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Using PROJECT SYLLABUS to Improve Your Course Design

13 Mar 2017 12:00 PM | Anonymous

By Amy Silvestri Hunter, Ph.D., Seton Hall University

I remember the first course I taught like it was yesterday: Biological Psychology at the University of Vermont. I was in my last year of graduate school and like many of my peers, I offered to teach an evening section of a course in my area of specialization to gain teaching experience and earn some extra money. I distinctly remember the paralysis that overtook me as I realized how many decisions needed to be made about the design of the course: What text should I use? Would I try to cover all the topics in the text, or just some? If the latter, which topics should I prioritize? How much material should I cover in class, and how much of the textbook material should students be responsible for on their own? How should student grades be determined?

I quickly realized the path of least resistance was to design my course with basically the same format as the large, daytime section taught by my PhD advisor. I had served as the TA for that course and knew that model worked for him and the students, who consistently gave him and the course high evaluations. With a syllabus in hand that was basically a clone of his (with permission, of course!) I moved onto issues that were important as a new instructor but now seem obvious (e.g. what do I do if a student asks a question but I don’t know the answer? – look it up and get back to them) or irrelevant (e.g. how do I maintain a sense of authority despite my relatively young age? – a problem that has resolved itself with time).

While many aspects of teaching remain the same since my first experience, other aspects have become more complicated. Faculty are expected to develop learning objectives and course goals, use innovative teaching techniques, have multiple assessment strategies, and to some extent accommodate the varying backgrounds of our students. While the standard “sage on the stage” still has its supporters and can be used to great effect, our perspective on teaching and our role as professors has changed greatly over the years. There is now a wealth of pedagogical research that we can use to guide our decisions about course design. Although this new research is undoubtedly beneficial for our students as it requires us to be much more deliberate in the course-related decisions we make, it can also be overwhelming for new faculty members.

One approach that can make the task of course creation somewhat less daunting is to obtain sample syllabi. While you can (and should!) ask members of your professional network for their syllabi and course suggestions, there are other resources. One of these is Project Syllabus, a peer-reviewed compendium of syllabi coordinated by APA’s Society for the Teaching of Psychology (Division 2). Project Syllabus includes over 200 syllabi across a wide range of Psychology courses, from Introductory Psychology to upper-level seminars and even graduate courses. Each syllabus is reviewed using a newly revised rubric (available on the website) that was developed based on findings from the scholarship of teaching and learning.

The new rubric is organized into five categories:

  • Teaching Methods: An exemplary course includes teaching methods that follow best practices. This can include things like critical thinking and problem solving, new teaching methods, multimedia use, etc. as appropriate for the particular course. An exemplary course also effectively engages students in the learning process in a variety of ways (i.e., the course is not solely lecture and exam based).
  • Learner Support & Resources: An exemplary syllabus clearly states faculty roles and responsibilities, student roles and expectations, methods for student-faculty and student-student interaction, and uses principles of universal design for learning.
  • Assessment & Evaluation of Student Learning: An exemplary course includes assignments that are consistent with best practice pedagogy, clear guidelines for student evaluation, opportunities for formative student performance feedback, and multiple forms of assessment.
  • Course Design, Goals, & Learning Objectives: An exemplary syllabus clearly states the rationale for the course and its design and has clearly defined course goals that are linked to measurable learning objectives. Class time allocation is aligned with learning objectives, which are aligned with assessment.
  • Syllabus Organization & Design: an exemplary syllabus is well organized, aesthetically designed, has a warm tone, and is free of grammatical problems, typographical errors, etc. Required materials are clearly stated, relevant, and current.

One way in which Project Syllabus may be useful to new faculty is to provide a sense of how others in the field design their courses. What learning objectives and course goals do they specify? What types of assignments do they require? What textbook do they use? While there is no single “correct” way to design a course, looking at how others do so can provide new faculty with an idea of best practices for a particular course.

Another use of Project Syllabus is to provide a source of novel ideas for course design and assignments. For example, what are some alternatives to exams for assessment of student learning? How might students demonstrate their knowledge of a particular topic other than the traditional literature review? How can writing assignments be used to provide students with job-related skills? How can assignments be structured to improve student learning?

Finally, Project Syllabus has recently revised its rubric to be consistent with the results of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning. These references are also posted on the Project Syllabus web page, and I encourage you to look them over as there may be individual articles that are particularly relevant to your course.

While the syllabus for your first course (or even first few courses) may not cover all items on the rubric, the document distills some of the relevant literature and provides specific outcomes that you can incorporate as you refine your courses over time. Once you have a syllabus that meets the criteria on the rubric, please consider submitting it for review and possible publication on the Project Syllabus website!

For more information about Project Syllabus, check it out:!

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