What’s in Your Syllabus?

by Priscilla Bremser, Contributing Editor

I had what seemed the perfect first full-time teaching position, in that much of the planning for Calculus had already been done when I arrived.  The department chair handed me the textbook and the syllabus, essentially a day-by-day schedule of book sections and homework assignments.  This being the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, where every student takes Calculus, a lot of wisdom had gone into the schedule.  I now look back at that syllabus with a mixture of gratitude for the jump start and recognition that much has changed.  What’s in your syllabus?  What does your institution require, and what is most important to you?  What is decidedly not in your syllabus? Do you hand out a paper copy on the first day, or is it all online?  How well does the syllabus reflect what you want your course to be?

For some time after my move to Middlebury College, my syllabi followed that basic first model.  Eventually, however, I felt constrained by detailed plans that had made sense in August but didn’t fit the October reality.  After too many classes that ended in a rush to cover specific content, I began to offer a general outline of topics for the semester, along with exam dates, reminders about the honor code, and only the first assignment.  Putting together assignments a week at a time allowed me to be more responsive to what I was seeing and hearing in the classroom, while honoring my commitment to engage particular concepts.  Looking back, I see that shift in the syllabus as an early sign of my disillusionment with a strict lecture format.

Once I started bringing students into Inquiry-Based Learning territory, a syllabus needed to include a description of what we were doing and why.  As I tried to articulate a rationale for more active class sessions, I was compelled to consider what my compositions in the syllabus genre communicated to students, intentionally or not.  For example, apart from locking us all into a rigid timetable, devoting most of the typing to a list of homework exercises risks putting the textbook at the center, while I want to put learning at the center.  A reproduction of the catalog course description, including terms that novices don’t yet understand, isn’t exactly an invitation into a captivating intellectual experience.

Hence my current syllabus starts with a short description of the course content for the non-expert.  Next comes my contact information, followed by my learning objectives, again with as little technical language as possible.  Only then does the reader come to the schedule of topics and important due dates, at the bottom of the first page.

One of the challenges of writing a syllabus is that, as the first document I present to my students, it serves multiple purposes.  As much as I would prefer to stick to a conversation about learning, external pressures intrude.  In the interest of minimizing disputes, I’ve learned to state clearly my policies on absence and late homework.   Middlebury’s honor code necessitates an explicit description of what kind of sharing is acceptable and what is not.  More generally, many colleges and universities have explicit requirements for what is included in a syllabus.  Also, the audience is not just students; internal and external committees routinely collect syllabi in their reviews of faculty members, departments, and institutions.

Most important to many students, it seems, is information about how I will assess their work.  Some tell me bluntly that they allocate their study time in direct proportion to the percentages in my grading policy, which can send me into an internal rant about how The System has driven them to focus on extrinsic rewards rather than the intrinsic satisfactions of intellectual growth.

Actually, though, these seemingly invasive topics are connected to learning, and I try to be explicit about those connections in the syllabus. In an active learning environment, I tell students, it is especially important to arrive to class having put in a good faith effort on the homework due that day.  To establish and maintain a learning community, everyone should come to every class on time, barring illness.  You must engage your own brain in order to learn, and this is an institution devoted to learning, which is why we have an honor code.

The possibility of a website for each course introduces both flexibility and complexity into syllabus composition. (Did I mention that I started at Middlebury in 1984?) My course sites have included, in addition to daily assignments, a rubric for evaluating proofs (adapted from Keith Devlin’s), a a statement on Inquiry-Based Learning, and samples of written work.  This helps me meet my goal of keeping the actual syllabus to two sides of one sheet of paper, a valuable exercise.  My hope is that the shorter length increases the chance that students will actually read it.

Do they read it?  Thinking deeply about what is or is not on the syllabus leads quickly into a broader consideration of the nature of communication between me and my students.  Should I ensure that they read it by giving a quiz, in the interest of their mathematical progress, or should I allow them to learn from experience that they are responsible for that progress?  Given that I’ve decided to do less, and more judicious, telling about the mathematics, could I be more creative about conveying my expectations and teaching philosophy?  One thing is clear:  the syllabus can only do so much.  A technique I learned from a colleague in the humanities is to start the first class not with handing out the syllabus or taking attendance, but rather with the actual material of the course.  “Let’s start with some math” seems the best introduction of all.

A careful consideration of the syllabus leads to all kinds of questions about contemporary higher education.  In addition to the coddling vs. building character debate, there’s the question of grade inflation.  If I value class participation and reward it with a significant portion of the grade, then will the resulting grade distribution be objectionable to some colleagues?   Does the need to explicit about late work policies and academic honesty, along with some institutions’ exacting requirements for syllabi,  say anything about legalism on campus?  I recently took a required online course concerning Title IX regulations on harassment; it ended with  “…  you can inform students by including information in your syllabus on resources, reporting options, and student rights. Check with your Title IX Coordinator to see if your school has approved language regarding Title IX reporting and resources to include in syllabi.”  I’m ready to include such language on the course website, but would including it on the actual syllabus help or hinder my efforts to create a small community centered on learning mathematics?

Evidently the changes in my own syllabi reflect transitions in my attitudes toward my students.  As a nervous young lecturer trying to stay on schedule, I prepared my notes on a pad; three pages was usually just about right for a 50-minute session.  Small classes meant I learned names quickly and thought I knew who was struggling, but I’m afraid I only interacted with those who raised hands in class or came to office hours.  My job was to present information clearly; their job was to absorb, and the syllabus contained the map through the textbook.

Now the syllabus lays out what I find most important:  the learning goals, which concern both content and practice;  a framework for meeting those goals; and the principles, based on what I know about learning, connecting the goals with the framework.  The syllabus is only the beginning, and I try to reinforce and elaborate on the goals and principles repeatedly in class and on the website.  I now see my job as providing a structure in which students can practice mathematics on the content of the course, and responding to their efforts appropriately along the way.

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One Response to What’s in Your Syllabus?

  1. Brian Winkel, Director SIMIODE, Emeritus USMA says:

    I liked your piece and it made me reflect on my days teaching at the “other place,” i.e. than US Naval Academy, namely the US Military Academy:+) I would strongly urge you to include time for your students to explore what THEY want in YOUR curriculum. Such a move represents respect for their abilities, interests, independence, and curiosity. You could have two days set aside for independent work on “topic of their choice” which has your “pre-approval” so they can arrive prepared to get things done on the given days and the effort could include a short write-up. When given the chance to be creative, inquisitive, and constructive we all would be surprised at what students can do. Try it, they will like it!

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