Professors – Design an Effective Course – Start With Your Syllabus

A professor’s role in actual course design might vary between two extremes on a continuum. If yours is a standard, lower-division course, your department might already have a detailed outline, a course in miracles, carefully selected textbook, and designated course materials and activities that you are expected to use, so that all students are (supposedly) equally prepared for advanced courses. If this is the case, you may be required to do little more than embellish the course material with your personal experiences and insights. More often, however, as a recognized expert in your field, you are asked to design and manage all aspects of courses that you are especially qualified to teach. While the demands of designing a course “from scratch” are daunting, the rewards can be substantial. Regardless of your position on the continuum, it is critical to understand the basic processes of course design, since it tends to have a long-term impact on students.  The ideas in this article will get you started. 

Creating a syllabus is a key aspect of strategic course planning, which is defined as planning that is deliberate, intentional, and considered, with the overall objective being to ensure student learning. Strategic course planners focus on their destination, and then think through how to get all students there efficiently and effectively. 

1) name of your course; 2) catalog description; 3) your description of the course; 4) purpose of course; 5) prerequisites or co-requisites; 6) student description; 7) goals  and objectives; 8) schedule; 9) readings; 10) assignments; 11) classroom learning experiences; 12) assessments; 13) grading procedures; 14) attendance policies; 15) communication channels;  16) other considerations.

While this may seem overwhelming, it’s not–and it’s an investment in your overall course and the student learning.  The more you think about these parts of your syllabus and then lay them out for the students in a strategic manner, the better your overall course will go (I promise!).  And, although I have listed the components as if they occur as a series of steps, strategic course planning is actually quite recursive.  One does not move linearly from step to step to step, but rather from step to step, then back to a previous step, then forward, then back, and so on until all the elements coalesce into a comprehensive whole – all driven by sound instructional objectives. 

Such is the essence of strategic planning, making sure that there is consistency between and among the various components of the course and its syllabus.   At this point, it’s time to get a legal pad and pencil (or open a fresh document on your computer), materials that will enable you to “flag” key notes in your written planning and other ancillary course materials, and a copy of your institution’s or department’s catalog. 

Then, shut your door so you have some quiet and uninterrupted time to start thinking through the various pieces of a course syllabus that I listed in this article.  Numerous articles on developing a college/university course syllabus are available from Meggin McIntosh, Ph.D. In addition, you can learn much more about teaching and reaching the many different types of students who are in today’s college classroom by reading the book *Teaching College in an Age of Accountability* (Allyn & Bacon). The book was written by Richard Lyons & Meggin McIntosh (the author of this article).

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