Strategies for creating university course syllabi

by Julie Dodd

An important part of successful teaching is being able to design an effective course. The foundation of course design is the course syllabus.

In Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930), each class member determines an undergraduate communications course to create a syllabus for. Decisions for developing the syllabus include:

understandingbydesignWhat are the Student Learning Outcomes (SLO). Curriculum design and learning theory support determining the big-picture outcomes for the course and letting those guide the course structure and week-by-week instruction and assignments. A very helpful book for this big-picture to small-picture planning is Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe).

How will student learning be assessed. “McKeachie’s Teaching Tips” recommends using several assessment strategies to enable students who have a variety of learning styles to demonstrate what they have learned. Assessment can include quizzes and exams, major papers or projects, team projects, and class participation.

How will the class be structured. A typical course at the University of Florida is three credits and meets three hours each week. The decision is whether the class will meet three times a week for an hour each time, once a week for three hours, or twice a week, meeting for one hour one day and two hours on the other day.

What textbook and other resources (i.e., software, websites) be used in the course. Once those materials are determined, the teacher must decide how to incorporate those materials into class-by-class planning.

How can class assignments and class meetings be paced. The students in Mass Communication Teaching are developing their courses for Spring Semester 2014. Developing a course for an actual semester is useful, as you must consider issues for that particular semester — spring break, Thanksgiving, religious holidays and homecoming. McKeachie advises having “low stakes” graded activities before the “high stakes” assignments. Give a quiz before having a big exam. Provide feedback on a smaller written assignment before the major paper is due. Also, break big projects into chunks to help students make progress rather than waiting to start the big project right before the final deadline.

UF’s Policy on Course Syllabi includes 11 items to include and four recommended items. The policy provides a very helpful checklist for creating a syllabus —

As instructors, we can get so caught up in the content and grading for the course that we can forget to include other important information — from office hours and email address to the academic honesty policy. So, use the policy as a checklist.

Most universities and colleges have  resources and policies set out that should be included in every syllabus. Use your university’s website to identify those policies and use that wording. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel in trying to find your own wording.

The syllabus serves two important functions.

First, the syllabus is a contract between you and the student. You establish what expectations you have for them, and you set out what their expectations should be for you. You may need to make a few adjustments to the syllabus as the semester progresses, especially if you are teaching a course for the first time. But you should not e making significant changes in course requirements — changing the date of a major exam, adding a new project, etc.

Second, the syllabus helps the students get to know you. They can make decisions about you in terms of your organization, what you consider important about the course, your outlook about them, and even your sense of humor. (I’d advise being cautious about your use of humor or sarcasm, as that sometimes doesn’t come across well in writing — especially for students who don’t know you.) So choose your wording with care. I like to use second person (“you”) in writing the syllabus rather than third person (“the student”) to make the syllabus more of a conversation of my talking with the students.

So how do I know how my syllabus would be evaluated? For a graduate student creating a syllabus, that means how it would be graded. Creating the syllabus is practice for syllabus building graduate students will be doing in their career of teaching.

Having served on the UF General Education Council, I’ve read dozens and dozens of syllabi from courses across campus and have participated in council discussion of whether a course should be approved for general education designation.

  • Are the SLOs spelled out, appropriate for the course and the students, and attainable.
  • Does the course have rigor and inspiration.
  • Are grading guidelines appropriate and fair.
  • What are the readings and are they relevant and current.
  • Is the wording of the syllabus clearly understood.
  • Is the course paced well and is supported with homework assignments and readings.

Another point to consider is carefully editing the syllabus. Again, the accuracy and clarity of your writing sends a message to your students — and to your colleagues who are reading your syllabus. Remember, too, that your syllabus will be read by a wider audience. UF now requires that all course syllabi be posted online (and publicly, not in a course management syllabus) at least three days before the semester begins to assist students in making course selections.


One thought on “Strategies for creating university course syllabi

  1. Pingback: Tips and checklist for creating college course syllabus | Strategies for Successful Teaching

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