A Syllabus Has Muscles, Too

August 20, 2015

Your muscles, brain, and course syllabus all have something in common. Without ongoing work and stimulation, they get weak and flabby (figuratively and literally).We all can relate in some way to the regret that seeps in with those first steps onto the beach in summer as you become frighteningly aware that you’ve arrived with less than the intended “beach body” you envisioned in January when you booked the trip. This can be similar to letting your syllabus show up to the first day of class out of shape. Don’t live with regrets…

Here are 5 ways to pump up your syllabus (and your course) for fall:

  1. Assignments and Exams. Tired of the traditional, standard exam? Sick of composing the questions? Dissatisfied with how exams allow students to demonstrate what they know? Want to do something completely different and more in line with what fits with your field? Try an Alternative Final Exam (for the final, or any course assignment). The Academic Senate’s Committee on Courses of Instruction set forth policy and guidelines around alternative final exams, and we have some additional ideas and suggestions through the CTL.
  2. Grades and Grading. Everything’s peaches at the beginning of the semester. But your syllabus can help prevent things from going sour later, particularly with regard to grading and grade appeals. For sample language and suggestions about how to confront grading issues before they happen, read Four Ways to Prevent Grade Disputes: A Time Machine Quiz by, well, me.
  3. Academic Integrity. Academic Integrity is an issue that needs to be addressed in a syllabus, but the standard punitive language about cheating or plagiarizing is not enough. Refer to the Academic Integrity website and Statements on Course Policies for ideas about how to bolster that section of the syllabus and explicitly express both the punitive and preventive measures. You can even include a Roadmap to Success Assignment in your syllabus to start the course that will help students plan for assignments in ways that encourage Academic Integrity.
  4. Course Description. Organization, flow, and motivation are all aspects of a course that stem greatly from the course description (not just the standard one in the Schedule of Classes, but anything additional you add on your syllabus about the course). Want your course to be more student-centered? Want your course to have a clearer narrative arc? Want your students to be more intrinsically motivated? Revise your course description accordingly.
  5. Student Evaluation of Teaching. I know, I know, these don’t happen until the very end of the semester. Why on earth would we want to address them in the syllabus? For good reason. Whether you are concerned about response rate, quality of feedback, or the ratings themselves, it’s important to know that YOU are the single biggest factor in determining whether a student completes a course evaluation (particularly if they are online - Johnson, 2002), how much time they spend on it and the quality of their responses, and the ratings themselves (Lauer, 2012. A nice summary of the chapter and commentary can be read here). Even more so, the earlier in the semester and the more often you speak to students about course evaluations (their function/purpose, how they are used, what kinds of feedback is most helpful, etc.) the better. The syllabus provides an excellent opportunity to clearly articulate some of those rationales and facts to students, while also serving as a place to reference when discussing evaluations throughout the semester.

Now, go get on your teaching clothes, plug some good old-fashioned teaching music (whatever that may be for you) in your ears, and be sure to stretch and warm-up before getting started. Then, go to the metaphorical teaching gym and get your syllabus in the best shape of its life.

To take the metaphor one step further, if you find you need a personal trainer in the teaching gym (for motivation, inspiration, advice, guidance, or just a workout buddy), I’m here to do that for you – like a teaching performance enhancer. Except unlike the sporting world, this kind of performance enhancer is legal with no long-term negative side effects…so, indulge!