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August 17, 2016 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Designing a Syllabus

It’s easy to underestimate how much time and thought a syllabus absorbs, but they demand a lot of attention, especially because they’re one of the most direct mechanisms to communicate with students. People sometimes dismiss that long syllabus, but I’m definitely on the other side of the divide: I try and make my syllabuses as comprehensive as I possibly can — in part to make sure that I have a place to point to when students have questions, but, more importantly, to head those questions off altogether. I also find that the more I teach a class, the more I refine and scaffold the syllabus, the closer it gets to inspiring new courses and scholarship.


After I figure out what the class is topically concerned with, I tend to start by thinking about what kinds of assessments are being used, and that usually depends on the level of the course. If it’s a lower division course or an introductory course, I tend to use exams, and schedule one every 4-5 weeks in a term. If it’s an upper division course, I still use exams — but I space them out more and offer students other options for assessment. So, for my upper division students, I usually allow them — by petition — to write a research paper or write periodic precis of the course content. This allows more advanced, specialized students to focus their attention on a more meaningful project — but, like students taking the exams, they still have scheduled deadlines for various part of the project. You can see exams of an introductory syllabus here (Intro to Cultural Anthropology: ANTH 166 2016) and a more advanced syllabus here (Medical Anthropology: ANTH 134 2014). The one exception to this upper division structure is when it’s a required course, and in those cases I still stick with exams, which tend to be more essay oriented (like this upper division survey of anthropological theory, ANTH 152 2015). In any case, when I use exams, they tend to have short, take home essays (like 2-3 pages) as well as short answer portions — in my attempt to meet every students’ test-taking strengths and weaknesses.

I find that having the schedule of the assessments helps to provide an outline for the content of the course — so if an exam happens every 4 weeks, within the preceding 4 weeks, I’ll try and cover 2, 2-week units, or 4 1-week units. If we have a big conceptual unit, I work to consolidate it all on one side of an assessment. I work with the assumption that students can bomb an assessment (if they take a month off, say), but they should be able to get back on track with the next assessment if they get back in the saddle. So my assessments tend to be non-comprehensive — they only include the material since the last assessment, with the exception of the final exam. Generally speaking, these assessments make up about half of a student’s final grade, and I structure the grade so that even if the student scores only 50% on all of this material, he or she can still pass with a C — as long as they complete all of the other work in the class.

The rest of the grade in most of my classes is based on attendance (usually no more than 10%, and typically only for attending section, not lecture — unless it’s a seminar and I can take attendance), with the lion’s share being some form of reading comprehension assignment. In lower division classes, I tend to use a single reading question for each reading, which students answer through an online portal (like Blackboard or Sakai) — it tends to be a question to help the student focus on a key point in the reading, and to integrate it with things that we’ve discussed in class or that he or she has encountered in other readings. So, for example, it might ask a student to define a theory in the present reading and compare it to a concept from another reading; or the question might ask the student to define a concept from another reading and support it with evidence from the present reading. If it’s an upper division course, I tend to use reading guides, which ask the students to identify the author’s thesis, discuss the evidence used and how it relates to the thesis, attempt to identify the debates the author is engaging in and with whom, and, ultimately, to articulate whether they find the piece compelling. In both cases, I find that these kinds of assignments prepare students for coming to class ready to discuss the content at a level appropriate to the class, and they also serve to create an ongoing study guide for the class. By the end of the term, if the student has completed these reading assignments, she or he has a large body of notes they can draw from to prepare for any final exam or final project.

I’ve discussed elsewhere how I choose readings for a class, so I won’t go into that much here. Basically, at the lower division, I tend to choose an article or book chapter for each day (about 25-30 pages); less than that, and I find it hard to have much to lecture on or discuss with students. At the upper division, I tend to assign about 5 readings per week, with more of them being due early in the week. So, for example, if it’s a Tuesday and Thursday class, I’ll ask students to read 3 readings for Tuesday, with 2 for Thursday (assuming they have more time on the weekend to do schoolwork, which isn’t always true). If the reading is especially dense or theoretical, I tend to use about 20-25 pages worth, and have it be the sole reading for the day — or I might pair it with an illustrative example that’s easy to read and see the application of the theory in. One thing I try and avoid is reading a whole book with students over 2-3 weeks of the class.  I find that after a day or two talking about the book, they stop reading it, and only get back into it at the very end of the section. Instead, I use chapters from throughout a book over the course of the term — so selections from the books will be paired with other readings thereby — maybe — illuminating the relationships between the books and other existing scholarship. The exceptions to this are when we’re reading a whole book over 1 or 2 weeks in class, and the contents of the book are such that they give us a lot to discuss on a daily basis.

I usually fill 2 single-spaced pages with various policies for the class, from discussions of academic misconduct and learning services on campus, to proper citational practices, my work expectations for students, and rules about when and how students can contact me. The most important of these is the last: I have a window for answering emails, usually first thing in the morning, Monday through Friday. Emails received after the window are responded to the following day, and emails received on Friday are responded to on Monday. I also tell students that I don’t respond to student emails if the information they’re seeking is in the syllabus. Since implementing that policy, the amount of student email I’ve received has been reduced by 90%. Some students erroneously think I don’t want to communicate with them, but I try and make clear to them that I do — just only during certain times, since answering student email is a very small part of my overall professional responsibilities.

One policy I’ve tried in the past, and may very well revisit in the future, is a Good Faith grade. The idea is this: if a student turns in all of the assignments on time and minimally complete, she or he can receive no lower than a C in the course. The couple of times I’ve used this policy, no one who was failing the class had turned in all of the assignments on time, so they were ineligible for the Good Faith grade. But I did find that students seemed to like me more when there was a very straight forward policy on how to do a minimal amount of work and still pass the class.

Ultimately, I take a ‘no surprises’ approach to the syllabus: I try and get as much into it as possible so that students aren’t taken off guard by assignments, expectations, policies, or the schedule. Making the syllabus as clear as I can — which can sometimes mean 15 page syllabuses — helps save me time over the course of the term (and maybe does the same for students).

Other tips or questions? Post them in the comments below.


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