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A Potpourri of Syllabus Ideas (Courtesy of Our Readers)

Revisiting the Syllabus Syllabus

A Potpourri of Syllabus Ideas (Courtesy of Our Readers)

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Our reader-submitted collection of syllabi and ideas about them contains any number of interesting ways of handling the small syllabus details and larger ways of dealing with the whole document. Here’s an assembled group of those small and large ideas, listed in no particular order but all worth your consideration.

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Our reader-submitted collection of syllabi and ideas about them contains any number of interesting ways of handling the small syllabus details and larger ways of dealing with the whole document. Here’s an assembled group of those small and large ideas, listed in no particular order but all worth your consideration.

Small changes

Most syllabi contain a host of course- and learning-related details. These individual pieces are small parts that collectively make up the syllabus. However, changing one can have ripple effects across the entire document. These are small details, but in the case of the syllabus, they do make a difference.

  • Rather than office hours, call them student hours. That’s how Lillian Nave’s (Appalachian State University) syllabus refers to the times she puts aside to meet with students.
  • One professor who responded encourages students to ask questions online using what his syllabus describes as the “Ask Dr. Don” folder. Students can post questions they have about the content or the course, Dr. Don answers them, and everyone in the course can see the questions others have asked and the answers the teacher has provided.
  • Several faculty who submitted sample syllabi sprinkle interesting and content-relevant quotations throughout. Judy Klimek (Kansas State University) does, and for each quote she adds just a bit about the author. Here’s a sample from one of her anatomy and physiology courses:

“I profess to learn and to teach anatomy not from books but from dissections, not from the tenets of Philosophers but from the fabric of Nature.”—William Harvey

William Harvey, b. 1578, was an English physician. He was the first to describe completely and in detail the systemic circulation.

  • Roger Vanden Busch (Northeast Wisconsin Technical College) uses quotations related to learning. He writes, “I like quotations because they are like laser beams which penetrate to the heart of the matter, that is the key to learning, understanding and to life itself.” He also spends time talking with students about the meaning of the quotations.
  • Valerie Guyant (Montana State University–Northern) uses graphically illustrated quotations and memes on her syllabi. For her composition course, all deal with the writing process, often humorously. A Game of Thrones meme at the beginning of the syllabus announces, “Brace yourselves. The writing is coming”—a riff on the HBO show’s familiar line “Winter is coming.” Another graphic offers this observation: “Being a good writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet” (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Humorous graphics from Valerie Guyant’s composition syllabus
  • Guyant also writes, “My students joke that the phrase ‘it's in the syllabus’ comes out of my mouth at least once a day for the first several weeks, but it does help.” She makes that response a bit more impressive by directing students to the page where the answer lies, and she does so without looking at the syllabus. It’s a subtle way of reinforcing how important she considers the syllabus.
  • To head off questions that the syllabus answers, Peggy Brown’s (North Lake College) syllabus advises students to frame their questions this way: “I looked in the syllabus, but I couldn’t find the answer to this question . . .”
  • It’s easy to include graphic material on syllabi now, and many of those who shared their syllabi do. Lillian Nave a colorful graphic to connect course goals to course activities. Each goal appears on the left of the table, and across from it are the assignments, activities, and other course events that will be used to accomplish the goal (Figure 2):
A list of four course goals (left column) and the assignments and activities that satisfy them (right column). The course goals are as follows: (1) Thinking Critically and Creatively, (2) Communicating Effectively, (3) Local-to-Global Connections, and (4) Responsibilities of Community Membership. An illustration accompanies each of the these points: a brain, a text bubble, a globe, and three human heads, respectively.
Figure 2. Course goals graphic from Lillian Nave’s Art, Politics & Power syllabus
  • Howard Aldrich (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) takes the edge off the list of policies in his first-year honors seminar by labeling them “Rules of the Road.” He lists and describes them with concise, clear statements. Some samples from his list: “We start and end class on time.” “Use laptops only during periods when you are asked to open them.” “Turn off and put away cell phones, pagers, and beepers.”
  • Several faculty noted that the various institutional policies they’re required to include appear on the syllabus as links. Nancy Parks (Pierpont Community and Technical College) makes a good point about using links: “It conveys the fact that such policies aren’t particular to individual instructors but are institutional guidelines, expectations and values.”
  • Vicki Ingalls (Tiffin University) gets students looking at the syllabus by sharing it with them before the course begins and telling them to expect a quiz covering material in the syllabus. When they arrive in class, they find out the quiz is a Kahoot! with candy for the winner instead of grades. That relieves the tension and creates a lighthearted atmosphere for the course.

Bigger changes

A syllabus can be reformatted, supported with a new activity, or used to accomplish different goals. The content may be the same, but these alternations can change how students receive it. The syllabus looks and sometimes feels different—maybe it seems more important, friendlier, more helpful, or easier for students to find what they need to know about the course.

  • Laura Schisler (Missouri Southern State University) prepares a “Welcome” folder for each student in the course (Figure 3). Brightly colored and with an attractive illustration on the cover, the folder contains the syllabus, early course handouts, and the plan for the first day, including an activity they can start working on. Professor Schisler wanders around the room, handing out the folders along with a personal welcome to each student.
Two sample welcome folders with pineapple-shaped welcome notes on the front. The note on the top folder reads, "Jane, Welcome to science methods! Have a wonderful semester! Dr. Schisler."
Figure 3. Sample welcome folders prepared by Laura Schisler
  • Carolyn Samuel (McGill University) uses a scavenger hunt activity to get students acquainted with each other and with the important details of the course. She describes the activity in detail in this blog post.
  • Nancy Schorschinsky (Penn State Schuylkill) also uses a scavenger hunt. Her students find answers to questions in the syllabus, but they must also physically find locations on campus, such as her office and various learning resources (e.g., the library and learning center).
  • Several faculty members shared ways they’d reorganized their syllabi. Kevin Kelly (San Francisco State University) did so with a structure that takes the students’ perspective. He now puts the syllabus content in one of three categories: “about the class,” “about the teacher,” and “about you (the students).” “About the class” content includes the learning objectives, course format, activities and assignments, policies, and grading. “About the teacher” has his contact information, estimated turnaround times for feedback, and expectations about his participation in this online course. The “about you” section addresses accommodations for disabilities, the need to respect diversity, students’ preferred names and pronouns, and expectations about their participation.
  • Vicki Ingalls reorganized her math syllabus around a series of questions. The content is still sectioned, but each section is preceded by a shaded textbox that contains a question followed by its answer. Here are some of the questions her syllabus answers: “When/where are your office hours?” “What will I learn?” “What books will I need?” “How will I earn points?” “What is the grading scale?” and “When are the assignments due?” This approach that makes it easy for students to find the answers to common questions.
  • “A Syllabus Full of Opportunities”—that’s how Donald Saucier and Tucker Jones (Kansas State University) describe the changes made in their syllabi: “We believe our syllabus is an opportunity to inspire students to want to take our classes and work to achieve their own goals in them. To do this, we believe our syllabus should be packed full of opportunities. Rather than listing course mandates and requirements, we have ‘opportunities to earn points’ and ‘opportunities to demonstrate learning.’” “This approach is part of our ‘choice to learn’ teaching philosophy. It emphasizes students’ intrinsic motivation. We focus on what they can do if they choose, so that the choice to learn is their opportunity, not our requirement.” Here’s how their syllabus describes these opportunities:

    • This course is designed to provide you with the opportunity to learn about and discuss issues related to stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.
    • You will have the opportunity to complete course readings each week this semester. There will be quizzes about those readings in class each week. You will have the opportunity to earn up to 10 points each week on the daily quizzes such that 150 course points may be earned for daily quizzes over the fifteen class periods.
    • You will have the opportunity to submit eleven short assignments this semester.
    • You will be given the opportunity to conduct a research project of your own design examining a topic related to stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.
  • Can students contribute to developing the syllabus? In her public speaking course, Annika Speer (University of California, Riverside) decided to find out. She distributed the syllabus on the first day but told the students she hadn’t finalized how they’d be assessed. What she had on the syllabus was a proposal: she’d like to discuss it with them and would consider changes they might propose. The discussion was rich, and the students did propose some changes. Speer wrote this about the experience:

The difference between the two grading breakdowns is minimal. The real value in this exercise was that the students felt more empowered going into the class, and I could feel that energy carry throughout the course. Opening the class by requesting their participation in the structure of the course set the tone for valuing student participation throughout the quarter. Numerous students commented favorably on this experience in my course evaluations and this is an exercise I will conduct again for future syllabi.

Reviewing these ideas and various approaches shows the value of sharing what we’re doing on and with our syllabi. Not everything here is suitable for every course, but many of these options transcend course content. They’re also useful because they spark our own thinking. Maybe a particular idea won’t work, but something like it could.

Thanks again to the faculty who shared, and kudos for their creativity.