Blog Post

Crafting Quality Syllabi

While talking to the dean about implementing the new syllabi requirements for the history department, I mentioned to her that one of my colleagues had sent me a copy of a syllabus to review. In response, the dean joked, “You didn’t make that person put pictures in it did you?”

Throughout my syllabi, about which I have previously written in “The Syllabi are Coming (But They Will Change),” I include many images. This works very well for me. But I am not sure that images in my colleague’s syllabus would have the same impact or fulfill the same needs as they do in mine.

I did have one suggestion. After some deliberation, I shared a copy of my syllabi so that my colleague could see an example of what I was proposing. However, I mentioned that I was reluctant to do so because “I would discourage people from using my syllabi as a model because syllabi should reflect each professor’s personality.”

My colleague’s well crafted syllabus—especially the detailed class schedule—demonstrated quality course design. What purpose would be served by adding images?

There is some general advice I would give to anyone about designing syllabi which include (1) revise the common syllabi language so that it reflects what you actually do in the classroom, (2) address the syllabi to the intended reader by using language such as “you” rather than “the student,” (3) refer to yourself by “me” or “my” or “I” instead of “the instructor,” and (4) avoid draconian language while keeping the tone positive.

I also encourage professors to provide a brief explanation for assignments so that students can see how assessments are linked to course competencies, core abilities, and the course description. For example, the dean once raised a concern because it did not appear that I was meeting departmental assessment requirements for an English course I was teaching. The issue was one of labeling. The “research project” I assigned was an acceptable way to fulfill the departmentally required “final exam.” Had I provided an explanation as to what the research paper required, both the dean and students would have benefited.

Once a student dropped my course because I “didn’t know how to teach history.” This student was upset because I rarely gave formal lectures and that I did not present the course material chronologically. Instead, I designed the course around themes and team work. That semester, I required students to produce posters for a campus wide event; an assignment for which she saw no pedagogical purpose. This particular student would have had a better experience in several of my colleague’s sections of the same course.

I once advised a student not to take a high quality course taught by a colleague for whom I have a great deal of respect because I knew that this particular student would have hated the modality in which my colleague was offering the course. I have recommended the same professor and that particular course to other students. The best learning environment for one student is not the best situation for another even when the quality of the course design is high.

Although there are some best practices that improve syllabi, I believe that one of the benefits to students who study in our department is that we take a variety of approaches to history, classroom management, and assessment. Our focus is on meeting competencies; not on the specifics of how those competencies are met. The problem we now face is how to best provide information about the expectations to students prior to the first day of class.

–Steven L. Berg, PhD

An earlier version of this essay was posted at Etene Sacca-vajjena.


1 comment

Thanks for these excellent insights into how to craft a syllabus.  I think a syllabus is probably as various as professors or students and I love it when people share them--it gives us all ideas, it gives us confidence to try new things.  I recently visited the great Mike Wesch out at Kansas State University.  He teaches a digital ethnography course on aging where he has his students quite literally move out of their dorms and into a residential care retirement home for the semester.   I asked to see his syllabus and he sent me a threaded email--he changes the syllabus constantly throughout the term, updating with weekly emails, depending on the needs and demands that come up in the high-wire living/teaching circumstance of a dozen students living among the retired, the aging, the infirm, the ill, and even the dying.   Like life.  The best laid plans . . .