Syllabus Season Pro Tips

My bitmoji reacts to Back to School
products hitting the shelves
As July turns to August, it's approaching that time to recognize that summer is, in fact, ending and the fall semester is approaching again (always too quickly, ammirite?). In an effort to squeeze out as much summer time as possible, I'd like to share two syllabus writing tools I've come to know and love. Both come from the good people at Rice University's Center for Teaching Excellence.

On a ridiculously consistent basis, I botch my course schedule. I usually don't have a problem with organizing the content of my course schedule--that may take me awhile, but I enjoy piecing together readings, podcasts, lectures, and in-class activities to create a cohesive course. No, no, the part I regularly mess up is the calendar. As in the actual dates of my class meetings. I will inevitably use a Wednesday date for a Tuesday/Thursday class or, in one instance, just leave out an entire week. (Although that wasn't so bad because my when my wonderful students pointed it out to me it was a happy surprise to have another week of class. Or, at least, I thought so.) I could tell students those errors are there "to see if you were reading closely" but that would work approximately 0 times because a) I'm a terrible liar, b) I want my students to know we all make mistakes (See "What is the Error Climate of Your Course?"), and c) I find it hilarious at this point. What I've started doing instead is turning to the Rice Syllabus Maker created by Caleb McDaniel. Plug in what days your class meets, your preferred format, and viola!  

More importantly than the calendar, the tool I've been an evangelist for is the Course Workload Estimator. The CWE is the answer to one of the questions I as a teacher--and my students as, well, students--consistently ask: how much reading/writing is appropriate for this class? Students and instructors are likely to come to different answers, and many of us expect our students to always want as little work as possible. (I don't think that is accurate, but why is for another post.) Even so, it's important to ask, how do we know--or, ultimately, how do we decide when we don't know for sure--what's appropriate? I don't think it's enough, or good pedagogy, to assume the amount I read/wrote when I was student is the amount my students should be reading or writing. Not only has a lot changed about the way students read, access, or process information, but also--surprise!--my students are not me. Many, if not most, of my students are coming to college from a different background and context than me. I didn't exactly know what I was doing, but as a white woman with academic scholarships I did have well honed study habits, a sense of what a college-level essay looked like, and the economic and social security to treat my classes as my primary "job" and share that "reading" was my hobby during ice breakers. (If you are thinking "Nerd Alert!" you would be accurate.)

Fortunately, Drs. Elizabeth Barre and Justin Esarey have done the research for us. They scoured the literature pertaining to student reading and writing, which they review in their explanatory blog post about the CWE. Based on their synthesis of current research, they created a handy tool that gives educators a sense of how much time it takes students to do their coursework. What is particularly helpful is that the estimations are not just based on the page count of the readings or essays you're assigning. The CWE takes the difficulty level into account by prompting you to enter information about how many new concepts are found in the text or how closely you would like students to read (e.g. Is it a newspaper article written for a general audience or is it a journal article filled with jargon from the field?). Similarly for written assignments, the CWE accounts for the differences between assigning written reflections and thesis-driven essays as well as final essays that have received revisions and original drafts. Best of all, you can plug in details of your specific expectations or you can turn to their handy guidelines (found in the explanatory blog post linked above). If nothing else, by using the CWE you can gain a research-based sense of the workload you're requiring aside from any perceptions you, your students, or colleagues may have about the appropriate amount of work to assign students.

I even get out in front of potential student criticisms by telling my students that I used this tool when I crafted the course schedule. I say so on the very first day of class as we go over class expectations. Even if you're dubious about the utility of the CWE, I do so as a part of my effort to show students that the syllabus didn't fall from the sky. I put my intellectual labor into it. And, I did so based on my expertise and the expertise of colleagues. Its an effort, I hope, demystifies the role and purpose of a professor (I talk about that too). Additionally, based on what we know about student biases and other problems with student evaluations of their professors, the CWE can be one way that you as an instructor can professionally respond to criticisms of your teaching. For example, consulting CWE while planning your course can demonstrate a commitment to teaching effectiveness or attentiveness to current pedagogical development; alternatively, consulting CWE in response to student complaints or poor evaluation ratings could demonstrate responsiveness to criticism without the emotive language that makes teaching reflections unbearable. If your institution first values teaching effectiveness (which some schools won't) and if your institution encourages instructional reflection as a part of or separate from evaluation and promotion, then this might be something to consider for teaching development alongside teaching effectiveness.