earn a great grade. Indeed, having sat on lots of faculty evaluation committees over the years, this is one of the biggest complaints students have about professors:  clarity of evaluation. By providing a grading rubric for a final project in the syllabus, you take the mystery out of what students need to do to earn a good grade and you will have better final projects from students.

3. Build time for online experiences. Many universities (mine included) allow professors to swap out a certain amount of in-class experiences with online experiences. I try to schedule online meetings about once a month to mix up the content. I schedule them for times when I know I have to be out of town or have some other professional responsibility. I sometimes add them when I have a personal time conflict like a family visit or an important doctor's appointment and I don't want to cancel class. I add the dates for online classes into the syllabus for those dates when I know I am going to schedule online meetings or assignments but I always state that more online classes will be scheduled during the span of the semester to make room for things that come up.

4. Make room for new reading. I am pretty good about assigning all of the required reading the the syllabus. However, due to the fast moving pace of the field of sustainability, I make space in the syllabus to add other readings for each major unit. I make a spot for this in the syllabus with this text: New assigned readings this week. Check blackboard for link. By adding this text, you give notice to students that there will be new information that they will be required to read. If it turns out that you don't need to assign anything new, they will be relieved. The point I want to make is that it is helpful to create is a placeholder to allow you to add new stuff. You don't want to be that prof that has a set of readings for a course and continuously adds more without notice.

5. Define your contact hour limitations. With our modern communication systems, it is not uncommon to get emails from students at 3 in the morning or over the weekends. I'm not a fan of making myself available 24/7. I have lots of other projects and teaching is one component of my life and it needs to be compartmentalized just like I compartmentalize other things. Certainly my students are extremely important to me. But they do not need complete access to me at all times. In your syllabus, clearly outline your office hours and make it clear that you do not respond to emails in the evening and on weekends. Obviously, it may turn out that you do respond (I usually do). However, the point is that you are setting up some good boundaries to protect your time as needed. They will be pleasantly surprised when you get back to them outside of normal business hours.

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