Tag Archives: syllabus

Academic honesty at MIT

I was just listening to the introductory lecture for an Introduction to Algorithms course at MIT, thanks to MIT Open Courseware.  The professor was reading from the syllabus on the collaboration policy for students doing homework. Here’s a piece of it:

You must write up each problem solution by yourself without assistance, however, even if you collaborate with others to solve the problem. You are asked on problem sets to identify your collaborators. If you did not work with anyone, you should write “Collaborators: none.” If you obtain a solution through research (e.g., on the Web), acknowledge your source, but write up the solution in your own words. It is a violation of this policy to submit a problem solution that you cannot orally explain to a member of the course staff. [Emphasis in the original]

So in other words, you can collaborate within reasonable boundaries as long as you cite your collaborators, but you must write up work on your own. Normal stuff for a syllabus. But what I love is the last sentence. If the professor or a TA believes that you didn’t really write up the work yourself, they can ask you to stand and deliver via an oral explanation of what you turned in. And if you can’t orally explain, on the spot, what you did to the satisfaction of the course staff, then the presumption is that you cheated.  That’s a brilliant way to ensure students understand what they are doing, and expecting students to be able to do this oral explanation is absolutely reasonable for university-level upper-division work.

Maybe everybody does this already; I’ll be building that into my syllabus for Linear Algebra next semester.

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What is a basic syllabus in educational technology?

So I’m plotting out my tactical plans for research and scholarship over the next year right now — my imagination being stoked by the completion of my Statement of Scholarship — and I’d like to go deeper into educational technology on a number of levels. I’d like not only to stay abreast of the rapidly-changing face of the technology being used in schools, but also the social implications of that technology, the legal issues behind it, and the technical nuts/bolts/bits of how this stuff works in the first place (including the computer network/programming side of things).

I’m just a user and a self-appointed pundit of ed tech, so I have no idea exactly where to start if I want really to go deeper on this subject. I do know that I’m going to swallow hard and read Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants by Prensky carefully (as opposed to skimmig it as I have done in the past) even though I disbelieve in nearly everything I’ve drawn out of that essay. And I have Friedman’s The World is Flat, which seems to be a seminal work among School 2.0 people, on my bookshelf at work waiting to be read. But what other suggestions would you readers have?

Remember, I’m looking not to become a mindless School 2.0 zombie (that takes no effort at all) but a person who is fluent with all the important aspects of ed tech, including the “tech”.

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How to make a syllabus part 4: Getting it out there

This is the last in the series of “How to Make a Syllabus” articles, and I wanted to focus on an element of syllabi that I don’t hear talked about much: their life cycle. Namely, now that we know what a syllabus is for and what sorts of things ought to be on one (and not be on one), let’s talk about how to disseminate it and — very importantly — how to keep it in the game as the semester moves past day 1.

A well-constructed syllabus is a one-stop shop for all the information students should need in a course. Any question, any piece of information that pertains to the course and is not already easily available elsewhere ought to be clearly written and easily accessible in the syllabus. A well-written syllabus has the power to remove a lot of guesswork and unpleasantness from the task of course management. But only if the syllabus is itself easily available, and only if students are constantly made aware of how useful it is.

That is, there are two very important things to keep in mind about your syllabus once it is made: (1) it must be ubiquitous, being distributed in as many different formats and locations as possible; and (2) you must constantly refer to it as the main information source about course management to the students.

Making the syllabus available is usually a no-brainer — you just photocopy the thing and hand it out on the first day of class. And most teachers realize that making the syllabus available in multiple formats is important; you can post a copy on your course web site, or email it out as an attachment after the first day. So this point isn’t difficult to grasp.

The only thing to keep in mind is to carry this to extremes. Make the syllabus available in as many formats as possible: on paper, to be sure, and electronically in multiple file formats, making sure that PDF is one of those formats. For my part I usually do the following with my syllabi:

  • Print up paper copies for the first day of class.
  • Print up some more just to have on hand in the office if a student needs one.
  • Make electronic copies in PDF, MS Word, and RTF formats and post those on the course Angel site.

This way, a student in the class is going to be practically bumping in to a copy of the syllabus wherever they go. That’s the idea — make the syllabus not only logical and transparent but also easy to find, or rather hard to get away from.

In the past, I’ve also posted HTML versions of the syllabus on the web. HTML is an especially good format for syllabi because syllabi work well as hyperlinked documents. Students usually don’t read the syllabus in a linear way, starting from the beginning and working to the end; they read nonlinearly, diving in and searching for whatever piece of information is relevant to the question they have about the course. So I’ve made my syllabi before with hyperlinks to the main concepts and sections of the syllabus, allowing for nonlinear reading.

Nowadays, you don’t really need to make an HTML document to accomplish this searchability, because PDF, Word, and RTF files can be searched. But how many students know how to implement a word search in their PDF viewer? So there’s still something to be said for hyperlinked syllabi. Or you might try making a syllabus wiki instead, using Wikispaces or something similar. (Wikispaces allows for on-the-fly LaTeX typesetting which makes it an especially good solution for hyperlinked online mathematical documents.)

Now to the second point: What happens to the syllabus after day one. It’s very easy for the instructor to forget about the syllabus after the first day or the first week, and if the instructor forgets, then surely the students will too. So the instructor has to refer to the syllabus constantly when informational questions come up.

I’ve had to develop the discipline, whenever a student asks an informational question such as “When are your office hours?” or “How many points can we total in the class?”, to NOT answer these questions directly, but rather answer with “That’s in the syllabus.” Where is your office? That’s in the syllabus. When is the final exam? That’s in the syllabus. What do I need to make on the final to get a C+ for the class? Use the formula I gave you in the syllabus. To the student, I’m sure my flat answer of “that’s in the syllabus” sounds like I am brushing them off. But what I’m doing is referring them to the place where all that stuff is written down. And frankly, a syllabus is good because it is a place where it’s all written down, and you don’t have to remember any of it. (Sound familiar?) Besides, students begin to realize that any question of this sort is always going to be answered the same way, and so they simply stop asking and look it up instead. Which is the whole idea.

I don’t do this personally, but I have also heard of profs who include syllabus-related questions on tests and quizzes, perhaps as extra credit. That’s a pretty good way to make sure students are looking at the syllabus occasionally throughout the semester and come to see it as a “friendly” document, a document that is on their side and helping them navigate the course.

That’s about all I have to contribute on the topic of course syllabi. To sum up:

  • A syllabus is an information dump for all the parametric and structural information in the course.
  • A syllabus can have too little information in it, and too much information in it. Hitting the sweet spot is the challenge.
  • An item is to be included in the syllabus if and only if it is information that is relevant to the course that is not readily available elsewhere.
  • Make the syllabus readily available in a multitude of different formats and locations.
  • Refer to the syllabus constantly and explicitly throughout the semester as the main repository of course management information.

Do these, and I think you’ll find a great weight lifted from your shoulders as you teach your course. And your students will have a little more brain power to devote to actually learning things in your class.

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How to make a syllabus part 3: What to leave out

Since I’ve discussed what should go into a syllabus, it makes sense to say a few things about what to leave out. You could take my list of things to put into a syllabus in a “strict constructionist” kind of way, so that anything that’s not on that list shouldn’t go in. In general, my rule is that an item is to be included in the syllabus if and only if it is information that is relevant to the course that is not readily available elsewhere.

Here are some special cases of items that often show up in syllabi but really ought not to, or at least ought to be kept to a minimum and out of the way:

A lengthy discourse on the class, why it’s cool, and what it’s good for. I used to use my syllabi to write a mini-article on the course and how I conceive of it. If well-written, that sort of thing can be good for students to see. But is it syllabus material? I think not — mainly on the basis that students simply never read what I wrote. If they read anything at all, they would skip right to the stuff that is pertinent information — grading standards, attendance policies, etc. More often, they fell victim to the tailing-off effect I described that happens when the syllabus becomes bloated with too much stuff.

Save the discourse for a short lecture on the first day of class that gets repeated in some way each day. Your enthusiasm for the course comes across more effectively if lived out day-to-day in the classroom, rather than ensconced in a syllabus that doesn’t get read.

Words of encouragement. “You’ll be just fine in this class if you work hard and come to office hours“, and so on. Again, not that encouraging students is a bad thing, but the students who read through the syllabus carefully enough to see those words are precisely the ones who don’t need much encouraging. The students who will need to hear the message need to hear this message, not have it in a syllabus which they are instead instructed (over against all their academic issues) to go read. Encouragements are another thing that professors have to live out in the classroom. In the syllabus all they do is collect dust and contribute to the bloating effect.

Graphics. I have seen syllabi which are peppered with those cutesy MS Word clip art graphics. All those things do is distract. I subscribe to the Edward Tufte school when it comes to graphics, namely that graphical items need not to detract from the content, and if possible should enhance the content. My policy is to include maybe one graphic as a sort of course icon that appears at the very beginning of the syllabus, just to draw the reader’s attention. And that’s it, unless it’s some sort of visual that illustrates a piece of information in the syllabus.

Do you have anything that you like to include in a syllabus, or pet-peeve items you wish teachers would leave out?

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How to make a syllabus part 2: What goes in

Yesterday we looked at a philosophy of the college course syllabus and talked some about the legal and quasi-legal roles the syllabus plays. Now let’s get down to business — what do you put in one?

First of all, remember that the syllabus is a repository of information that is supposed to be complete and well-constructed. But it’s important to realize that the level at which students attend to and comprehend the syllabus is related to the sheer amount of stuff that’s in it, and it’s not a linear kind of relationship. I see it like this:
syllabus-graph.jpg
That is, students will either ignore, or else read and then not comprehend, the syllabus if there is either too little information in it… or too much. The way in which the information is organized is also important — we’re getting to that — but the first barrier for students is simply the quantity of stuff that’s in it. We need to find that absolute maximum, the amount of content that maximizes attention and comprehension.

My personal checklist for what to put on the syllabus is the following.

1. Course logistical information. List what days the course meets and where. Possibly this could be left out since obviously that info can be found elsewhere. But it’s usually short and doesn’t contribute to the content-bloat that decreases the effectiveness of the syllabus, so why not.

2. Professor contact information. I include my name (including my Ph.D. title, which is important for freshmen who are used to calling their teachers “Mr.” or “Mrs.”), my office location, my office phone, my email, my AIM screenname, and my office hours. I’ve considered putting my Twitter info on there as well in the future. The idea is to present all the possible channels for how a student may contact me, so it’s all in one place for later reference.

3. A BRIEF — as in two sentences or fewer — description of the course. Don’t just reproduce the catalog description, because that’s printed elsewhere. Don’t go off on a multi-page rhapsody about the history of the course, its relevance to life, etc. — you can talk about that on the first day of class, and anyway that sort of thing is not really information. Boil it down to something very short and sweet, so it can be used as a platform for…

4. The goals or instructional objectives for the course. Here, you are describing to the student what s/he ought to be able to do once they have completed the course. This section is very important, because in a well-designed course everything that happens in the class meetings and in the assessments is supposed to, in some way, be directly connected to one or more of these course goals.

Note two things. First, since the attainment of a goal is measured by whether you can do something, goals need to be stated in concrete action verbs. Never, ever use the words “understand”, “appreciate”, or similar ambiguous verbs as goals. Sure, I want my students to understand and appreciate the role of calculus in their majors. But how will I know if they have that understanding? What are the students going to do that demonstrates their understanding? That is the real goal. Second, these goals are the big, zoomed-out goals for the course and not the zoomed-in content goals of individual sections out of a book. I wouldn’t put “Perform the chain rule successfully” here.

5. Prerequisites, required equipment or texts, and expectations. I think the “expectations” part of this is really important, especially for freshman courses where the students are undergoing a major shift in the way they encounter classes. Keep the expectations short, few in number, and if possible phrased in a way that makes it easy to remember. These are the advertising slogans that you will use throughout the course to remind students of their jobs.

6. The types of assessments that students will do, along with their frequencies, projected dates, and point values or relative weights in the semester grade. It also helps, although it’s not always possible, to have a calendar for the semester that indicates in a visual way when things are going to happen. I used to think that you couldn’t plan that far in advance. But once I tried creating a semester-long plan for the course and trying diligently to stick to it, a lot of problems I was having in my teaching — creating examples that were too complicated, spending too much time on one thing and not enough on another — went away.

7. A precise, formulaic description of how the semester grade will be calculated. Don’t be afraid to put formulas in the syllabus if necessary. You want to give students the means to calculate or estimate their grades at any point in the semester. Don’t hold back any algorithmic information about this. If the students have problems using the method you devise for computing their grade, then help them. (Or make your computation method simpler.) Also, include a rubric for how letter grades will be assigned.

8. Course policies regarding attendance, deadlines, makeup work, and academic honesty. It is crucial that syllabi be crystal-clear on these policies and that professors follow to the letter what they put here. Otherwise students have every right to do what they want with regard to these issues and can legitimately take issue with you if you try to enforce a “policy” that was not well-formed. Having clear rules about these things also takes disciplinary matters out of your hands and makes it a matter of policy rather one of personal liking or disliking of a student.

Example: Usually my policy on work handed in past its deadline is that I will provide feedback on the student’s work but will give it a grade of “0”. I’ve had many students over the years turn in late work and expect it to be graded. When they get the grade of “0” back, they usually want to know why. Answer: It’s the syllabus policy. If they complain about it, I just say that the policy on late work was made clear in the syllabus on day 1, and if you want me to run class that is fair and unbiased, then I am constrained to stick to what I say in the syllabus. (Which reinforces my belief that many students, although they claim to value fair, unbiased classrooms, really instead want unfairness that works to their advantage. But that’s another issue.)

9. Finally, any boilerplate that is required to be on the syllabus. Most colleges have these. For example, I have to insert a short paragraph in all my syllabi about accomodations for students with disabilities. And in classes taken by education majors, I have to insert a blurb from the state department of education explaining how the course satisfies a laundry list of professional standards. Check with your department chair, teaching/learning center, etc. if you’re not sure if you have all the information you need for this.

All this stuff, if written tightly and without fluff, should fit into four pages or so of a normal-sized font. That’s two pages front and back, which is a pleasing size for students.

Since this post has already gotten pretty long, in part 3 I’ll give some thoughts about what should not go into a syllabus to avoid the tailing-off effect of having too much content, and also some ideas for organizing this stuff.

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How to make a syllabus

Since the majority of college professors out there are just about to begin spring semester courses, let’s talk about that course document that is as ignored by students as it is referenced by faculty: the syllabus. The syllabus is the central document of a college course, but many professors either give their syllabi no thought at all, leading to a document that doesn’t contain much useful information and therefore gets ignored by students; or else they put too much in it, and it suffers the same fate. I’m going to take a couple or so articles here to give my ideas about what a syllabus is for; what ought to go in one; how it ought to be formatted; and what role it plays in the course after the first day.

This first article will focus on my philosophy behind the syllabus and some issues about the status of a syllabus as a legal document.

It’s helpful to understand first what an academic course is supposed to accomplish. Obviously a course is supposed to accomplish learning and broadened intellectual horizons on the part of the students. A great college course challenges students and takes them to an intellectual, and one also hopes a moral, place that is further along than when they started the course. These are lofty ideals — and not very concrete ones. And the problem is that we can’t create a course that is simply lofty. We must also have a structure that explains how we will know if the students have learned what they are supposed to be learning, and parameters that describe how the conduct of the course will proceed.

That structural, parametric information is housed in the syllabus. The syllabus is the skeleton of the course, supporting and giving form to all the things in the course which the professor and (hopefully) the students want to do. But like a skeleton, the syllabus for the course is not really meant to be seen. It supports from within. Therefore it must be strong and dependable and fitting together well at every joint. But at the same time, the syllabus cannot be so prominent or gaudy that the course is mistaken for it. It must be reliable and well-built but also unobtrusive and clear.

That’s my philosophy behind the syllabus. One other important thing to consider is the syallbus’ status as a legal document. This helpful guide titled “Legally Sound Syllabi” from Hampton University in Virginia spells out the legal standing of a college syllabus. From that web page:

In constructing course syllabi that are legally sound, you are basically focusing on avoiding educational malpractice. Just as a background, “Educational Malpractice” is a claim generally based on contract law and is a claim which is generally unsuccessful for the student/plaintiff. The claim arises from the duty assumed by a professional not to harm the individuals relying on the professional’s expertise. You, as a professor are required to exercise that degree of skill and knowledge usually had by members of your profession.

Although a syllabus is not considered to be a legal document, it is a good safe practice in this litigious society, for you as a professor to treat it as one.[…] [I]n constructing syllabi that are legally sound, and in turn avoiding educational malpractice, it is first and foremost important for you to comply with the contractual documents of the institution, such as the Faculty Handbook and the student catalog. Courts view these as legal contractual documents. Make sure that the description of the course in your syllabus is consistent with the description of the course in the student catalog.

So in other words, it’s not the case that syllabi are legally binding contracts — but it is possible to misrepresent university documents which are legally binding, and that will get you into a lawsuit. Tip: Universities don’t like lawsuits.

Apart from the actual legal standing of the syllabus, a well-constructed and clear syllabus is the professor’s first line of defense against the disgruntled student who brings a charge of unfairness or obscuring information against the professor. A syllabus which spells out the grading policies of the course in clear, definite language will make the professor immune to charges of favoritism or unfairness in grading (provided the professor follows the syllabus; more on that later).

Or put more positively, a clear and well-constructed syllabus makes it very easy for the student to understand her/his standing, roles, and expectations in the course at any time, and relieves the student of having to guess at these things all the time. So in other words, a good syllabus is just an extension of good teaching. And it makes a powerful first impression — a student who receives a bloated or carelessly-made syllabus on the first day will think of the course in the same terms. Similarly if the syllabus is well done.

So that’s what’s at stake when making a syllabus. In the next article we’ll talk about what goes into one — and what shouldn’t go into one.

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