The syllabus: window into the professor’s psyche, contract, or vision for the future?

The NYTimes published an interesting opinion piece today called “My Syllabus, My Self.” In it, the author appears to be inspired by debates on trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc., enough so that she muses upon the nature of the syllabus as an historical document, as a physical object, as a contract, and as a window onto the professor’s expectations and even personality.

Like the author, I too have long thought of syllabuses as a lens through which to glimpse both the explicit and the implicit expectations of the professor. However, I would add to the author’s list of facets the fact that a carefully-crafted syllabus is also a vision of the students’ future and the professor’s plan of action to achieve it.

In other words, the article struck me as needing one more perspective–that of the student. A syllabus should also articulate what the professor believes the student will gain from her or his class: what skills or knowledge will the student attain? And how will the professor help her students attain them? We can debate about whether (and to what degree) syllabuses should be contracts, schools can mandate what sorts of policies we enumerate, and yes, the syllabus has become a politicized piece of communication, as the author of the article points out. But the syllabus should also be a look ahead, a projected outcome, that helps everyone progress in skills and knowledge.

Backward design” is the term frequently used by educators who think about the future of their students: what will the students walk out of the classroom knowing after the class, that they did not know when they went in? If we can establish that future endpoint, if we envision the completed building, for example, then we can start working on the assignments and sessions that will help us build the scaffolding necessary to erect the entire structure of student knowledge.

For additional resources on backward design and assignments aligned to the learning outcomes you seek, check out:

Wiggins, G. and J. McTighe (2005) Understanding by Design, and also a very helpful tutorial from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Educational Innovation.