I had the final class planned out perfectly. I gave a summary lecture that pulled all the threads of the course together and connected them to the learning outcomes. I explained the structure of the final exam and gave tips for studying. And then I concluded: “It has been great teaching all of you this term. I will see you at the final exam.”
Finally, one student spoke up. “Professor Berdahl,” he said, “you do realize that the semester ends on Thursday and not today, right?”
Today’s installment of the syllabus design boot camp will help you create a course schedule that balances the course workload for you and your students – and helps you avoid embarrassing moments like the one I described.
Create a calendar format
To get started, simply create a calendar format. I use a basic table: a date column and then one column for each teaching day (i.e., three columns for a Mon-Wed-Fri course, two for a Tuesday-Thursday course, and one for a seminar or online course); a row for each week, including any break/reading week; and in each class day cell, headings for the topic, assigned learning materials (including readings) and due dates.
|(one row per week)
|(one row per week)
Another popular option is a weekly table that does not specify class days and instead uses the columns to highlight readings/learning materials and deadlines:
|Topic and Learning Outcomes
|(one row per week)
|(one row per week)
Build in all university-set dates
This step may sound obvious, but as my own experience demonstrates, it is possible to make mistakes here. Be sure to include:
- The first day of class.
- Any statutory holidays.
- The date of a break/reading week.
- The last day to withdraw from the course.
- The last day of class.
- Any other dates of note from your university’s academic calendar.
Determine the content topic and skill development ordering
In some courses, the organization of topics is straightforward: topic A must precede topic B, and so on. In other courses, instructors have a bit more discretion. If that is the case for your course, consider the following:
- What is a highly engaging element of the course content that you can position at the start of the semester to draw students in?
- What is a highly engaging element of the course content that you can position at the end of the semester to ensure the course finishes on a positive note?
If you included a skill development learning outcome, I encourage you to schedule this explicitly into your calendar. This can be through stand-alone classes during which you introduce students to the skill and then have them apply it through active learning. Alternatively, you can embed skill development within selected content classes. Either way, add these clearly to your calendar.
Once you have decided the basic order, add the topics and learning materials to the calendar. But don’t get too set on these dates, as you are about to make some adjustments.
Build in transition and/or buffer classes
Rather than plowing through content class after content class, consider building in times for transitions and/or buffers.
Transitions are useful for natural changes in the course content. For example, if you look at your course content and see that there are basically three large sections, you can schedule reflection classes between the sections. In these classes students can work together to summarize the content from the preceding section and connect them to the larger course learning outcomes.
Buffer classes are useful for catch-up in the face of unscheduled cancelled classes (due to instructor illness or childcare issues, university snow day/water main break closure or whatever life throws at you). These class periods can also be used to review a particular topic that students found challenging, or to allow you to realign with the course schedule if you fell off track. During the semester, if you find you don’t need the class (no cancelled classes, students are on top of everything and you are covering content according to schedule), you can use the buffer class for applied learning, student questions and review or simply cancel the class and replace it with additional office hours.
As you consider building in transitions and buffers, give thought to student (and your own) workload and well-being. Memorial University political science professor Amanda Bittner recommends building in reflection weeks to allow students more time to process content and catch up on material. You might find this idea works for your own course.
Once you have decided if and how you want to use transition and/or buffer classes, build these into your calendar. At this point you may find that you need to make some hard choices about content. The course learning outcomes that you established on Day 1 of this syllabus boot camp will help you clarify the “need to cover” from the “nice to cover.”
Add in assignment deadlines
On Day 3 of the syllabus boot camp, you selected your assignments. With the content schedule in place, you are now ready to add these to the calendar. Some considerations:
- Ensure that at least one significant evaluation component is graded and returned before the drop date.
- Watch the spacing between assignments – both to allow students reprieve between deadlines and you (or your teaching assistant(s)) reprieve between grading.
- Many instructors position a big assignment at the end of the semester. You may wish to buck this trend and assign your own big assignments earlier in the term.
- Give thought to the message being sent by the time of day of the deadline rather than simply accepting the typical default midnight settings on your learning management system. Consider being explicit about why you are selecting particular deadlines. (E.g., “Assignments are due at 1 p.m. because I grade in the afternoons.”)
- Pay attention to your own workload in selecting dates. If you don’t want to be grading over break week, don’t schedule an assignment to be handed in immediately before break week. Watch submission deadlines for your other courses, as well as other major deadlines in your own schedule (grant or manuscript deadlines, conferences, any personal items of note).
Review the course calendar as a whole
With all of the components in place, take a break and then revisit the course calendar as a whole. How does the workload look, both for you and for the students? Make adjustments as needed.
Your syllabus design boot camp homework
Here is your homework for today, all of which should take you less than an hour to complete:
- Create your calendar template (estimated time: five minutes).
- Add your university-set dates (estimated time: five minutes).
- Decide content-ordering and add to calendar= (E=estimated time: five to 15 minutes).
- Build in transition and buffer dates, then adjust content dates (estimated time: 10 minutes).
- Decide on assignment deadlines and add to calendar (estimated time: 10 minutes).
- Review and adjust as needed (estimated time: five to 10 minutes).
With these in place, you will be ready to add the final elements to your syllabus. We will cover that in our last day of the syllabus design boot camp.
Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation
Do you build buffers and/or transitions into your course schedule? Please let me know by commenting below or by connecting with me on Twitter at @loleen_berdahl and using the hashtag #SkillsAgenda.
I look forward to hearing from you. Stay well, my colleagues.