Monday, January 21, 2013


Syllabus Bloat?

An alert reader sent me this piece by a professor complaining about syllabus bloat.  I had to smile in recognition.

In college, I don’t remember spending much time worrying about syllabi.  They’d typically be about a page, and would include the professor’s name, office number, office hours, the course title and number, sometimes a brief description of the topic of the course, a list of major (graded) assignments, some due dates, a list of required books, and maybe a late paper policy.  Many of them looked like they had been copied from copies from years before, and they may have.

In grad school, syllabi were even more bare-bones.  I remember one that was a half-page long, and students who had taken that professor before marveled that one existed at all.

Now, of course, syllabi are usually multiple pages, with much more mandated content.  Some of the new stuff is pretty unobjectionable -- email addresses are now standard, which seems reasonable to me -- but the new content often goes far beyond new versions of contact information.  If you were happy with the old version, the new version may seem cumbersome and unwieldy.  

Unfortunately for those of us who prefer brevity, there are actually good reasons for some of the expansion.  In other words, I don’t see the trend reversing unless and until we devise other ways to address the valid concerns that expanded syllabi address now.

As students have become more willing to challenge the grading judgments of professors -- and courts have become more willing to hear them -- it has become harder to fall back on the old “appeal to authority” as the answer to any challenge.  “Because I said so” doesn’t hold up in court. If a student comes forward with an allegation of some sort of irregularity in grading -- Susie got an extension but Johnny didn’t, say -- the first line of inquiry is the syllabus.  What rules did the professor set out at the beginning of the term?

From an administrative perspective, it’s usually pretty easy to defend anything that’s clearly stated, and not completely insane, on the syllabus.  If your syllabus says that you give four exams and count three, then that’s that.  If it says that late papers are penalized one letter grade per week, or that absences beyond the first three will result in set deductions, or that you drop the two lowest quizzes, then so be it.  When the ground rules are clearly stated and evenly applied, they’re easily defended from challenges.  

Things get trickier when the written terms are ambiguous or absent.  I can easily defend a determination that a student had more than three, or five, or eight absences.  I have a harder time defending a determination that her absences were “excessive,” if no other clarification is given.  Are two missed classes excessive?  Four?  What if your colleague in the same department allows five?  If a syllabus says that a professor “will” deduct points for lateness, that’s fine; if it says she “may” deduct points, I get nervous.  

The real nightmares are from rules improvised on the fly.  When a professor changes the rules of the course halfway through the semester, it’s much harder to defend, even if the changes are reasonable in themselves.  Sometimes that’s unavoidable, as when the original professor gets sick and someone else has to take over, but that tends to be the exception.  In practice, students tend not to contest deletions of assignments or extensions of deadlines, but they do contest additions.  

Of course, there’s a distinction between a syllabus for a given section and a generic syllabus for an entire course.  Ideally, the latter is devised by the entire department, and it gives room for customization.  The rule of thumb should be that the generic syllabus gives goals, and the specific syllabus gives means.  If the math department decides that fractions should be covered in the first developmental course, then the folks who teach the second one will assume that students have already had fractions.  If too many instructors at the first level decide to skip fractions, they’re setting up those students for failure.  Some level of agreement about content areas is necessary to make the sequence work.  (In my case, categories of what must be included in a syllabus are spelled out in the faculty union contract, but I know that’s not true everywhere.)

Where the boundary between generic and specific syllabi is can be a bit murky in practice, but the principle seems clear.  

Outcomes assessment adds another layer.  Again, here, the principle seems clear: students should know upfront what the goals of the course are.  How much specificity is needed to get the job done is a judgment call, but it’s hard to argue with the concept.  

I know it’s a pain to write them, but relatively detailed syllabi can save a world of time later.  If the policies about lateness, plagiarism, disruptive conduct, and the like are already spelled out, then backing them up is easy.  If the professor makes up policies on the fly, backing them up is a lot harder.  It may be inconvenient that we live in a world in which the old appeal to authority doesn’t work, but that ship has sailed.  Better to protect yourself upfront.

Specific grading policies are fine.

I have issues with putting "learning outcomes" or "assessment methods" on the syllabus. The distinction between a "learning outcome" and "what we grade the students on" is a fine one that this professor is still trying to wrap his mind around. It's been explained to me a few times by friends in the Teaching And Learning community (silly me, I thought that as a faculty member I was already involved in teaching and learning), but I still find it to be more subtle and confusing than some of the finer points of the Theory of Relativity.

I also have issues with copying and pasting university policy onto the syllabus. My institution has, thankfully, been pretty good about it, but I hear horror stories from elsewhere. Why should I paste the university policy on whatever onto my syllabus? Are there no manuals? No orientations? No websites? No catalogs? Students are good at figuring out what is fine print (even if we don't use a different font size) and ignoring it. The university is (hopefully) better than me at understanding, explaining, and promulgating its legal fine print. Having me paste it onto the syllabus and print it out just wastes paper.
"clearly stated and evenly applied" [emphasis added]

A point my Dean repeats as often as possible, and for good reason. It does make everyone's job easier.

As for bloat, yes, my syllabus is 6 pages, and I've pushed a few things now required by the college into 10 pt Arial to keep it that way. I have a colleague whose syllabus is TEN pages and growing every year. I think a comparable one from the distant past would have been two pages.

I have no problem adding Learning Outcomes, since they are specific and relevant to my class. But the other things? As you note, they exist elsewhere (although I have my doubts if one "essential" item is in official policy). So why not have a single URL for the college that lists those mandatory items with live links to the on-line version of the policy or the web site of the entity mentioned? Then we just include that single URL in our syllabus and done with it. Better yet, no revisions needed at the last minute when some policy is changed on high.
Amen, and hallelujah on the problem of "syllabus creep." Practically every administrative office on my campus wants me to add their multi-paragraph blurb to my syllabus. If I actually did that, my syllabus would be 10 pages long BEFORE I ever got to mentioning anything about my specific class. Much of it is worthy stuff in its own right, but there has to be a better way.

Then too, in the era of course management systems, the boundaries of "syllabus" are a bit hazy. I have a document labeled "syllabus" on file in my department and I post that on my course page. I also have a section on that course page called "course home," where I post, link to, or reference all manner of other University policies, offices, services, expectations, etc, with a quick one-line reference to them in the syllabus-document. Are those part of my "syllabus" too? I'd argue they are, functionally speaking. They are officially posted, available up-front, and serve to inform students of (perhaps) important information. Doing this helps keep my "syllabus" clutter-free, while still complying with administrative demands to communicate all this other stuff to students.

Hell my HS Syllabus is 9 pages... Most of it is insane, but does save with problems if anything comes up.
I've handled "syllabus creep" in my courses by 1) having a separate document labeled "course policies" that is available on the course blackboard site but which is a different document than the "course syllabus." Students are required to read/understand both, but I don't like my "syllabus" cluttered with lots of legalistic crap. That said, I also include references to the most important things - the disabilities policy, the honor code, etc., on the actual syllabus, with links to the full university language. There are ways to distill those "very most important" things into a sentence or two, and then to include a link to the full policy. My typical syllabus with absolutely necessary stuff plus a schedule of what happens class period by class period is 4 pages (with the schedule stuff double-spaced for ease of reading). The course policies document with all the legalistic stuff about attendance policy, technology policy, the policy/procedure for course evaluations, what a "grade" means,weird crap about how things count for the education majors, definitions of what plagiarism is and isn't... it's clocking in around 8 pages. And that is TOO LONG. But you know what? It's all about CYA. And at least I've found a way to handle that stuff without cluttering the point of the course - which I do believe the syllabus should represent - up with that stuff. And having a "course policies" document means that I just add the same exact document to all my courses in 1 minute by uploading it into blackboard - and I only revisit that one document maybe every 4-5 years (or when there is a new administrative fiat). But I don't pretend that those "course policies" are the main event in any course I teach or syllabus I create, and that makes me feel better about it.
I feel bad for today's students because all of this stuff amounts to treating them like babies. For the sake of the few who won't go to orientation or read the student manual (if that even exists any more), we march the rest of them through this wilderness of rules. And you know what often gets lost? good advising. No individual syllabus will tell you how to get to graduation without wasting any time.
Here at Proprietary Art School, we too have seen syllabus “bloat” in recent years. Just about every quarter, the administration wants us to add more details to our syllabi—drop dates, add dates, registration dates, attendance policy, definitions of what is meant by cheating and plagiarism, EEO statements, disability services, counseling services, even a definition of what is meant by a credit hour. I suspect that soon we will have to put a whole bunch of stuff on outcomes assessment in there. Our syllabi are now so long that I often quip that they are now like a Russian novel, and you have to read through a whole bunch of dross to find the relatively small amount of material in there that actually refers to the course that the syllabus purportedly describes.

I guess that the primary reason for the bloated syllabus is the increasing litigiousness of our society—you have to try and protect yourself against even the remotest possibility that you could be sued over something that you put in your syllabus, or perhaps more important, something you left out of it. If you didn’t spell out in great detail just about everything that happens and manage to cover in advance just about every contingency that could possibly happen, there are gaggles of lawyers waiting to pounce. So my syllabi tend to read like legal documents, full of legalistic jargon written by lawyers rather than by educators.

One of the potential advantages of the MOOC is objective grading, which does away with some of this bureaucratic underbrush. Who cares if a student was late, or how many times he watched a lecture, or if he skipped some lectures? What counts is what you actually know at the end of the course.

Back at Famous Technical University the story was when Genius Professor had been an undergrad there, he had registered for a full load of courses one semester, never went to any class, showed up for finals, and aced them all. He was awarded straight As, full credits.

Although it's not a model to build upon, I guess that qualifies as a "learning outcome."
As Dean of my Division, I have contributed to 'syllabus bloat', but they are primarily for the reasons stated. Faculty generally hate writing documents that sound more like legal contracts, but they feel better about it when they are challenged and the details are specified in the syllabus. As others have noted, it is now relatively uncommon to hand out a thick paper syllabus; the document is available on the course management system.

I also disagree w/ Alex regarding explicitly posting learning outcomes. The problem tends to be that too many faculty only give lip service to stated learning outcomes. They feel that they have their course figured out and the students will get what is important. Maybe so, but it is commonly not explicit. That is certainly the case for outsiders, specifically evaluators and accreditors. Speaking for myself, I found it enlightening to have to sit down and really work on the learning outcomes for my courses. It usually led me to re-write them to reflect reality, but then the outcomes were much more useful for me, the students and outsiders.
You know, the longest a syllabus can be and still be skimmed by 80% of the students is an empirical question.

First, congratulations on successfully imbibing the kool-aid. Don't worry, the space ship will be here any second now.

I've been trying to parse out the distinction between saying "Week 7: Discuss energy conservation in class, do homework problems in which you apply this concept" (which is already on the syllabus, in the schedule of topics, readings, and assignments) and saying "Learning outcome: Student will be able to apply Conservation of Energy to problems in classical mechanics." Apparently it's a distinction of great importance to certain educrats, but I've never figured out the profound distinction for myself, let alone in a form that would be meaningful to students. It is completely obvious to anybody who knows anything about physics that we study this concept so that we can apply it, and the homework (um, excuse me, Graded Learning Assessment) asks students to apply it to physical situations.

If you want me to dress it up in buzzwords so that you can please some group of fellow educrats, fine, every middle-class professional has to do some tedious exercises to satisfy bureaucrats. But let's not pretend we're doing something profound here.
We get the same thing at high school. Every course outline has to reiterate the school attendance policy, homework policy, cheating policy…

It makes far more sense to have institution-wide policies on a separate document. My course outline should just need to mention that the policies are in the student handbook (which every student gets). Why should I have to retype 4-5 pages of policies? (Retype because admin won't provide teachers with the policies as a computer file…)
We have a limited copy budget so I put all of the policies and marking schemes on our CMS with indications on the syllabus that's where they should look. As Dr. Crazy suggests, having that separate from the syllabus helps the students focus on the class when they review the syllabus. I really appreciate how the separate policies documents speeds my occasional updates of the same. You can take advantage of the CMS quiz function and create a policies quiz if you really want to drive the points home.

My syllabi are one-page affairs except for the senior seminar where I use two sheets. I could trim that down to one but I use the extra page to include all the term's discussion questions, presentation topics and a self-evaluation form they use in the course.
Alex got me to thinking. This whole outcomes assessment thing really grinds my ass.

I am currently teaching a college-level physics class at Proprietary Art School. The emphasis is on kinematics and dynamics, with the goal being to be able to solve simple problems in Newton’s laws, energy conservation, momentum conservation, plus problems involving constant acceleration and projectile motion. Sort of standard stuff for a freshman physics class in many other colleges and universities, with the difference being that there is no calculus and no lab.

How might I do outcomes assessment for my physics course? One might naively think that an acceptable set of rubrics might be to demonstrate the ability to solve simple problems in Newtonian mechanics, which is what the syllabus says is the learning objective for this class. This could be fairly easily measured by an appropriately constructed final exam, and the grades that the students receive would be an accurate measurement of how well that they have met these rubrics.

But this is apparently not good enough. A directive came out from our assessment office that imposes a quite different set of rubrics on us—ones that are much more general and which are at a much higher level. According to the new set of rubrics, we must now measure how good students are in making connections, how effective they are in communication, how well they do critical thinking, and how well they do research. The use of these rubrics would presume that my physics class was actually designed to teach these things, rather than merely to teach my students how to solve mechanics problems. Assessment has been effectively decoupled from learning objectives—the assessment rubrics are now so general and are at such a high level that we are asked to try and measure things that are not taught in the course.

How do I shoehorn all of this into my physics class? I gather the only way that I could do this is to assign a research paper to the students in my physics class. But I think that assigning a research paper would be at cross purposes to the learning objectives in my physics class and would be a major distraction. In addition, I am not an English or a Social Sciences professor, and I do not feel competent to pass adequate judgment on any papers that my students might write.

These sets of rubrics are apparently imposed on us by a bunch of education bureaucrats from corporate headquarters, and we as instructors working in the trenches had no role in their construction. Outcomes assessment is often presented to us as some sort of threat—if you stubborn and recalcitrant faculty members don’t come up with some sort of acceptable assessment rubrics, some will be imposed on you from the outside. This is apparently what has happened.

ArtMathProf, it sounds as if the higher-ups who have imposed those wacky outcomes on you are either from the marketing department (although I have no idea why any student or parent would be seduced by this) or more likely from the folks responsible for passing accreditation milestones. But they read the wrong guide. These types of outcomes sound like the worst edu-speak from K-8 schools.
Anon 2:50 says : “We get the same thing at high school”
What? Course Outlines in High School? AWW, the horror…

I don’t know speak edujive, but I suspect that my institution has confounded Course objectives with learning outcomes, because the syllabus goes like this:
Course objectives:
When completing this course, the student will be able to:
Use a formula, calculate this and that, solve problems of this or another that.

I recall the first syllabus I wrote, and silly me wrote something like:
In this course the student will:
Be introduced to this theory, make comparisons between this and that, discuss the different blah, blah ….
I was loudly chastised: “can’t measure that stuff…”

He then goes on to say “Why should I have to retype 4-5 pages of policies? (Retype because admin won't provide teachers with the policies as a computer file…)”

LOL. I am aghast, I always thought my admins were borderline lunatics. We are denied computer files for several items at school.
I put an end to the retyping of syllabuses, by having a course schedule which varies each semester, and a course syllabus which describes the topics and course objectives.

Mind you, one of the items in the Teacher evaluation form distributed to students asks: Did the teacher distributed course outlines? There was a particular group of students where all students but one said yes. LOL—No, no course outline for you!!!

My serious comment is I simply don't understand how a University would think a document on the CMS has a snowball's chance in the Sahara of being available if a lawsuit is filed. Ours is maintained (if that is the word) off campus, is swept clean on a short cycle, and I've been told that all files not migrated to the new version were lost forever.

My less serious remark is that the Dept of Redundancy Dept must be in charge if they think "student" has to be in the Learning Outcome. Or do they think it might mean "Instructor will be able to apply Conservation of Energy to problems in classical mechanics." if you don't put students in there? Hmmm?

BTW, the guilty parties are not from marketing, they have degrees in Education Leadership or some such nonsense and wouldn't know enthalpy from entropy from enteritis.
ArtMathProf @3:24PM -

We have something similar at my college (meaning some high level outcomes that are college-wide) but there is no expectation that all of them are met in every course. The expectation is that every student is required to meet them at several points across their entire degree program. For example, ours has a mathematics requirement that no one in their right mind would assess in English 101, any more than College Algebra has to have a term paper.

Don't sell "problem solving" short. That is critical thinking at a level that blows the minds of people who can't deal with mathematics. It also requires clearly communicating logical analysis in words, mathematics, and diagrams.
ArtMathProf- one of the things I got out of physics was the ability to facilely categorize problems as "solvable if you have the math to do so" or "missing key variables". I'd argue this falls under "critical thinking".

Also, for "making connections", the internet tells me there's a pretty important connection between Newton's laws and conservation of energy. Yet you wrote of them as different topics (and indeed, I think they are generally taught as such). Understanding enough of the physics so that one can see how different principles can be applied to the same topic or problem-set might be the ticket there.

Full disclaimer- I've never had to write a learning objective for an academic subject (hint: writing them for physical skills is easier, albeit sometimes hilariously obvious).
The main thing where I use 'may deduct' in grading is that (at least in higher-level courses) I don't deduct points for lateness if I get it before I actually start grading, because it seems pointlessly bureaucratic to do so.

That's just one example of an important category of objectively defined but not independently checkable decisions -- if what you want is independent verifiability, you should probably make that clear.
Strangely enough, my sister commented on this just thing the other day. She is almost done with her MS in Nursing and is taking a class with another university system school right now. Her syllabus is 43 pages. Not even kidding.
It makes far more sense to have institution-wide policies on a separate document.
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