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Posts Tagged ‘Syllabi’

For the past few years I have been requiring students to answer discussion questions about the readings before coming to class. The purpose of these discussion questions is to make sure that students do the reading (obviously) but also to ensure that students think about the readings and their connections to other course topics. After a trial run in one course I have adopted the practice in nearly every course with small variations (in lower-level courses, for example, I provide the discussion questions while in upper-level courses I combine my own questions with those written by students). When preparing my syllabi for the fall, I again included discussion questions even though I wasn’t entirely sure what students at my new institution would be like. In the days after completing my syllabi, though, I began to feel uneasy.

Using discussion questions in a course I’ve taught a number of times does not contribute much to my workload outside of class. Since I know what lass discussions have focused on in the past I can be sure to include questions on those elements of the readings. For a new prep, however, writing discussion questions involves reading a week or more ahead to anticipate the direction of class discussions while allowing my students enough time to use the discussion questions to complete the readings. The more I thought about it, the less I looked forward to writing discussion questions in addition to preparing for one new course and one course with substantially-revised readings. Higher publication expectations were also a factor, since reading ahead to write questions, preparing for class, reviewing readings before class, and grading would have left me with little time for writing.

In the end, although my syllabi had already been posted to Blackboard, I decided in the interest of my sanity and productivity to delete the discussion question requirements before handing them out on the first day of class. This will also give me a chance to see how I might use discussion questions most effectively with my new students. My decision isn’t particularly groundbreaking since my students likely won’t even know what they’re missing, but ten years into teaching it is important to remember why I was advised not to try too much in my first semester of teaching: it is easy to get overwhelmed when starting something new.

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Lots of people talk about a syllabus as a sort of contract between professors and students in which professors tell students what will be expected of them and students are informed about how their final grades will be determined. Of course, this contract is one-sided and typically gives students no input into the process (yes, there are exceptions), but at least they typically know what they’re getting themselves into by taking a given course. As I tweak my syllabi in the week or so leading up to the beginning of the semester, though, I often find myself asking questions like “Should this assignment be worth seven percent or eight percent of the final grade?” and “Which of these assignments do I expect to take students more effort?”

Because these questions have no clear answers, I end up making arbitrary decisions to determine how each requirement will contribute to the final grade. This is especially a problem in new courses or courses in which I have new assignments (some of which have not actually been written when the semester begins). In one previous course two assignments were given the same weight in the final grade but one ended up taking students about half the time, thought, and effort, of the other. I tweaked the weights the next time I taught the course, but the “contractual” nature of the syllabus prevented me from changing the weights when I realized the problem.

I don’t think that setting course requirements in stone at some arbitrary point (for me, this is when I make copies of the syllabus for students) is a bad thing. Students have a right to know how their grade will be determined. I’ve actually heard students in other people’s courses complain when assignments were dropped because they were hoping to use those assignments to bring their grades up. I do think, however, that it is important to recognize how arbitrary some of these decisions are and carefully reflect on them throughout the semester so that we can make adjustments for the future. Just because we set something in stone doesn’t mean that it is necessarily correct.

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When starting out as a teacher I was often told that a syllabus is a sort of contract. (This doesn’t make a syllabus sound very exciting, but we can’t all be David Foster Wallace.) As I’ve prepared for classes over the years I’ve always kept this in mind. Although my syllabus notes that the class schedule is tentative, it also notes that exam dates will not change. In line with this I’ve also never added, removed, or changed the deadline for assignments once a class has started. After an advisee’s recent experience, I’ve learned that not all faculty members follow this approach.

The student in question was in a course where the professor first pushed back and then cancelled a paper, with the cancellation occurring after the original deadline. For many students, this was not be a problem since they had not started the paper yet anyway. For students with busier schedules (and/or students who like to get things done ahead of time), however, this cancellation meant that the work they had put into the paper up to that point was wasted. The cancellation also had ramifications for students’ grades. Those who were doing well in the course may not have minded, but others who were struggling may have seen the cancelled paper as a chance to improve their grade. Instead, the relative value of their previous work was increased.

In my experience, some students are very vocal about their desire that course requirements be delayed or cancelled altogether, but this situation highlights the often unforeseen and unintended consequences of doing something that seems, on the surface, like it will merely reduce the workload for all involved.

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In preparing my syllabi for the fall semester I discovered that my three-a-week courses meet 42 times.  The prospect of coming up with forty two interesting lectures/discussions/exercises is daunting.  I suppose that a positive aspect of meeting 42 times for 50 minute sessions is that if any particular lecture/discussion/exercise turns into a disaster the students and I will have to endure it for less than an hour before getting a fresh start in the next meeting.

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