Which is the treasure? Where X marks or is it the map?
I vividly remember walking out of her office after our first meeting with an abnormal amount of confidence. I had just met with an experienced professor who was passing her class on to me. It was going to be my first ever class to lead. Prior to meeting with her, I was petrified. What did I know about teaching or developing a class? After meeting with her, I was like, “Man, this will be a breeze.” Where did all my overconfidence come from after a 30-minute meeting?
The experienced professor had been teaching this course for 15+ years. She had honed into a fine running machine with a beautiful syllabus to boot. It was all laid out there for me. My treasure map that all I had to do was follow and at the end of the semester I would have 40+, A+ students. Hence, why I was so confident. I couldn’t lose…the winning algorithm was all there for me.
Fast-forward 6 months, my confidence was somewhere down in a deep hole. I didn’t have 40+, A+ students. I didn’t find any treasure. I was a wayward lost first-year professor just hoping the Department Chair didn’t notice. Now I’m being a bit over dramatic (mostly because I exaggerate to make points), but the fact remained that I did not feel successful in any way shape or form by the end of my first semester.
What happened during the semester to go from a way up high to a way down low? Me. I happened. The problem wasn’t the syllabus or the map. It was quite sound and based on many excellent pedagogy principles. The problem was, I wasn’t her and I was trying to follow her map. She based her map on many years of experience and deep knowledge of the content. I wasn’t in the same place she was professionally and when the ebbs and flow of the semester moved outside of the map, I didn’t have the ability to ebb and flow with it. Things occurred that weren’t on the syllabus and I wasn’t prepared to handle that. The way I ran the class didn’t exactly fit the timing of the syllabus or the mold of the schedule. Sometimes the way the content streamed seemed strange to me and I struggled selling it to the students because of my own confusion.
The primary lesson I learned that semester was I must make my classes my own. I must own the material and create a flow that I can relax in. Her syllabus was amazing, but I couldn’t recreate her outcomes because I didn’t see how all the pieces were put together. All I saw was the product, not the process. Now my approach to teaching new to me classes is quite a bit different. I approach each class with the mentality that if it isn’t broken, I don’t need to fix it…but I need to figure out how it makes sense to me and how I can best deliver it. Most courses I have had the privilege of teaching have been taught previously by highly competent and passionate teachers. There is little that needs to be changed or that I do change. But, what I do is put my teaching signature on it. By dissecting the syllabus and then putting it back together piece by piece with my signature on it, I can be sure I have a better chance to relay the messages to the students in a productive way.
Here are my 5 steps I follow when dissecting a syllabus for the first time:
1. Review the objectives.
Often many already created syllabi have a great list of course objectives. In my field, many of those course objectives relate to objectives of our accrediting body and are quite necessary to demonstrate how we teach those content areas. As I review the objectives, I check to make sure they make sense. Can I visualize how these things will be met? Do I understand the objectives? I often go back to the standards of the profession and compare the already written objectives to see if we are meeting those standards. Then I think about current practice and see if anything is missing. I sometimes reword the sentences, so they make more sense to me and sometimes I write a few new ones to add to the flow of knowledge.
2. Match objectives with activities.
Many times, the previous syllabus has some great assignments or activities laid out to accomplish the objectives. As I take a once over, I look to see how all the different objectives are being covered. Will it be in lecture or lab? Will it be with a written assignment or a summative assessment? The way they are covered doesn’t necessarily matter here as much as if they are covered. I think a lot of times as courses get passed down there is a “creep” that happens. One part of the content is the instructor’s expertise so you subtly see a shift to more and more of that content appearing and then all of the sudden 2-3 objectives really aren’t being met. I take this time to make sure each objective is being met and review the activity to make sure I can execute or if I want to alter it in some way how will I do that.
3. Review the activities for meaningfulness.
As teachers, we have a lot of great ideas. Like physical therapy continuing education weekends, we often get excited about one intervention and every person on Monday morning receives that intervention whether they need it or not. This can happen with in class activities too. Playing Jeopardy as a review game can be quite helpful, but it may not be meaningful to your students. Review the activities and make sure you can squeeze out what the purpose of the activity is. Is this to make students think? Is it to teach them how to work together? Is it to review difficult content from previous lectures? Whatever the purpose of the activity is, it needs to be meaningful not just busy work. This is also a place where I often insert a meaningful activity of my own design, my teaching signature. If you aren’t familiar with how a game is played or know the rules of a certain discussion game, you can learn how to do it or replace it with something that you like to do and know works well. Either way, this is the time where you can start making some tweaks to make this your own.
4. Map out the activities on the schedule.
Many syllabi already have a built-in schedule. During this step I review the previously made schedule and see where the activities that I plan on keeping were scheduled and then insert the newly created ones as well. This step is creating the order of operations so you can flow from one topic to the next. It also can show you where things may get congested during the school year. For example, you may have an exam, a paper and a in-class discussion assignment due all within a couple class periods. Maybe that is too much and by mapping this out you can make some adjustments.
5. Review the flow.
Once everything is on the calendar, I do a once over. Does this flow make sense? Sometimes particular content must be taught prior to other content and other times it may just be a preference of the order of content delivery. Either way, the flow must make sense. One of the reasons I struggled in my first semester was because the flow of instruction didn’t make sense to me. I would fumble with content because in my mind other content needed to be known prior to learning the content on that day’s schedule. Many times, the isn’t much work to do here as most syllabi follow a logical plan, but sometimes your signature requires a few days rework. That is okay. The big goal is to make sure they are receiving the content in a way that sticks, so make the schedule your own.
Now I look at syllabus from previous classes like the treasure instead of the map. It holds all the goods that will be taught to students and it is my job to create the map. I don’t need to recreate the wheel, but I also know there are many ways to skin a cat. In order to have the confidence and delivery I hope to have in front of my students, I need to create the map.
How do you go about creating your course syllabus? Do you start from scratch or do you remodel?