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The Skills Agenda

Five days to a well-designed syllabus: introducing the syllabus design boot camp

Day 1 walks you through creating the template and establishing your learning outcomes.

BY LOLEEN BERDAHL | JUL 26 2021

Whether you are a veteran instructor teaching the same classes again for the umpteenth time or a new instructor approaching a first course prep, there is something for you in this five-part series.

As the fall term moves closer, faculty and instructors must start thinking about their syllabus design. From my past experience as a department head, I know that procrastinating on this task is common. Syllabus procrastination often creates considerable stress, as at many universities, including my own, the syllabus is a contract with students and cannot be changed easily.

To both help make syllabus design easier for you and to encourage you to build skills training explicitly into your course design, I have created a step-by-step syllabus design boot camp. Watch for daily Skills Agenda columns that walk you through syllabus design clearly and methodically. Here is our schedule:

Day 1: create your syllabus template and establish your learning outcomes

Day 2: set your course learning materials, including reading lists

Day 3: design your assignments and evaluation components

Day 4: establish your week-by-week (or class-by-class) schedule

Day 5: incorporate your class policies and add some personal touches

You can pace yourself and work through this syllabus design boot camp day by day or wait until all five columns are available and complete the design in a concentrated period of time. Either way, you will finish with a syllabus that sets you and your students up for success.

Why a well-designed syllabus is worth the effort

A well-designed syllabus makes life easier for you  and your students and saves you time in the long run. Here’s why:

  • It sets a tone that you are professional and organized and models the behaviour you expect from your students.
  • It clarifies your expectations, and in doing so promotes equity. Many students – particularly first generation, international, neurodiverse and Indigenous students – are unfamiliar with the “hidden curriculum” of university life. A well-designed syllabus provides transparency to students. As I have discussed previously, explicit instruction is a teaching best practice. This practice starts with your course syllabus.
  • It reduces your future decision fatigue. (Your future self will thank you!)

Ready to get started? The first step is very easy: simply create and save a file.

Start with a syllabus template –- ideally your program or university’s

Staring at a blank screen can be an overwhelming starting point. If you’ve taught the course before, you already have a syllabus to start from. If not, the good news is that many programs and universities provide considerable resources for syllabus design, including templates. In some cases, instructors are required to use the provided templates.

If you are not aware of templates or resources, do not assume that they don’t exist. (I Googled the words “syllabus template” with a number of Canadian university names and came up with either specific templates or links to resources for each.) Universities often have required elements that must appear in all syllabi (such as board or senate approved language on academic dishonesty), and you want to ensure you include these elements in your syllabus.

If your Google search turns up nothing, contact your department administrator and/or your university teaching and learning centre. Here is some sample email text you can adapt:

Hi,

 

I am putting together my course syllabi and I want to ensure that it is compliant with our department, faculty and university policies. Is there a syllabus template that you can share with me? If not, can you please provide me with a recent syllabus that includes all necessary information to use as a model? Thanks for your assistance.

 

Loleen

Once you have your syllabus file created, you can move to the next step.

Add your course-level learning outcomes – ideally with a mix of knowledge and skill/competency outcomes

I outlined an easy three-step strategy to create your course learning outcomes in my last Skills Agenda column. The first two steps are to identify three-to-four overarching content areas and one career-relevant skill/competence. Then in step three, tie your content areas and skill to verbs. To make it super easy for you, I created a worksheet to guide you through this. Note this works whether this is your first or your fifteenth time teaching the course.

When you think through your course learning outcomes, I strongly encourage you to include a career-relevant skill or competency. Recent research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies key areas for career readiness, many of which – including equity and inclusion, technology, teamwork, critical thinking and communication – align well with what many faculty are already doing in their classes.

Selecting a career skill to include in your class and adding this skill explicitly to the course learning outcomes serves a few purposes. First, the learning outcome will prompt you to include the skill in the course evaluation components (I will explain how to tie your evaluation components to your learning outcomes in a future syllabus boot camp column later this week). And second, it informs students that the class is relevant to their career futures. Students are often highly anxious about their career futures and can struggle to see the link between their academic studies and their employability. I believe that drawing direct lines between university classes and future careers supports students in achieving their goals.

Your syllabus design boot camp homework

Here is your homework for today, all of which should take you less than an hour to complete:

  • Find out if your program or university has a syllabus template (estimated time: a five-minute Google search and, if needed, email).
  • Create and save your syllabus file (estimated time: less than five minutes).
  • Select your course-level learning outcomes (estimated time: 30 minutes, particularly if you use the worksheet).

Once those are in place, you will be ready to turn your attention to the course learning materials, including readings. I will cover those in my next column.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

What is your career skill learning outcome? Please let me know by commenting below or by connecting with me on Twitter at @loleen_berdahl and using the hashtag #SkillsAgenda.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

ABOUT LOLEEN BERDAHL
Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Dr. Berdahl’s most recent books include Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press; with Jonathan Malloy) and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science (Oxford University Press; now in its 4th edition with Jason Roy).
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  1. David Seljak / July 28, 2021 at 14:20

    A five week “bookcamp” on writing a syllabus–as worthwhile as it will be for some–speaks volumes about the changes in university culture since I started teaching in 1988. My first syllabus was one page long. (Other professors offered as little as a half-page.) It gave an basic information: contact information, office hours, outline of the topic, the required reading and the grading scheme (with deadlines). There was no schedule of classes and readings. No learning outcomes. No class policies. No reference to academic integrity, health services, wellness and mental health, the writing centre, or the accessibility office, which are all part of my syllabi today.

    On one hand, course outlines have become more fair (everyone knows the rules and available resources). On the other hand, the syllabus reflects the university’s turn to the litigious and bureaucratic culture of the corporate world–as the reference to the syllabus as a “contract with students” reveals.

    Finally, do students actually read my six-page document? What about the 10- to 12-page legal tomes that some of my colleagues hand out at the beginning of each semester? Or is the average syllabus today about as complicated–and carefully read–as the terms and conditions for an iPhone?