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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Are You a Syllabus Maximalist, a Syllabus Minimalist, or a Syllabus Somethingelsealist?

Well, it's time to start getting ready for a new semester, and that means putting together a new syllabus or two.  I've noticed over time that my syllabi, never particularly complicated or fact-filled, have gotten simpler and simpler over the years.  Two pages at most.  The materials.  A couple lines about how students will be evaluated.  A tentative list of topics and assignments.  Nothing much if anything else.  I prefer to talk in some detail about the class at the first meeting rather than putting together a long complex document.  But in reviewing tenure cases and whatnot, I've come across all sorts of syllabi--some as simple as mine, but most longer and more detailed, some with pages and pages of suggested readings and questions to guide the readings and DVD recommendations and puzzles like maybe one of those intricate mazes where you have to help a hungry mouse find its hunk of delicious cheese, etc. etc.  Anyone want to share some thoughts about what they put in their syllabi and why?  What makes a good (or bad) syllabus?  I'm particularly interested in what students think.  My own memory of being a student (and I still take undergrad courses in Spanish language at my university, so this memory isn't so distant actually) is that all I want was a clear roadmap to the course--what topics we were going to study, and when, and what materials go with what topics.  And a few words about what the evaluation would be based on.  In other words, what I provide to my students now.  But I bet there's a wide variety of opinion on the issue, yes?

Posted by Jay Wexler on January 2, 2013 at 03:45 PM in Jay Wexler, Teaching Law | Permalink

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I give complete and detailed assignments throughout the semester--the pages to read in the various books and the specific cases and rules/statutes that should prepare. I also lay out class policies (regarding laptops, course blogs, etc.), details on grading, and suggestions on study and class preparation.

My idea has been to give the students everything in writing so as to avoid complaints from students that they weren't aware of something. I also explain some policies I expect to be controversial (such as laptops), hence the greater detail.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 2, 2013 4:16:23 PM

Jay, thanks for the timely post. I'm trying to finalize my (first ever) syllabus now. While every syllabus I've seen discusses grading, participation policies, recommendeded resources, etc., my own recollection from school is that I would skim that extra verbiage once but return to the list of reading assignments over and over, and it was annoying to wade through all that introductory info each time. So it seems a more logical structure might involve listing readings on page 1, with only the basics (room #, office hours, class meeting times) above and all additional info below.

Posted by: your favorite VAP | Jan 2, 2013 5:12:45 PM

Another idea for us younguns: don't get into too much detail with the assignments. When you're new, you're going to need to make changes mid-course. Lots of changes.

If you put the assignments down on paper, and then they change, it's going to a) annoy a lot of students, and b) draw attention to your lack of experience. The first will definitely hurt your evals; the second will generally make it harder for you as you try to get your feet under you.

So, I put together a detailed reading list that I use for myself, give the students a general overview of the sequence of topics that we'll cover in the syllabus, and then at the end of each class give them the next 1-2 assignments (both on the board and online).

Posted by: AYoungProf | Jan 2, 2013 8:26:38 PM

When you make changes to the syllabus, be sure to send out a copy of the changes via e-mail, blackboard, or whatever. This will avoid any dispute over what the changes were later on. (I've had a professor teaching two sections of the same class repeatedly confuse what he had told to which class.)

The most important thing with a syllabus though is to stick to it as best you can. When you have to cut things from the syllabus, the message your students get is that due to your incompetence they are receiving a lower quality education. It's not just a year-end thing, where a couple lessons get cut from the syllabus. If you assign 100 pages of reading for a class but only get to 20 of them, your students will be ticked off. they'll lose faith in you as a professor, and it will be harder to get them to read in the future.

If you don't get to everything assigned for that day, be very clear about where the next class will pick up. Will you be covering the material you didn't get to, or will it begin with the newly assigned reading? Just like watching sausage getting made, you probably don't want to see how your students prep for class, but the truth is they are pressed for time (and mental energy) and have to make choices about what material to prioritize. If you routinely assign readings that you don't get to, your assignments will fall to bottom of the list.

Finally, try to make your syllabus available before students have to register for classes. Students are limited in how many classes they can take, and are spending a lot of money to be there. It's in their interest (and yours) for them to know what topics the class will cover.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jan 3, 2013 2:10:57 AM

Derek Tokaz' comment above tracks very closely a wise insight I've heard from an older colleague back when I was just starting out as a lawprof. That colleague told me, "The only thing your students care about is that the trains run on time; it doesn't matter whether there is anybody in the locomotive". That is, students cannot tell whether you really know your stuff or just bluffing with a straight face, whether you teach something truly valuable or shovel around useless fluff -- but students CAN tell whether you are following the schedule. And they WILL make the most inane inferences from the mere fact of your following the schedule -- exactly the kinds of inferences Mr. Tokaz mentioned here (professor's competence, the value of the material being taught, the quality of education students are getting...).

So, when you see profs who are assigned to teach classes outside their fields and (you know for a fact) know nearly nothing about the subject they teach -- when those folks get fabulous student evaluations, that's how they do it. Lots of blind, often counter-productive discipline; lots of lectures tracking the book very closely (basically paraphrasing the assigned material); lots of meaningless but in-your-face "organized" behavior that students routinely mistake for professionalism and competence, as Mr. Tokaz amply illustrates.

Posted by: amused | Jan 3, 2013 11:31:00 AM

From the professor's side of the podium, there is another, very important benefit of having the trains run on time: it provides a powerful incentive to be at the station on time. Committing to a schedule, and keeping that commitment, imposes discipline all up and down the line. It keeps me honest about having enough material to fill out a semester. It keeps me honest about how much I can reasonably cover in a class. It keeps me honest about being prepared well enough to cover topics clearly and succinctly. It keeps me honest about how long to spend in class belaboring a point. It keeps me honest about all kinds of pedagogical matters, large and small.

I still have plenty of flexibility to follow up on important comments from students, to take whatever questions come up, or to look for another way of making sense of a point on which a class is hung up. But that flexibility is part of an overall framework that keeps it from flexing so far as to, well, to continue the metaphor, derail the entire class. Whenever I've departed from a fixed timetable of classes, I've regretted it, and my sense is that my students have, too -- and for good reasons.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Jan 3, 2013 12:18:49 PM

The train should run on time. Absolutely. I think it's one of the top student complaints (and DT's comment confirms it). I don't think it's the only thing students care about, and I do believe they can see through fluff, so I also think reasonable changes to a reading assignment list mid-semester are fine, and I think students appreciate it.

Students also complain about insufficient notice/warning about grading policies and penalties or potential bumps for, say, attendance and participation. I have this set out clearly in my syllabi and have found it quite helpful when the inevitable issues arise.

On a somewhat related note, particularly if professors find exam grading fairly boring and tedious, why don't we evaluate students differently? How many faculty out there are including different evaluation methods in their upcoming syllabi? I taught a larger lecture last semester with an exam but am changing things around this semester to 4 or 5 smaller projects throughout the course. Of course, I have the luxury of fewer than 25 students in this particular class, so I can make this happen.

Posted by: VAP | Jan 3, 2013 1:57:27 PM

My syllabus has gotten longer over time with regard to policies and procedures, so I separate it into two different documents:
- basic info (room, office hours, material, grading method, other policies)
- actual "roadmap" or train schedule for that course (level of detail in assignments varies based on course and how often I've taught it), including both subject matter covered and learning objectives for the course

We have lots of students who shop around for classes, so I have found that explaining things on the first day of the class is the surest way to ensure that students WILL complain later about not being aware of critical course information or policies.

I still wind up with students who can't follow the instructions or stumble regarding course policies, but it is much easier to know that what is expected of students has been distributed in writing and posted clearly. Any revisions or adjustments are similarly posted in writing as well. Students who are unable to follow written deadlines and basic rules experience a "teachable moment" of what it takes to succeed in the legal profession.


Posted by: Anon Prof | Jan 3, 2013 1:59:44 PM

I have never understood the need for a detailed syllabus in terms of assignments since the equivalent of a detailed syllabus is in the table of contents of most law books. But I do think students greatly appreciate knowing what will be covered when so having specific assignments for each day makes good sense for everyone. One trick I have always used is to distribute my syllabi in segments but with assignments for each class, typically three syllabi a semester, so that if I fall behind (or ahead, which has also happened particularly with a quiet class) or the students seem particularly interested in something, it is relatively easy to make adjustments. In terms of keeping the trains running on time, I typically stay on track something students tell me is rare but appreciated.

Posted by: MS | Jan 3, 2013 5:34:59 PM

For administrative law, each reading in the syllabus is paired with focus questions that the students should be able to answer after completing the reading. I have found this to be helpful in getting the students to focus on the points that I think are important. I hope to do this next year with my other classes.

Posted by: Sapna Kumar | Jan 6, 2013 9:55:45 PM

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