Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On Course, #1: Before the Beginning (The Syllabus)

So here we go: The first entry in our online reading group on Lang's On Course. I hope we have plenty of folks reading and thinking along with us.

The first section of the book concerns constructing a syllabus. I'll mention some highlights and then discuss some themes that struck me as interesting.

Lang's advice about what to include on a syllabus — logistical information, contact info, description, 'promises' or learning objectives, course policies, bases for evaluation, academic honesty statement, disabilities statement, and schedule of tasks and readings — is solid and comprehensive, striking a reasonable balance (we discussed this challenge earlier) between laying out a clear set of expectations and approaching the syllabus like a legal document that kills student interest and motivation. And in general, Lang's recommendations reflect good academic practice and really can't steer you wrong.

Let me mention a few issues from this chapter that deserve some discussion:
  • Whether to give students our home or cell phone numbers (pp. 3-4): Lang's recommendation is more or less "if you feel like it." I don't feel like it. One of the features of the faculty-student relationship that needs to be honored is that it is a professional relationship. We're not friends (yet), nor are we enemies. I tend to think of giving out my home phone number to all my students as crossing a boundary away from a professional relationship. And if accessibility is the issue, students can e-mail me, and I see my e-mail at least five times a day.
  • Learning objectives have a structure (p. 7): Lang, referring to Bloom's learning taxonomy, points out that learning has a structure, with certain learning tasks (those associated with knowledge or comprehension, say) being prerequisites for more advanced learning tasks (those associated with analysis, synthesis, or evaluation, say). This is a good observation. I gather by now that including learning objectives (Lang encourages us to think of these as 'promises') on a syllabus has become the norm. But a list of learning objectives doesn't necessarily highlight the sequential nature of most learning — that most systems of knowledge have an internal structure and that you can't just jump in and master any randomly selected objective at the outset. I've taken to listing learning objectives on my syllabus in three categories: basic, intermediate, and advanced. I'd like to think my doing so conveys to students a message about the logical or cognitive structure of learning.
  • Attendance: Take it or leave it? (p. 10): I like Lang's guideline here: 20+ students, don't take regular attendance. Does anyone out there follow a similar guideline?
  • Short, low pressure writing assignments (pp. 13-14): Lang recommends brief weekly writing assignments with low significance for student grades as a way of keeping track of how well students are learning the course content and for keeping them engaged on a consistent basis. I favor this, too, believing that we often don't ask students to write frequently enough and there's too much 'put all your eggs in one basket' in some philosophy courses (i.e.,the students write a few medium-sized papers and a term paper, say, with large portions of their grades hinging on them). Students need to go through the early stages of philosophical writing more often: thinking through a question or prompt, consulting the texts, fashioning a thesis, etc. Pre-writing is what separates solid philosophical work from the mediocre, so I've come to the conclusion that short assignments help give students more pre-writing practice.
Let me end with a couple of thematic observations about the book:
  • The revelation — from teaching content to enabling learning (pp. 1-2): The simple observation that the question 'what or how should I teach?' is subordinate to the question 'what will students learn?' is still revolutionary, despite the fact approaching teaching in terms of student learning is now the central theme of almost all the literature on college teaching.
  • Teachers as scholars of learning (p. xi): My favorite feature of the book thus far is how it makes use of the empirical literature on student learning. Lang wants to offer a "modest and realistic approach to teaching, one that has been tested and proven in the classroom as well as being informed by the research on teaching and learning in higher education," rather than a "comprehensive overview of teaching and learning theory." As I see it, this is exactly what most college-level instructors need: a scholarly but non-expert understanding of how people learn sufficient to enable them to put this understanding to use in their own teaching. College faculty need not all be scholars of teaching, but they can teach in an informed and scholarly way.
In any event, I'm excited to hear people's reactions to these points or to anything else that grabbed your attention in the syllabus chapter.


  1. Michael
    Thanks for a thoughtful introduction to the issues associated with the syllabus. I agree with much that Lang and you point out regarding this important document. I do see it as a contract between my students and I. Therefore it is very important that it convey as simply as possible the information tht Lang suggests. I give special emphasis to what the course objectives are, the methods to be used in evaluating student performance, the weights attached to each method, and my availability. I also discuss other classroom expectations such as use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic equipment. I forbid them all unless there is a documented reason why a student needs to use them during class. I also point out in my general education course syllabi that philosophy is not easy and the lower level courses can be as difficult or even more difficult then upper level courses. I do this because increasingly students seem to think that these courses should be 'cake-walks.'

    Some general comments:

    1) I not longer give out my home phone number. I need some private time away from teaching and its responsibilities. They have my email address and I inform them that I check it 3x per day 24/7 (if I am in town) and that I will respond within 24 hours, sooner if they indicate they need a quicker answer and I can give it to them. I also have office hours and encourage them to take advantage of them. So far this semester (6 weeks) no one has availed themselves of these hours. (But their 1st critical papers will be returned next week so I expect that to change as reality sets in.)

    2) I give weekly 1-2 page writing assignments on the reading assignments. I do this to make sure that they do the reading and also to give them a chance to develop their critical skills and to develop ideas regarding a specific issue. I use these papers as the basis for class discussion. These papers are worth 15% of the final grade (This percentage will change depending on the other measurement tools that I use, but it does not exceed 20% in any course.) These papers are not graded and I tell the students that I do not read them very closely. I expect them to be able to assess the accuracy of their ideas based on class discussion. The grade is determined by the percentage of the assigned papers they turn in.

    3) I now longer take attendance except during the period of student presentations. Absences at this time can be costly. I take three points of their final total for each one unless they provide third-party documentation explaining and justifying the absence.

    I have taught for over twenty years so I did not know what to expect from this book. After all, it deals with the 1st year of teaching! As I am reading it though, it is reinforcing some of the methods I have adopted over the years in response to my teaching and evaluating my effectiveness. Also, and more importantly, there is enough new information and ides to challenge an ‘old dog’ like me to be a bit more critical of what I am doing and to look at some other possible alternatives to what I am doing and comfortable with. All of us should worry about becoming too comfortable and complacent. I am looking forward to reading and discussing this book and the ideas generated by this experience.

  2. Not much of this chapter was new to me, probably because it overlaps so much with Ken Bain's What The Best College Teachers Do, as Lang admits. But it seems like good advice. (So far, Lang's book seems more useful. Bain's, I think, is more inspirational than instructive.)

    Regarding weekly writing assignments: I've done some variation on this in two courses now, and I like it. This semester I'm trying a new method of feedback: After class, I give each paper a grade from 1–5, with few or no comments. I then post one or two of the best papers on Blackboard (with the author's permission, of course) as a model for the others. The whole process takes me less than half an hour for a class of about 25, but each student gets useful feedback on every assignment. (See Bean's discussion of "models feedback" in Engaging Ideas.)

    Regarding structured learning objectives: This is an interesting point, which I glossed over when I read the chapter. I'm glad you emphasized it, Michael. I've been listing learning objectives in either chronological order or from most course-specific to most general. While the order in which they're listed on the syllabus makes little difference, you've made me wonder whether I need to think harder about the cognitive structure of the learning objectives when designing the course. Am I helping students achieve the more basic objectives before I ask them to tackle the larger ones?

  3. I'm liking the book so far.

    On home phone numbers: I do give students mine, mostly for the reason Lang does: it's a symbol of my availability. I think I can remember only one occasion on which a student actually called me at home, in the 7 years or so I've been teaching.

    On taking attendance: I do it even in classes of 50. But not by calling names. I write a very basic question about the day's readings on the board before class. Only a word or two is needed as an answer, but they have to write it on a slip of paper (which I provide) and put it in a box in the first few minutes of class. This does two things: (a) takes attendance, and (b) checks that they're doing the reading in at least a minimal fashion. It takes me about 10 minutes each day to enter the results (right answer/wrong answer) into an Excel spreadsheet.

  4. Just a personal comment on giving phone numbers to students. What are we trying to accomplish in establishing a relationship with our students? I do not want to be perceived as a 'buddy' to my students. I am not their friend. They need to 'see' me as they will see their future bosses. I am there to guide and to assist (as any good boss should be), but I am also the one that is going to evaluate their work. In order for this evaluation to be as fair as possible I need to be perceived as assessable, but not as a friend. I do not want to be perceived as 'playing favorites.' There needs to be a professional distance between student and teacher and for me giving my home phone number narrows and blurs this distance. I do make it clear that I will other arrangements to meet with students if my office hours are not convenient for them. At crucial times in the semester I increase my office hours to allow more access to me.

  5. I am not reading the book - though my time may allow me to later this month - but I have been following your discussion. I am a little confused. My community college requires specific components in a syllabus - we submit copies of our syllabi (course procedure sheets) to our department. There is a recommended - though not required - format for the syllabus.

    A syllabus is indeed a contract with the students - I make sure everything I plan to enforce - from paper grading to attendance - policy is in writing on that syllabus.

    Course objectives are a required element for our syllabi - these objectives come directly from the course description as submitted for curriculum approval.

    Like John - to me home phone numbers imply a false relationship with the student. My philosophy students are encouraged to practice philosophy - that is - I tell them to think and discuss. Unfortunately, an occasional side effect is that they value their own ideas so much they want to share them - sometimes late at night.

    To support the kind of mentorship that is valued in the educational community, I am advisor to our Philosophy club. This provides a forum for students to voice opinions without it crossing over into my personal time and space.

  6. If students were calling me at home on a regular basis, I would probably remove my home phone number from my syllabi. But as I said, they don't, so I leave it on as a symbol of accessibility.

    I don't see that things such as giving out one's home phone number amounts to trying to be a 'buddy' to the students. If you don't like the phone number practice, John & Gail, you'll probably think it's terrible of me to tell my students that I prefer them to address me by my first name... Which I do. Again, if this practice led to noticeably adverse results, I would stop it; but it hasn't. I don't think it undermines my authority or blurs, in any serious way, the professional distance between us. I still stand up the front of the room, and they still sit and listen and ask questions. I'm not at all saying that such practices are right for everyone (I explicitly warn students not to extend the first-name practice to other faculty!), but they work for me, and I see no harm in them.

  7. Gail made me think of something that bears in constructing the syllabus. I mainly teach in a large university, but I also teach at the local community college. In the past I have taught a what used to be referred to as technical colleges. It is clear to me that the academic abilities of students varies between types of schools and the population that they are drawing their students from. When considering course objectives and measurement tools it is important take these differences into account. While some of the basic information required remains the same, it is important to remember that what works in one environment may not work in another. For example, the writing skills are not usually as high in community colleges or technical schools as they are at the university (and we all know how marginal those skills are at times.)

  8. I'd like to add something to the discussion based on a point Lang makes that I've found to be important--the metaquestion. A couple of years ago, I participated in a teaching consultation process with the Teaching and Learning Center on our campus. One thing that the director emphasized from the literature is the need students have for context. I think that the metaquestion is an excellent way to provide this. In my introductory ethics courses, for example, I tell them on the syllabus that everything we cover this semester is related in some way to the question "What is the good life for human beings?" We spend a little time on metaethical issues, more time on normative ethics, and the most time on applied ethics issues. The applied ethics section of the course can seem a little haphazard. I cover issues as diverse as abortion, the death penalty, sportsmanship, just war theory, and so on. I'm trying to emphasize that these issues in practical ethics are a more specific and concrete way of addressing the question of the course, which Lang refers to as the metaquestion. I think this helps students connect the dots more, and gives them a context for the issues we discuss. It also is beneficial with respect to integration across the course, as we can consider the relevance of normative theories for practical issues. This breaks down the perceived barrier between theory and practice, which is something I also want to accomplish in my courses.

  9. Gazza
    I did not mean to imply anything about you in my comments on why I do not give out my home phone number. If you are comfortable with it then you should do it. Same with allowing students to call you by your first name. We all know that there are many different successful styles in teaching. We should all adopt those that we are most comfortable with and with which we have the greatest success.

  10. John - I think you have hit on an especially important aspect of course design. I do teach at a community college – it has two campuses. Internally we struggle with the problem of one campus that attracts students preparing to transfer to a university and one campus where most students are first generation college attendees; they just want a two-year degree that might move them from physical labor jobs to an office job – even if the pay is less.

    I have taught on both campuses. I find that my Philosophy students can and will do the same level of work regardless of which campus they are on, but other instructors feel differently; they redesign their classes to address the anticipated strengths or weaknesses of the students.

    Where does my loyalty lie? Should I be concerned about the student or the course material? Should I require fewer papers from a class that I suspect will have weak writing skills? The course transfers to the University. Am I hurting the student if I require less than expected?

    Mike, I have also been thinking about your metaquestion. In my ethics class I begin and end with the question – “what is a good person?” I like your variation of "What is the good life for human beings?" I agree – having a focus idea for the course helps students understand the relevance of all the seemingly disconnected material.

  11. I'm glad to participate in this reading group, if only because I might be the only one here who has never been the lead teacher of a course (though I did do my time as a teaching assistant). Thanks for starting it!

    One thing I wonder about is whether Lang's "conceit" that each chapter will correspond with a week of the semester will have any impact on the relevance of the content. I'm sure the two months of a summer course or 10 weeks of a quarter in the University of California system, for example, present a quite different challenge than the 18-week marathon of a California Community College semester.

    I really like the idea that an instructor should design the assignments with learning objectives in mind and I like Bloom's levels, which I haven't seen before reading this book. One thing I noticed about Lang's syllabus is that it is missing a section describing the prerequisites. This may be because the book is directed at the first-time instructor, but I think there might still be room on the syllabus for a "recommended" prerequisite skills section, especially for our discipline. (A student would be advised to have strong writing skills even for their first philosophy course, skills they might not need for a first psychology or sociology course.) It seems to me that especially if a course is designed to achieve some of the higher-level Bloom cognitive skills, a prerequisites section might be important.

    I wonder what late-work policies are most common. I would like to be flexible, but I know better than to announce that I'll accept work for full credit no matter how late it is. I think I would stick with the "generic phrase" Lang recommends; I'd probably adopt a similar generic phrase for the attendance requirement.

    I imagine that those who won't put their home or cell phone numbers on their syllabi wouldn't dare join a website like Facebook. I suspect that in five years or so that issue won't matter so much because everyone will have a BlackBerry and get e-mail around the clock anyway.

    To those who prohibit phones and laptops and other technological distractions, I wonder what your policy is or would be on voice recorders or the Livescribe Pulse smartpen. (Google it!) When my brother showed me his, I was very impressed. I imagine that pricey item would be a very useful tool for conference or lecture attendees at any level.

  12. Kevin
    As far as late work is concerned I state in my syllabus that I will not accept late work unless there is third party verification presented by the student that explains the absence. If students inform me ahead of time that here is a conflict I will work with them to accommodate their needs. My reason for this policy is that holding them accountable to a time frame teaches them the important lesson of doing work on time, something they will have to do outside of school. People can lose their jobs for missing deadlines.

    As far as electronic equipment is concerned I prohibit all forms in my classroom. I want students to become engaged in the discussion and I think that using computers, etc., offers too many distractions. Besides I consider it rude to be testing or watching videos or playing games when I am teaching and/or other students are talking. Because of the nature of my teaching style I want common courtesy exhibited by everyone towards everyone. I encourage people to disagree and to talk to each another about what they find wrong with the other person's position (including mine). I should point out that I mainly teach ethics and ethics related courses so the topics can generate some 'heated' debates.

  13. Meta-questions

    Like Mike, I found the issue of the meta-question interesting. Since I mostly teach ethics courses, that question would be something like, "Can practical moral issues be discussed rationally?" or "Can we reason about moral issues (in contrast to thinking that our moral views are just 'opinions' or 'feelings' or whatever)?" For the more "pure" philosophy courses I teach, I don't think that's the type of meta-question I work with since I am much more skeptical about the prospects for "rational" progress in those areas. I guess here my teaching is influenced by some of the last few years' discussions of the epistemology of disagreement. So I am not sure what my meta-question is there, especially since I think it's false that most people must (in almost any sense of 'must') have views on those issues, unlike how perhaps they must have views on some moral issues.

    Creative Assignments
    One other thing I found especially interesting in this chapter was the suggestion to have at least one "creative" assignment. This seemed to me to be a neat idea, but since I suspect creative assignments are somewhat rare in philosophy, I wondered if anyone had any good ideas.

    One creative assignment I give at the end of the semester is for students to come up with a "Top 10 List" of things to do and not to do when thinking about moral issues. This can generate some good reflection on what we've been up to the entire semester and a bit of creativity.

    Another semi-creative assignment (that originated with a writing by Colin McGinn, I believe) I use for the ethics and animals segment is to write a paper where they try to defend themselves from a "superior" alien race that has come to earth to experience the pleasure of eating humans. The idea is that this defense, if its a good one, might have implications for how we ought to treat animals and so they have to think through this. This generates some creative writing too.

    Anyone have any suggestions for creative assignments?

  14. Following Nathan...


    I regularly use metaquestions in my ethics courses, but I'm not sure what the real metaquestion is in my logic and critical thinking course. Does anyone have a metaquestion for a critical thinking course?

    Creative assignments

    I also liked Lang's suggestion to include one creative assignment per semester. I don't have anything terribly creative to contribute, but three of my more unusual assignments from the past few semesters:

    1. An annotated bibliography, in which they analyze and evaluate the major arguments in each source. I assign this in advance of a paper. It helps, I think, if you assign a set of sources.

    2. In an applied ethics course in which we were talking about poverty issues, I had them volunteer on a poverty-related project. Drawing on that experience, they answered some questions about the project, the people they served, and what various ethical theories would say about their volunteering. I ran into a student today, actually, who said that he's been volunteering regularly since then. (I think we discussed service learning projects here earlier on this blog.)

    3. In my critical thinking course, I usually have them analyze "found arguments"—i.e., arguments that they find anywhere outside of class. People find arguments in textbooks, TV, the internet, conversations, bus stops ads, etc.

  15. One follow-up on creative assignments: Lang lists things like design a website for a famous historical figure or event...collaborate on business memos about an ethics breach." That's not really what I have in mind when I think of creative assignments. Those sort of "role-playing" assignments strike me as a little lame, for lack of a better word. I generally disliked them as a student. Maybe that's because writing papers about philosophical questions struck me as authentic assignments, since I really wanted to figure out the answers to those questions. The other stuff was just a distraction.

    What do other people think about these kinds of assignments? And perhaps more importantly, what do you think your students think about them?

  16. David, I agree that both as a student and an instructor I view papers as "more authentic assignments." However, I suspect this has to do with learning styles - I respond to the written word.

    As far as creative assignments - I do have my students develop and use a hedonistic calculator. I give them roles and a dilemma to solve. Some students like it, some, of course, hate it.


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