Daniel de Roulet

For most professors and students, the fall term has either begun or will be beginning very soon.  So today we want to talk to you about something we’re all doing right now:  designing or redesigning the course syllabus.

INFORMATION ONLY?  Professors are taught that they have one major responsibility in the classroom:  pack as much information as we can into the number of weeks allowed, so that students will come away well-educated in the subject matter.  Teaching foundational knowledge is not debatable; but how to present it well is critical to getting that knowledge across to students in ways they can absorb and understand.

“Backwards Design” is a term familiar to almost everyone who has done undergraduate or graduate work in education, and unfamiliar to the majority of professors who educate.  While we typically construct a syllabus by looking at the calendar, the content demands, the exams, essays, and projects required, backwards design asks professors what skills and knowledge they would like students to have by the end of the term.

So, when you sit down to construct or re-design a syllabus, you’ll want to keep a number of principles in mind:

  • What do I want students to understand and practice about being a member of my academic discipline at this level in their undergraduate careers?
  • What texts, while strongly meeting course coverage, will give students the best opportunities to practice their skills and understanding?
  • What is the best use of our time together in class, and what is the best use of students’ time out of class, as we move through the units of this course?
  • What assessments (exams, essays, laboratory work, presentations, etc.) will best build student skills and knowledge and tell me how well students are building skills and knowledge?

Once you have your learning goals in hand, sit down to carefully plan the weekly and daily schedule in your course.

  • Divide the course into three or four sections, outlining knowledge and skills goals for each segment.  Allow overlap (some repetition) for skills and review of subject-matter as you move from segment to segment.
  • Allow some time at the beginning of the semester in your syllabus to emphasize learning goals and to assess students’ current skills levels. Reiterate the centrality of the learning goals as the semester continues.
  • Identify the points in the semester when you will be moving students from one major subject matter area to another, or when you will be introducing a major learning goal.  Then, set aside time on the syllabus between those sections for creating assessments in which student skills and understanding are measured.
  • As the semester proceeds, do not adjust the schedule on the syllabus, but adjust your instruction for each day based on how well students seem to be grasping the concepts and applying the skills designated for each section.
  • Having established syllabus sections, proceed to plans for each class meeting.  Connecting course texts and lecture materials to in-class assignments, homework and reading questions, and modes of student participation during class (group presentations, individual answers to reading questions to begin discussions, etc.) helps all students to remain engaged and active in the class.
  • At the beginning of each class, take a moment to write on the board or project on screen what was accomplished during the last class meeting, and what will happen during this class meeting.  Talk your students through the review, and briefly state the class goals for today.
  • At the end of the class, very briefly summarize (or better, call on particular students to summarize) what happened in class today, and how the learning goals were met.  Refer them to the syllabus for the next class meeting’s assignments.

Designing a syllabus around your course’s learning goals keeps each of your class meetings meaningful and focuses your students on thinking critically about your subject matter—not just recording it.

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Syllabus Design and Implementation | The Student Caring Project