Monday, February 13, 2017

Evolution of My Syllabus

by Natasa Kesler, Director of the Teaching and Learning Academy at Cascadia College

A month or so ago, when our Deans suggested we organize a faculty workshop devoted to syllabus, my first thought was, “No one is coming to THAT!” My thinking quickly changed into an entrepreneurial, “How are we going to make that workshop attractive?” The preparation for the workshop made me think more deeply about my own syllabi over the years, and the story they told about my teaching. I soon determined there were three different stages of my syllabus evolution.

The first stage coincides with the beginning of my teaching career. As an inexperienced Biology instructor, I was grateful for those kind and generous colleagues who offered me their syllabi. Nothing sounded better than “Feel free to copy and paste anything you like!” That is exactly what I did - copied and pasted the whole thing, proudly remembering to insert my own name, email and phone number under “contact information." As a new instructor, my tendency was to worry not to “mess anything up” so I copy/pasted the offered syllabi and followed their lead.

Can you recollect the first syllabus you ever wrote? Did you have a better way of approaching your course materials when you were brand new to teaching?

As I continued teaching, these initial syllabi improved a bit each quarter; I added, subtracted, elaborated and corrected bits and pieces.

Once a tenure track faculty at Cascadia College, I entered my second stage of syllabus evolution. This time around I started from scratch and ended up with a syllabus that contained three parts: “must-haves”–  dictated by the institution, “could-haves” – generally recommended for the syllabus, and “junk”- stuff I believed I needed to make my syllabus stand out.

The “must-haves” are easily located at each institution. They range from course descriptions to syllabus learning agreements and usually contain very standardized language. I still copy/paste these.

Are you familiar with your school requirements regarding the syllabus?

The “could-haves” make up the majority of my syllabus and are the ones I spend considerable time creating. The most important parts of “could-haves” are probably:
  • What to expect in the classroom from your instructor
  • What your instructor expects from you
My promises and expectations change with different courses, student populations, and also change over time to reflect significant cultural trends, technology innovations, and so on...  What remains constant is my intent to make the list of promises to students very similar in length to the list of expectations I have from them.

Other examples that are definite “could-haves” are
  • Helpful tips and strategies
  • More detailed description of major assignments 
  • Grading policy and Course schedule
I find it advantageous to work out the detailed schedule for every class and lab session and to give elaborate and clear grading criteria.  Departing students often have to offer excellent syllabus improvement advice, making them an invaluable resources for keeping the “could-haves” section current.

What would you classify as “could-haves” in your syllabus? Do you have a strategy for changing /improving this section? Do you consider established best practices for syllabi?

You probably could not even imagine how cute, adorable, attractive, charming, simply irresistible (!) my early syllabi were! I had gorgeous figures and graphics depicting students, lab work, in addition to the most magnificent images of anatomical structures, dancing skeletons, Olympic athletes…did I mention it was all very colorful?!? I hoped that all of this fantastic imagery would evoke enthusiasm for my teaching and infuse excitement into traditionally very difficult subject.  Well, you can imagine my disappointment when I went to a workshop titled “How to make your syllabus accessible” and realized that my syllabus was 100% inaccessible! This is how I have come to the third stage of my syllabus evolution – the accessible syllabus!

For me, Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning is where most of the work remains, but changing my syllabus recently to make it more accessible has given me a good start, and prompted me to continue on this path of improvement.

Have you thought about issues of accessibility? Do you have a plan for making you syllabus/course accessible?

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