Friday, August 29, 2014

Course Objectives and Syllabi

Rebecca Schuman authored a recent article in Slate entitled Syllabus Tyrannus: The decline and fall of the American university is written in 25-page course syllabi.

In the article Schuman complains that in the last twenty years syllabi have grown from 1-2 page simple documents with only the course location, required books, and assignments to “Ten, 15, even 20 pages of policies, rubrics, and required administrative boilerplate, some so ludicrous (“course-specific expected learning outcomes”) that I myself have never actually read parts of my own syllabi all the way through.”

While I won’t go as far as Professor Paul Horwitz goes in criticizing Schuman’s writing, I do want to push back a bit on her critique of “course-specific expected learning outcomes.” 

I admit that bloated syllabi can be a bit cumbersome, but drafting what we at Belmont call “course objectives” can be a helpful process and can lead to important changes in the course. Believe it or not, each semester I look at my course objectives, evaluate whether they were met, and revise my courses as necessary. My course objectives have reminded me that I shouldn’t drop that undergraduate group presentation assignment, no matter how difficult it gets logistically. My course objectives have also reminded me that I just can’t switch to all multiple-choice exams, even if those tests are incredibly common in undergraduate courses today. (To be fair to those who teach undergraduate courses, they typically have 4-8 assessments in a course as opposed to 1-2 in a law school course). 

Anyway, I think some of Schuman’s comments on syllabi bloat are valid, but this increase in disclosure is seen throughout our society as shown in Ben-Shahar & Schneider’s More than You Wanted to Know. While some of the disclosures may be a waste of time and resources, I found the drafting of course objectives helpful and think it will benefit the students through the more thoughtful structure of my courses (even if the students do not take the time to read the objectives themselves). 

Finally and somewhat related, Professor Jennifer Bard notes (with some helpful links) that the ABA is now requiring law schools to draft learning outcomes. If law schools take this process seriously, I think it could be a useful exercise. If law schools just see it as another drain on resources and complete it mindlessly, then it is unlikely that those law schools or their students will benefit.

Business School, Haskell Murray, Law School, Teaching | Permalink


I too get value and direction from the learning objectives stated for my courses, and hope that some students may as well. Thanks for the thoughtful post Haskell.

Posted by: Anne Tucker | Aug 29, 2014 6:23:06 AM

I keep the learning objectives in my syllabus simple and macro. But running in the background are the subsidiary objectives. I share many of those with students as we go. I think it's less overwhelming to handle the objectives that way, but it may dilute their importance.

FYI, my course syllabi are 2-3 pages including a course outline. Then, I have reading syllabi in each course that state and unpack the assignments. The assignments are keyed to the course outline in the course syllabus. I find this works well for me.

Course objectives may including both learning objectives and teaching objectives. Teaching objectives (established for the instructor's benefit) may help to meet personal or institutional professional goals and reinforce or otherwise inform course learning objectives. An instructor may decide that he or she needs to, for example, introduce or sharpen a particular teaching method or tool to meet professional standards set by his or her employer that help the instructor to meet the learning objectives he or she has for students (which also may key into institutional objectives). I think this plays into Haskell's points about "course objectives" (rather than learning objectives) and the new ABA standards on outcomes and assessment.

Haskell, can you tell us more about what the "course objectives" requirement at Belmont is (and, in particular, what it includes)? Maybe in another post in the future . . . ? I, for one, would be interested.

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 29, 2014 7:55:21 AM

Joan, I don’t remember receiving any detailed guidance on what my course objectives should and should not cover, though I was given some examples. I think you are right that “course objectives” could include both learning objectives and teaching objectives. Belmont also has seven student learning outcomes that apply to the entire College of Business and we are supposed to consider those in constructing our classes, though, of course, not every class will address all seven.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Aug 29, 2014 8:05:36 AM

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this additional information. I think as law schools work through their institutional outcomes under the new ABA standards in more detail, we all will engage in that kind of thoughtful planning (linking the institutional goals more closely to our courses), and I actually look forward to that. But, you know, I am a process person . . . .

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 29, 2014 8:18:52 AM

I always find that I learn from hearing others' perspectives so I appreciate this exchange. However, one consideration also might be what one puts into their syllabus, in addition to the traditional materials. For instance, in the interests of transparency, I have found it useful to offer students more information at the beginning of the course with regard to the entire course schedule and not only expectations but also the actual assignments (including rubrics for grading). In that way, they have everything they need from the very start of the course. While the "syllabus" is much longer, I do not show up for each class session with an armload of handouts with which to surprise them.

Posted by: Laura Hartman | Aug 29, 2014 8:47:08 AM

Laura, I follow your model as well. I also include an appendix of "additional resources," including academic and popular press books, websites, blogs (including this one), social media accounts, etc. related to the course -- so my syllabi tend to be on the longer side, but they are hopefully well organized and complete.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Aug 29, 2014 10:28:08 AM

interesting, Laura (and Haskell). Thanks for sharing these additional thoughts. I also learn much from these exchanges.

I give the students my grading criteria with the graded assignment itself. Because the assignments react to the work done in class (which changes somewhat every year), I have been hesitant to give out assignments (no less assessment rubrics) in advance. Also, one of my intra-semester graded assessments is an oral midterm examination that uses a time-bound "study group"-like component, and I do not want the questions to go out in advance. But there is something very appealing to a "pre-pack" course from the standpoint of full information up front. I wonder if I could make it work for me . . . .

Anyone else with relevant experience on this question who wants to chime in? I am all ears.

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 29, 2014 12:25:11 PM

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