August 12, 2015

What content to put in the syllabus (and what to leave out)

Posted by Laura Guertin

How about the courses you teach? If you went to some of your alumni and asked them what in their college education turned out to be really useful after graduation, what do you suppose they’d tell you? — Tomorrow’s Professor posting, Why Are You Teaching That?

Twice or three times a year, faculty go through the same struggle as we prepare our courses and design our syllabi for the start of the semester. It doesn’t matter how many times we have taught a course – we always seem to revisit what we’ve taught, why we’ve taught it, and if it is still relevant.  I’ve been struggling redesigning two courses for this semester, and it is a struggle that many of us go through alone.  Fortunately, Erik Klemetti from Denison University starting tweeting about this same topic (thank you, Erik, for letting us know that each of us are not alone with this situation!).

Erik continues…

This is certainly the start of one of the challenges.  We only have a limited amount of time to teach students all we feel they need to know about subject “x.” In my own 15-week semester, with general education introductory-level courses titled “Environment Earth” and “Earth and Life” that each have a 1-2 sentence official course description, I welcome the flexibility of selecting what to teach… which then leads to selecting what to teach (how to teach the content would be a topic for an entirely different blog post).  Erik’s situation is different than mine, as I’m not preparing students for a future career in geology, whereas there are expected learning outcomes for his students that take mineralogy in a four-year degree program.

Felder (2014) recommends, “try to prepare your students for what they will have to do to succeed in their careers-understand fundamental concepts at a deep level, think creatively and critically and globally, and gain new knowledge and skills in multiple disciplines without the help of professors and lectures and grades.” (My hunch is that Felder would lean the same way as Erik)

This is a great time to remind everyone to think about course design by starting with defining the course goals before creating the course syllabus (these links will bring you to excellent pieces of the SERC site). SERC provides examples of student learning outcomes for Introductory Oceanography and an entire database of course goals and syllabi. I have found this online content incredibly useful to explore every semester before designing each course I teach. So how did Erik resolve his quandary?

May each of us have success in defining our course goals and content for the semester!  (and don’t worry, Erik – I did just what you tweeted below last week for one of my courses… after thinking about it all summer!)