Revisiting the Syllabus: Paths Toward Successful Course Design

Constructing a syllabus can feel much more daunting of a task than the “syllabus week” sentiment carries. The power packed into that semi-annual document requires significant time and attention. This post provides a seven-step process to think big about your course and transform that thinking into your syllabus.

Use this table of contents to jump to specific steps:

  1. STEP 1: Start with an Essential Question (EQ)
  2. STEP 2: Build course objectives from that EQ
  3. STEP 3: Develop summative assessments (SA)
  4. STEP 4: Develop lesson objectives
  5. STEP 5: Course Mapping
  6. STEP 6: The Reading List
  7. STEP 7: Accessibility and Sustainability

As a note, when I design a course and syllabus, I start out as analog as possible. I like to map and draw my course and make mistakes that I don’t erase or cut and paste. The analog approach helps me to see things differently; however, I also recognize that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I would give it a shot if you can.

STEP 1: Start with an Essential Question (EQ)

When we think about syllabus construction and course design, we can start in one of two places: the beginning or the end. While I admire those who start from the beginning, I firmly believe in designing from the end. This is called backward design. The framework is explained in Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design. What the framework asks of us is to begin with the end in mind: what do we want our students to know when they arrive at the conclusion of our class? This oftentimes comes in two forms: objectives and questions.

The backward planning helps us to tell a story with our curriculum design. And to tell the best story, start with what we call an essential question, meaning a question that grounds the course. This also promotes inquiry-based design. Because we start with a core question, our design decisions all contribute to guiding students to achieve an answer to that question.

Essential questions should be broad and will guide your thinking. They are often general and provide both conceptual thinking and coherence to your course design. They also often extend beyond our curriculum, bringing our classrooms and students into conversation with systems, structures, and powers.

When I am thinking about essential questions for my courses, I try and first come up with several keywords that embody my course. I draw first from the name of my course and then from the course description — after all, that is what we’ve sold the students on when they registered for our courses. I break apart the course name and then create a concept map to consider what connections I can make to those words.

I then ask: what can I ask about these concepts? What matters to students’ thinking and learning beyond my classroom?

This leads me to write an exhaustive list of questions that begs, borrows, and steals from my concept map and list. I think about different variations of the questions and what they represent. Are they representative of my course? Are they asking students to think big? Are they simply focusing on skills or topics?

The questions that emerge about skills and topics I set aside. They eventually help me to build lessons and objectives. I then think about the BIG IDEA questions as my course essential questions.

Choose one or two to frame your course and begin telling your curricular story.

STEP 2: Build course objectives from that EQ

Build course objectives from that big EQ. Objectives should be able to be measured and will be attached to core summative assessment. While the EQ may have broader aims, the objectives represent outcomes. I use Bloom’s Taxonomy (https://bloomstaxonomy.net) to guide my writing of objectives. I think about high-level cognitive thinking for my course objectives because if I design my course effectively, I should be BUILDING/SCAFFOLDING throughout to help students achieve the end course objectives.

When you write your course objectives, try and think about them as a rubric from the beginning. What would it look like for a student to be proficient in each objective? Some teachers will create a sample assignment at this stage of curriculum design. This sample assignment can be what students use to understand what a model looks like, but it also serves as an opportunity for the instructor to have students assess the sample to understand the objectives and rubric in a richer way.

Your lesson objectives will all eventually contribute to these course objectives, like stepping stones. Because of that, I often will brainstorm as many possible objectives as possible from the get-go. For this brainstorm, I organize them by the different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy because my focus is on scaffolding from one to the next and building a spiral curriculum (step 6). I’ll return to this list in step 4 of this process, but I know from this brainstorm what higher-order concerns would be before my course and what linguistically differentiates them from the lower-order concerns for individual lessons.

STEP 3: Develop summative assessments (SA)

Once I think about the course objectives, I start thinking about how students will know they will achieve those. These end up being my summative assessments (SA). I consider what options students can have to show they’ve achieved proficiency in the objectives and take note of them. These assessments help students show they are proficient at the end of a unit and a course.

When we design our SAs, we start with this question: how will my students demonstrate they are proficient in these objectives?

When I think about my SAs out loud, I’m also thinking about (and annotating) how each possibly fulfills course objectives. I think about PROFICIENCY, not MASTERY. Mastery, to me, exceeds the objectives. It isn’t that I don’t want students to master, but I want them to take risks. So I plan out what proficiency would be for each SA related to each course Objective. This also becomes the foundation of my rubrics. Thinking above proficiency is mastery; thinking below proficiency is where a student needs improvement. I’m STILL thinking with the end in mind.

I also will brainstorm options. When I do this from the beginning, it usually ends with students getting choices for summative assessments. And when students get choices, they feel more comfortable showcasing what they learn. For example, how can a research paper, journalistic story, podcast, and social media campaign all assess the same objectives? It is possible! Why? Because your outcomes/objectives were outlined for you in the previous step. Now you are just working to design final assessments that help students showcase their proficiency in those objectives.

STEP 4: Develop lesson objectives

I now turn to the question: SO, HOW WILL THEY GET HERE? This is when I really build backward and plan out what lesson objectives need to be included to get to the end. These are my lesson objectives. When planning out my lesson objectives, I think about a spiral staircase. If I’m at the top of the staircase – the end of the course – then I need to consider how I got here; I need to think about what skills and objectives built upon one another to help me reach the top.

Much like my course objectives, I use Bloom’s Taxonomy for my weekly objectives. Throughout my course, you would see all levels of cognition represented; however, more of my earlier content/lessons will represent lower-order thinking and it should progress to higher-order. At this point, I haven’t BUILT my course schedule. I am still writing out how I see students achieving proficiency in course objectives through proficiency in individual lesson objectives.

Here is where I am thinking about what would help show students were proficient — my formative assessments (FA). Summative represent end-of-course or end-of-unit measurements of student achievement; formatives are short, quick, and low-stakes. When designing FAs, I don’t attach grades; instead, I only provide feedback tied to a rubric (without scores) reflecting weekly objectives.

When I think about FAs at this stage, I am just trying to understand how I can help scaffold students to achieve the course objectives and perform proficiently on the course summative assessment. This means being inventive and imaginative. It also means thinking about different strategies and approaches that could lead to student growth. For example, I may think about how a discussion strategy like a fishbowl could help me get students from basic understanding to application.

By thinking about how students grow academically in my class, I then start to map the course.

STEP 5: Course Mapping

This is where we continue to think about the visual of the spiral staircase. I also am now processing how long each lesson objective would take to instruct, collaborate, practice, and assess. In doing this, I don’t constrain myself to the normal semester timeframe. I ask: what does this objective need?

Once I’ve done that, I negotiate with the curriculum. Yes, sounds odd, but that’s what it is. I then map the objectives to reflect that spiral staircase and build the skeleton of my syllabus within the confines of my semester schedule. Some stuff has to go, so negotiate.

This is also when you construct the syllabus. It is also when I start moving from analog to digital. Because I’ve done all the hard labor before, this ends up being the least time-consuming and least mentally-taxing part of this process. It is also the part we are often drawn to doing first when going to design or revise a course.

STEP 6: The Reading List

Contrary to popular opinion, readings should not be what our courses are designed around — unless you are studying a certain author or working through a specific text in a deep and critical way, and even then, there is a need to design your course first and then work with the text (or the supplemental materials). I save my reading list for last, and I like to think about how multiple options could reinforce the objectives I’ve set out to help students achieve. Do we need to all read the same thing? Sometimes, but not always. Options lead to strategic & instructional diversity (SID).

When getting to this step, it is important to first brainstorm options without limitations. This is your pie-in-the-sky list of readings — large and small — to include on your syllabus. But that brainstorming should also include the rationale for the texts (i.e., how do they meet course, weekly, and by-lesson objectives). I like to do this using a table, thus making it a visual experience for myself. If I offer options for a class, then it means I will be preparing different in-class activities or instructional strategies to help students synthesize material collectively. I love that part. Whole-group offers different needs.

Then consider your course reading list for thoughtful inclusion of diversity. For example, when you look back at your syllabus, is there a week dedicated to “diversity,” or have you integrated diversity throughout the course? This would include more than topics. Perform an audit of the text creators your think you want to include in your class. How many are from minority or marginalized groups and identities? Who is represented, and how are they represented? When you look at your reading list, think about who is “required” versus “additional.” Ask this: how can I make space for all voices and identities?

Lastly, in this step, you should consider how the selected text helps students achieve proficiency in your course objectives. What implications does the text have on the students’ understanding of the course content, and what role does it play in students building from one idea to the next. Are you choosing it because you like it? That’s okay if that helps you engage with the course content and the students, but you should have a clear purpose for its use. What does it do to help further student learning?

STEP 7: Accessibility and Sustainability

While these shouldn’t necessarily be “after the fact,” these different considerations provide more nuance and strategies to make class impactful for all students and make class last beyond the semester students are with you.

Inclusion Considerations

How are you making students feel a sense of belonging in the classroom? Return to the first two weeks of your syllabus, and when you do, ask this: how are students building culture? What objectives have you written explicitly about culture and fostering a sense of belonging in your classroom? How much time are you dedicating to making your classroom a learning community versus a learning factory? By switching our mindsets to consider culture a part of foundational course material, we will be pleasantly surprised come the middle of the semester when the heavy content comes into play and the students are entirely on board with wrestling with complex ideas.

Accessibility tends to be an afterthought, but not because we don’t care. Instead, accessibility is something we aren’t usually trained to know or understand and certainly not to modify. You can revisit this in two different ways: (1) meet with your campus center for teaching and learning to have an expert go through your syllabus and course design for accessibility barriers, or (2) undertake that process on your own. Accessibility concerns are both in-classroom and digital, so know that this is a process (and why sometimes the first option is easier).

Two resources that could help you enhance inclusion are Buehl’s Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning and Mastropieri and Scrugg’s The Inclusive Classroom.

Sustainability Considerations

When thinking about your course, ask this: How can this class impact how students impact current systems, reflect on past assumptions, and engage in more inclusive features?

What systems are in place that are serving as barriers to students learning in your course? What systems does your course encounter? These questions are critical to helping students think long-term and to engage civically with your content far beyond learning the material. Try and find ways to make this explicit with your students and work to increase students’ literacy of how to come to terms with what the systems need and what they deliver.

Encouraging students to reflect on past assumptions isn’t simply about integrating historical context into your course, which is also valuable. Rather, this type of metacognitive thinking will help your students increase their critical thinking and problem-solving skills by recognizing their role in sustaining those assumptions. Where in your course are students allowed to reflect? How are they reflecting, and how does the reflection extend beyond to the content learned in the particular lesson?

Building both resistance and resilience in our classes tends to be unwritten — almost as if it were part of that hidden curriculum so many of us talk about but try not to at the same time. Both ideas are part of creating more inclusive futures and helping students engage in future-thinking practices. Return to your syllabus one more time and ask of it the following: where do I talk about the future? where do students get an opportunity to assess the future? where do students have the opportunity to imagine what they would like the future to be?

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