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Revisiting the Syllabus

For Those Who Teach Syllabus

Revisiting the Syllabus

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For a variety of reasons, we’re starting this year with a series on the syllabus. Most of us consider it an important course resource. We devote time and energy into its development; it’s frequently the tool we use to plan and revise our courses. But it’s also a taken-for-granted artifact of teaching, and when we’re faced with teaching three, four, even five courses, recycling old syllabi is often the most efficient option. Add the new dates, use that lovely “find and replace” function, and the syllabi are good to go. How long has it been since the last serious syllabus revision? What’s the origin of this current syllabus? What’s the rationale for this set of sections and why do they appear in this order? What’s been added? Changed? Stayed the same?

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For many of us, disappointment surrounds the syllabus. It really doesn’t matter how current or carefully constructed syllabi are given how little attention students typically give them. Here’s this clear road map to the course, a delineation (usually detailed) of every one of its relevant aspects. And students—not all students, granted, but decidedly more than a few—ignore it, don’t read it, ask questions answered in it, lose it, and bumble their way through the course.

Our disappointment also grows out of all that syllabi can but frequently fail to accomplish, starting with the comprehensive description of course details. Syllabi can clarify what the students are expected to do and can include a parallel set of teacher obligations. A contractual format can be used to identify the consequences for expectations not met. The syllabus can extend welcoming invitations to learning, highlighting the relevance and importance of the course. Syllabi can summarize the content—what students will know and be able to do when the course concludes. Syllabi can reveal how the course is structured, mapping where it starts and the path it follows to arrive at the destination. There, in several pages, students can get a glimpse of the whole course and how all its working parts fit together.

Maybe we aspire to accomplish too much with the syllabus. Maybe we should be more selective about its purposes. Are some more important than others? Maybe the answer revolves around a more central question: Why students do fail to recognize its importance? Would different purposes or other roles more effectively highlight what it can contribute to learning experiences in a course? Are there better ways to introduce it and then to make use of it throughout the course? Are we stuck in our thinking about syllabi—so inside the box we can’t think outside it?

We decided that the syllabus merits a revisit. Fortunately, the Teaching Professor community is full of teachers who care and have ideas, information, and opinions about their syllabi and those of others. So we reached out with a call—a set of questions we hoped would generate thinking and motivate the sharing of ideas and materials related to the syllabus. And we got a great response: email opinions, articles, sample syllabi, and links to related materials. Thank you, thank you!

Here’s how we’ll present the submitted materials and other good information we’ve found on the topic:

  • A potpourri of small and large changes you can make to and with the syllabus
  • Observations on common characteristics of the sample syllabi we’ve received
  • Reader-submitted articles on syllabus-related topics
  • An annotated bibliography of scholarly literature on the syllabus
  • A discussion of the issues associated with using syllabus templates
  • Ways for you to collect feedback on your syllabi or the syllabi used in your department or program

We will publish these articles over the course of the next two months. Once they’ve all appeared, we will bundle them into a PDF that readers can download from the site.

Our interest in syllabi isn’t based on premises of remediation or deficiency. We do worry that the syllabus often fails to reach its potential, but we don’t think that most are in desperate need of improvement. Rather, our efforts rest on the premise that syllabi, like every other aspect of teaching and learning, can always be done better. We’re hoping a revisit and some new resources will aid your efforts to refresh, revise, or reframe your syllabi in the interest of reaching their full potential.


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  1. James Hawkins January 6, 2020

    The strength of a course direction and content is tied directly to clarity of the syllabus for student use, understanding and direction to complete the required projects. It is important to make sure the information listed is written at level where understanding is attainable.

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