The Common Good

CTE_logo_web.jpgA teaching and learning newsletter

Produced by the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Student Committee on Teaching Excellence (SCTE), with input from the students of SUNY Plattsburgh. Vol. 3, issue 1. Read other issues. Download a PDF of this newsletter.

 

Student Survey Question: What do you think makes the best syllabus?

A syllabus is a personal thing to most faculty. We have certain ways of constructing them that may derive from syllabi given to us in our student days, or which reflect personal preferences or quirks. There is one tendency among syllabi these days that you may have noticed in your own: the growing length and disquisition of every possible detail, policy, and contingency.

The great diversity of styles is perfectly fine as long as every syllabus serves the fundamental purpose of a syllabus, which is to convey essential  information that students require to fulfill course expectations. The important adjective here is “essential." Students balk at syllabi that are too short or too long.

For a syllabus, less is more as long as the less is critical information. If you really believe a 6 – 10 page syllabus is necessary to convey the essential course policies and objectives, be aware that student input indicates that this long syllabus will see diminished action.

If you really believe a 6 – 10 page syllabus is necessary to convey the essential course policies and objectives, be aware that student input indicates that this long syllabus will see diminished action.

A syllabus introduces the instructor to the students and continues to have a defining impact throughout the course. If a syllabus reads like a legal document, or if its language is excessively proscriptive (“Don’t do this,” “I don’t tolerate that”), it telegraphs a teaching persona that isn’t constructive of an effective learning environment. This is especially true if a syllabus attempts to address behavioral problems the instructor has encountered in previous semesters. If the inclusion of rules and punitive action for violation of those rules does not significantly lessen the occurrence of the problem, then it is probably time to consider other teaching techniques.

One important note: as much as we want our students to read the syllabus and pay close attention to the information we have provided (and as much as we tire of being asked due dates for assignments), students are very frustrated when they are required to take syllabus quizzes.

Whether used as extra credit (carrot) or a percentage of the grade (stick), such an assessment is not strictly related to the course learning objectives. It is an indirect assessment of how the student goes about actively achieving those objectives, which is as much as attempting to assess how much time they put into a writing assignment independent of the assignment outcome. It should not be surprising therefore, that students see syllabus quizzes as busy work at best, and patronizing at worst. And for those who value learner-centered teaching, syllabus quizzes are simply bad practice.

Students see syllabus quizzes as busy work at best, and patronizing at worst.

A final word on the syllabus: Whatever is in there must be followed consistently; else all that effort is for naught.

View and download a sample template of a standard syllabus that includes what is required by the Faculty Senate at SUNY Plattsburgh.

In their words

“Having all the test dates and what’s going on in class, and when the teacher actually follows through on it.” --Kathleen Dattola

“Short, sweet, to the point, bulleted, not essay format, important stuff at the beginning.” --Brittany Hinkle

“Clear concise; should highlight the most important facts of class, also an assignment calendar is a must.” --Samuel A. Dorsey

Students on Syllabi

What gets rave reviews:
• Detailed dates that are followed
• Easy to read – not crowded in small font
• Clarification of due dates
• Not reading the syllabus on the first day

What doesn’t:
• Overload of information
• Syllabus quizzes
• Complex, over-written explanations about the outcomes or assignments
• Syllabi that are not user-friendly

Students on students

“Look at the syllabus before asking questions in class about issues like due dates or attendance policies.”

October Teacher of the Month

Nancy Strack, Adjunct Lecturer, Communications

It is always appealing to students to have a teacher who truly models the principles and concepts she espouses, and that certainly seems to be the case for Nancy Strack. Her approach to teaching Communications embodies the elemental understanding that great teaching is communication at its finest. She is successful as a teacher because she knows how to create the conditions for learning. In her words: “For me, teaching is all about community and connections. I strive to build a classroom community where students collaborate, discuss ideas, listen to and appreciate one another. I try to help them make connections between one another, between disciplines and to the world at large.”

Nancy brings passion, joy, and openness to her classroom.

As evidenced by the nominations, Nancy also brings passion, joy, and openness to her classroom – qualities that students have seen in all of our Teachers of the Month. They have all, in some way, echoed her philosophy: “I believe it’s my responsibility to engage my classes as fully as I can. I try to deliver my lectures with enthusiasm, humor and an openness that invites participation.”

Excerpts from nominating submissions:
•  “She’s a great professor because she shows enthusiasm and makes everything understandable. She’s also outgoing!” --Theressa Martinez
•  “She always makes the class fun. She gets everyone’s attention and I enjoy going to public speaking on Mondays and Wednesdays.” --Robb Roedel
•  “She is outgoing, loves the material she teaches. She also makes class exciting. She prepares her students well for the future and is overall a great person.” --Heather Neddo

Nancy will soon receive the coveted Teacher of the Month mug, suitable for any office where teaching is held to the highest standard.

Contact Information

For more information about the Center for Teaching Excellence, please contact:

Becky Kasper, Ph.D., Director
SUNY Plattsburgh
301 Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Phone: (518) 564-3043
Fax: (518) 564-5100
E-mail: kasperrb@plattsburgh.edu