" Brief splashes into the scholarship of teaching and learning"
" California State University Channel Islands' One-page Faculty Development Newsletter
Volume 1, Number 4, April, 2008
Office of Faculty Development
A Scrutiny of Syllabi, Part 3 - A
Dolphin's Eye View of Syllabi
In our last column (NTLFV16N6), we provided a list of thirteen
topics that needed to be in a syllabus. These covered instructor
access, prerequisites, ancillaries required, grading, policies that
affect grades such as attendance, missed deadlines, late work,
academic conduct and call to be made aware of students’ needs
for special accommodations. These are essential, and leaving out
any one of the items invites trouble. Yet, a syllabus presented as
a list of rules and policies guarantees a boring document.
We emphasized that a syllabus should be a document characterized
by newness, and surprise. As the first document provided to
students, it can set a tone that is easy to underestimate in its
ability to exert an influence on the entire course. In new
beginnings, engagement is occurring most dominantly through the
affective domain. The tone set within beginning moments will be a
part of new learners’ generators, and thus part of all
subsequent cognitive learning in the course. The last message and
tone we want to convey to the cognitive domain through our first
document is ?boring!?
The problem with our effectively conveying essential content while promoting interest in students is very much the same challenge we face for producing both the course and the course syllabus. Ah! What a fine bit of fractal thinking this invites, because a fractal form is one in which the parts resemble the whole. This similarity arises because parts and whole arise from the same generator. When one labors to provide good course design, the design is the product of a unique neural network developed in the brain of the designer. Course products, such as the syllabus, best support that intended design only when their characteristics resemble those of the course.
Too Creative for Our Own Good
Although this concept of alignment sounds simple, a barrier to maintaining consistence between course plan and syllabus arises from the brain’s infinite creativity; we are constantly creating new generators that potentially can be developed into infinite possibilities. We can experience the difficulty in achieving consistence by writing one short paper on a topic we know well. Next, set aside that paper, wait for a day, and write a second paper on the same topic. It is impossible to produce a second paper identical to the first, even about a single topic that we know well. Just how then, can we maintain the focus necessary to create a syllabus and other course products that are consistent with our course plan? We need a way to focus on our intended generator.
To discover a key to such focus, we turn to the Diary in NTLFV12N5, where we noted:?...every teacher has a philosophy, whether written or not. Unwritten, a philosophy may be difficult to enact consistently.? In considering our barrier to alignment, we see why it is so important to have a written philosophy. As long as we refer to that philosophy when we produce our course products, the written philosophy acts as a stabilizing influence to help us focus to do what we originally intended. We then have an excellent chance of creating parts that are similar to and consistent with the whole.
Our Teaching Philosophy as Our Own Best Generator
When parts of our practice: syllabi, evaluations, pedagogies, etc. are considered as separate topics in themselves and taught as such in workshops and books, it is hard to recognize these as manifestations of a unified network. Published advice on creating syllabi never explain why including parts of one’s personal philosophy in one’s syllabus is so important. However, the philosophy preserves the generator that shapes our practices. By sharing key parts of that with our students, the generator they build at the start of the course has an opportunity to acquire some alignment with ours. This aids their efforts to successfully engage the courses we design.
It is easy to see why the written philosophy must arise from within the instructor rather than from models for practice written by others. Ultimately, it is the instructor who actually prepares and teaches her/his courses. The instructor determines the nature of the unfolding of the course. His or her generator, not that of some model teacher, is going to be present in the course. If there is inconsistency between a professor’s philosophy and what gets enacted in the course, it can usually be explained by either the professor forgetting to refer frequently to his/her philosophy, or by the philosophy being written with too much influence from external sources.
Improving Health Surpasses Treating Symptoms
Because we are capable of infinite thought, it is always possible to create a better philosophy. Improvement through experience eventually changes a novice to an expert. We can choose to use our learning gained through experience in ways that are either inefficient or effective. When we find a way to improve a part of a course like a syllabus, it is more important to use our discovery to tune our core philosophy than it is to simply tinker with the syllabus. Otherwise, we end up with an improved syllabus, rather than with a gain that can transfer to many future components of our teaching. By understanding the fractal nature of our own development, we learn to focus on building a healthy generator rather than getting absorbed myopically in improving one of its products.
To see the practical link between philosophy and syllabus, let us revisit some queries in italic fonts below that acted as writing prompts for drafting our teaching philosophies (NTLFV12N5). Together, these queries had two general purposes. The first was to bring to awareness the things that excited us enough to commit us to our chosen discipline, so that we do not forget what we most wanted to do. The second was to begin to envision the specifics of just how we could do that productively.
Sharing Ourselves in our Syllabi
Consider in the following how the insights we provided for ourselves in our philosophy might be beneficial to convey to students in our syllabi.
1. I clearly know the two major reasons why I became a college professor.
2. I clearly know two aspects of my work that are most satisfying.
6. If a decade from now, a student recalled me as an influential teacher, three traits I would like to be remembered for are _____, ____, and__________.
Whenever I see professors engaged in these reflections, one emotion that is never present is boredom. Once insights from these reflections become articulated in philosophies, it permits disclosure in syllabi of some decisions and events that led to professors being in their class on that particular opening day?and wanting to be there. Far from boring, such a reflection can be riveting.?When the Academic Council mentioned in our last Diary rejected a proposal to mandate policy content of syllabi, they likely recognized on a subconscious level that they did not want the introduction to their courses to be reduced to emphasis on a list of policies.?For the student, such a reading should raise: ?Just what about this subject would want to make anyone dedicate his/her life to it, and why does this person care that I learn about it?
We can also act to improve odds that students will actually read these parts. First, we present these near the start of the syllabus, where our love of being with students and our passion for learning of our discipline shows first?far ahead of lists and regulations. (See also Singham, 2007.) Secondly, we can design our syllabus to be interactive. We can follow our sections with short writing prompts and engage that content with a few questions, and we can invite students to reflect in kind with us, as shown by the following examples.
a. If I had my ideal career now, what two qualities might excite me most??
b. If I pictured myself truly enjoying learning in this class, what would I be doing in that moment? Describe in one sentence your vision of how that would look and in a second sentence how that would feel.
c. When I think of myself as a learner, what are two things of value that I would like to gain from this course?
Linking Course Products and Practices to our Philosophy
When I coach professors on drafting their teaching philosophies, I know that focus on one course helps attendants to concentrate on the specifics they need to avoid diverting their efforts into less valuable generalizations. Note that the following prompts used to develop philosophies tie easily to equivalent information to convey in syllabi.
7. ?Successful teaching,? for me, means achieving the following outcomes for students with respect to?content knowledge: ___________________
10. ?Successful teaching,? for me, means providing students with the following?experiences: ___________________
11. ?Successful teaching? for me means achieving the following outcomes for students with respect to levels of thinking: ___________________
13. I employ the following as my dominant pedagogical method(s) _________ and I chose this (these) method(s) because _________________.
Our syllabi should convey content in the order that students can expect to encounter topics through the term, and we should also disclose the kinds of assignments and instructional modalities and evaluations that students will experience. But it is best to describe both in general terms in the syllabus. Teachers sometimes try to do too much in syllabi. Often, learning can be better served by other documents. For content, knowledge surveys offer better benefits.
Item 7 sometimes manifests in syllabi as a table that lists in detail the topics to be covered each day. Marching students through material in such regimentation likely arises from the presumption that learning occurs at a constant rate. (It doesn’t. See ?Perceiving Education’s Temporal Temperaments? NTLF V14N6 pp 7-10 & NTLFV15N1 pp 8-11). A rigid, detailed plan will produce awkward attempts to cover too much material at the times when students are least able to master it. (See ?Content Tyranny? <http://ctl.stanford.edu/Tomprof/postings/73.html>). Events beyond our control, such as a fire drill or an instructor’s unanticipated absence, will fracture any rigid, detailed plan.
Given the need for some topics and professors to have flexible pacing, whether one should cast rigid dates for quizzes, exams and projects due in the syllabus is a legitimate choice of the professor. Better testing practice usually involves varied and frequent quizzes rather than only two or three major exams. The latter, however, are easier to set rigid dates for into a schedule. We can give ourselves some additional flexibility by posting the numerical basis for letter grade assignments as percentages rather than as absolute points for each test or quiz. The reality exists that we can likely create a bad test and then need to do some first aid rather than be precluded from doing that by our own rigidity. Specific dates that are very worthwhile conveying include dates for completed course readings for students and dates for performing regular classroom assessments, such as minute papers, etc. for us.
Awareness of Students is Fundamental
Note that students are central in items 7, 10 and 11. Without knowing the nature of our students, it is impossible to match our course delivery to their needs. From the Perry and Reflective Judgment models, we know that students perceive content with different awareness at different stages of intellectual development. We need to engage content through experiences appropriate to that stage, if we are to advance their reasoning skills toward the next stage. Familiarity with one or more established models of cognition is essential to producing a sophisticated teaching philosophy. The three items are inextricably linked to one another, and they must be viewed as specific to the needs of students within one’s own course when drafting a syllabus.
The writing prompt (Item 12) that follows is sometimes not even clear in the minds of professors until they devote time to written reflection. A good syllabus should explain to students the place of the course in the greater scheme of education and/or profession.
12. I understand how each of my courses fits into the department/ college/university curriculum in regard to what it is supposed to achieve.
Finally, every philosophy should reveal awareness of assessment (items 21 and 23 below). We spend considerable time in preparation and delivery, but learning whether our efforts were successful also requires taking a deliberate action. The answer is separate from that provided by evaluative test scores and grades.
21. When a class session ends, I know the students have understood and achieved what I intended because ________.
23. When a course ends, I know that I’ve been successful in improving students’ mastery of content knowledge and/or skills because____________.
Faculty certainly have a choice about whether to mention assessment in their syllabi. However, a general rule is: if students are going to do something, it is usually helpful to tell them in the syllabus to expect the activity and to explain why it is worthwhile. If we will be doing classroom assessment techniques, using a knowledge survey instrument, using a concept inventory or are sending our students online to have their learning styles diagnosed, we shoulddisclose this and offer an explanation about the value of these activities.
Properly engaging the syllabus in the first day of class can serve as an excellent opportunity. There, students can experience the methods through which they will engage course content by engaging the content of the syllabus. Courses, course products and course practices of fractal thinkers are always aligned with their teaching philosophies.
California State University ? Stanislaus, Syllabus Project <http://wwwchem.csustan.edu/tutorials/syllabus.htm>
Grunert, J., Millis, B.J., & Cohen, M.W. (2008). The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach (2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Guidelines for Preparing Exemplary Syllabi <http://teachpsych.org/otrp/syllabi/guidelines.php>
Singham, Mano, 2007, Death to the Syllabus! Tomorrow’s Professor Message #834, <http://ctl.stanford.edu/Tomprof/postings/834.html>
University of Delaware Learner-Centered Syllabus web site <http://cte.udel.edu/syllabus.htm>
University of Hawaii Preparing a Course Syllabus web site <http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/teachtip.htm#syllabus>