Changing your course syllabus as you are teaching the course

by Julie Dodd

How much can I change the syllabus while the course is underway?

That’s a question that I’ve been asked when I lead workshops for teaching assistants and new faculty.

uf-syllabi-websiteEspecially when you are teaching a course for the first time, it’s difficult to know if you are creating the right course design.

  • Do the students have the academic background that you thought they would?
  • Have you allocated enough time for major assignments and projects?
  • Did you include enough time in class for you to present the key concepts and to provide time for students to engage in active learning activities?

You get weeks (or maybe just a few class sessions) into the course and realize that you would like to change the syllabus.

I’m a big advocate of syllabus assessment and redesign. However, I’d strongly recommend that during the term you are teaching the course, you should give careful consideration before making any significant changes to the course, such as eliminating a major assignment or test or adding an additional unit or project.

Are other instructors teaching the course during the same term?

If you are one of several instructors teaching the same course that term, making big changes to the syllabus during the term for your students could create problems for your students.

I’m a member of the University of Florida’s Graduate Teaching Assistant Awards Committee. One of the courses I’ve observed several times is “What Is The Good Life?”, a required humanities course that incorporates study of art, music, literature, history, religion and philosophy. The course is taught each term, with dozens of teaching assistants leading the discussion sections.

The course has a shared syllabus and common assessment activities. If one of the teaching assistants teaching a discusison section decided to leave out some of the readings or skip one of the assignments in the syllabus, the students in that section would be at a disadvantage in the essay tests that determine a large portion of their grade.

Taking more time on one section of the course than allocated in the syllabus– even though that could lead to more in-depth learning on that topic – would penalize the students because they would have less time on another of the required topics.

As a teaching assistant, if you are feeling like there isn’t enough time to provide adequate instruction or for students to complete assignments, talk with your teaching supervisor to ask for suggestions. Often someone who is experienced in teaching the course can offer teaching strategies that you hadn’t thought of.

There are times when it’s appropriate to make a change to the syllabus during the term. For example:

  • You are teaching the course for the first time and designed a final assignment that was too ambitious for the students.
  • The university was closed for several days due to an emergency, such as a hurricane or wildfire, which impacts your course’s timeline.

Tips for making changes to your syllabus

If you are considering making a change to the syllabus, such as dropping an assignment or changing a deadline date, here are several tips:

  1. Try to determine that the topic or assignment you’re planning to eliminate isn’t an essential component of the course. You don’t want to leave out a problem-solving method or a lab experiment that will be expected knowledge for the next course in the curriculum.
  2. Explain the situation to the class and your rationale for your decision. Don’t just announce the decision – “I’ve decided to eliminate one of the three exams.” You may be thinking that you are reducing the workload for the students, but some students may be counting on those remaining exams to bring up a low grade on an earlier exam.
  3. If you want to let the students help you determine whether or not to change the syllabus, design their input in a productive way. Don’t let them feel empowered and then not respond to their input. Don’t have an in-class public vote saying that only if everyone agrees will you make the change, as that’s intimidating for students who might hold the minority view.
  4. Document your change to the syllabus and include a written explanation. Post the revised syllabus in the online component of your course, such as a course website, course management system or class Facebook page. Put a date on the changed syllabus. Remember that the day you make the explanation in class, at least one student most likely will be absent. And even though students were in class to hear you explain the change to the syllabus, they might forget the change by the time you reach that point in the term.

Making small adjustments versus big changes

Before making a big change or making no change at all, consider how you might make small adjustments to address your course concerns.

Instead of dropping one of the three exams, give all three exams and give students the option of dropping their lowest exam score.

If you need more time on a topic, instead of dropping another topic, consider how you might be able to make an adjustment. For example, instead of having a guest speaker come to campus to speak for the entire class period, use video-conferencing to have the speaker in class for 15-20 minutes, with you and the students asking specific questions. Then use the rest of the class period to focus on a topic that needs more time.

If students aren’t making adequate progress on team projects, instead of extending the deadline or dropping the project, consider how to get the teams to work more effectively. Allocate part of a class session for the teams to meet, giving them a specific written outcome to provide you by the end of class. Require each team or a representative of the team to meet with you during office hours or in an online course chat function to discuss the team’s status and any problems they are experiencing.

By being open to making strategic needed changes during the course, you can improve the learning experience for the students but.. beware of making too many changes.

Even if you are making small changes, by making too many changes, you may be sending a message to the students of uncertainty. Some students may push you to make other changes.

During the term, be sure to make notes about course design problems you identify so you can address those issues when you update and modify the syllabus for the next time you teach the course.

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