Help with teaching, part 2: the syllabus (learning outcomes)

In my last post, I introduced our new professionalization series on teaching. There, I was talking mainly in general terms about things you can do to get your class underway. In this post, we’re diving right in: the syllabus is usually your first task when creating a new class, and it has several different functions. Although the vocabulary used to describe the various functions of the syllabus differs, most scholars of teaching and practicing teachers would agree that an ideal syllabus does a few things: 

  1. It provides a list of goals, objectives, or learning outcomes that students can expect to have mastered by the end of the course;
  2. It provides a road map for how students will achieve those outcomes, typically in the form of a schedule;
  3. It provides important information about the class and resources within and outside of the university; and
  4. It provides standards to help students understand how their work will be assessed.

Syllabi might include other information and may not include this information. Like most academic work, there’s no set style for a syllabus; usually, you’ll write one and refine it after getting advice from your professors and colleagues. In that sense, a syllabus is like a journal article, but with completely different aims and audiences. In the next few posts, I’m going to focus on these four points because I think that they are both the most common subcategories of information on a syllabus and the most important – but as usual, I’m happy to hear your opinions!

In the list above, I’ve ordered the information in terms of what I consider the most important functions of the syllabus. Usually, this is not the order that you’ll see in the finished product. I’ll talk about arranging your syllabus towards the end of the syllabus series. But before you even begin writing, you should start considering your goals for the class. These goals (which are often called ‘learning objectives’ or ‘learning outcomes‘ – either way, LOs) are the long-term skills your ideal student will gain from your class, and they’re important enough that I’m going to spend the rest of the post talking about them.

There are two main reasons to put these objectives in your syllabus. First, you should do it because college administrators increasingly want to see how courses fit in to the major/minor curricula. You might even be required to include such objectives by your department chair or dean. But you should also include objectives because a student who’s browsing course descriptions often doesn’t know what to expect from your class. Including LOs makes your goals for their experience in the class clear.

As far as writing the LOs, it’s okay to think big – but don’t overshoot. Obviously, having a publishable paper is too advanced for a second-year survey class! At the same time, you don’t want to set your sights too low: asking a Latin 1 class to only learn the present tense and one declension is probably not rigorous enough. So you should aim for balance. Obviously, that means that writing your LOs will get easier over time, as you become more used to teaching and what sort of knowledge you can expect from students at various levels of study. If it’s your first time teaching, Google is your friend: search for “<class name> syllabus” and read 4-5 examples. That will be enough to give you a sense of what other professors are doing at other institutions, and will help you shape your own.

There’s no hard and fast rule for how many learning outcomes you should have, but I like to list between 3 and 5. I use the SMART rubric to formulate outcomes that are concrete and comprehensible to specialists and non-specialists alike. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable (attainable), relevant, and time-bound. In a classroom setting, that means:

  • Having concrete and easy-to-understand goals, often tied to one or more finished product(s) (such as a paper)     [specific, measurable]
  • Having a clear method of demonstrating that the LOs have been met      [measurable, achievable]
  • Having LOs that fit in to the overall curriculum of your department/major/minor, either by building upon previous coursework or preparing students for more advanced coursework      [relevant]
  • Having deadlines that are defined and realistic       [time-bound, achievable]

Here are some examples of non-SMART LOs. I’m offering examples from Intro Latin and Myth, because those are the two courses that virtually every classicist will have to teach at one point in time:

Latin                                                                                            Myth

Students will learn the basics                                          Students will read a variety of Greek    of Latin syntax and grammar.                                        myths.

These goals are too vague if you don’t already know the content of the course. What are ‘the basics of Latin syntax and grammar’? (Different readers will probably disagree on where to draw the line; students will have no idea what a declension is, or the difference between grammar and syntax.) Is myth class just storytime?

Here is a way to make the same LOs SMARTer:

Latin

Students will be able to decline nouns in the first two declensions.

Myth

Students will analyze Greek myth using ritual theory, comparative mythology, and Freudian psychology.

As you can see, our new LOs are more specific. Their specificity helps clarify that they are achievable and hints at their relevance. But we can make these even better. I like to break them down by broad grade level (which helps make the LO measurable):

Latin

By the end of this course, an A student will have mastered the first and second declension by declining unfamiliar nouns at sight.

Myth

By the end of this course, students will demonstrate their understanding of theories of myth by writing an essay that applies at least three theories to one mythic cycle. An A in this class means that the student has clearly demonstrated his/her understanding of both myth theory and Greek mythology. A B in this class indicates that the student has clearly demonstrated his/her understanding of either myth theory or Greek mythology. (etc.)

The LOs above are SMART. They name specific goals for your students over the course of the year, indicate how your students will prove that they’ve achieved those goals, and assigned a provisional grade to various levels of competence in each goal. If we break down the acronym again, we can see how each piece fits into the LO:

  • Specific: Each outcome is tied to both a skill (declining, understanding and applying) and an assessment instrument (sight declension, essay).
  • Measurable: By providing what you consider A-level, B-level, C-level, etc. work, you’ve explained how that skill will be assessed.
  • Achievable: Because you are providing concrete examples of what your students need to learn, your goals are achievable (rather than vague). The term ‘achievable’ does not imply or require that all students achieve it; rather, it means that it must be possible to achieve this outcome.
  • Relevant: By using the same language in your LOs and course descriptions, you will demonstrate the relevance of your LOs to the course and the curriculum as a whole.
  •  Time-bound: Each LO opens with “by the end of this course…”, indicating the time by which this LO must be achieved.

If you look at the difference between our first and last sets of LOs, it’s actually not that big. Your SMART outcomes are like the introductory section of your research: they should frame your class in terms of what you hope it will achieve. Not all students will achieve every LO at the highest level. That’s okay! You’re allowed to have standards! But your students should know what those standards are before they’re 8 weeks in. And once you get used to formulating your LOs this way, it doesn’t take very long to write them. In fact, I think of that time as an investment: although I’m a fan of changing your syllabus every time you teach the same class, I generally don’t rewrite my LOs. LOs are subject- and level-specific, so generally speaking, your Intro Latin syllabus from 2016 should have the same goals as your Intro Latin syllabus in 2020, barring any curriculum shakeups.

Finally, you may wonder if I really go through all of the steps to make SMART goals for all of my courses. I admit that sometimes my LOs are SMARTer, rather than fully SMART. I find that SMART goals work very well in Latin class, and I assume that they would work similarly well in Greek.  It is easier to make a goal SMART when it has a clearly right or wrong methodology, which research papers do not. That being said, I do think that the process of making SMART(er) goals is worth the effort. The specific and achievable LOs of the second example are still more effective at communicating what your class is about than the vague goals of the first example. So if you get that far, well done; you’re ready for the next step!


 

~J.

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