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Designing a Learning-Centred Course Outline

Learning-centred course outlines focus on the needs of students and their learning process (Brigham Young University, n.d.). By designing your course outline with students in mind, you will reduce the number of questions students have about your course and send the message that you have put a lot of work into developing the class. In Tools for Teaching, Davis (2009) provides tips for creating a comprehensive course syllabus that takes students’ learning into account. Here are some that stand out (pages 22-27):

  • Include more rather than less material. Your syllabus need not include all the components mentioned here, but experienced faculty agree that a comprehensive syllabus can be a valuable learning tool for students and can lessen their initial anxieties about the course. Be careful, however, not to include so many details about rules, contingencies, and dos and don'ts that the syllabus loses its intellectual focus (Collins, 1997; Garavalia et al., 1999; Grunert O'Brien et al., 2008, as cited in Davis [2009].
  • Provide basic information. Include the name• of the university, current year and term, the course title and number, the number of units, and the meeting time and location. Indicate any course meetings that are not scheduled for the assigned room. List your name (and what you prefer to be called), office address (include a map if your office is hard to locate), office phone number, department phone number, mobile phone (if you wish, and indicate whether you take voice or text messages), e-mail address, fax number, and office hours. For your office hours, indicate whether students need to make appointments in advance or may just stop in. Let students know your preferred mode of communication: e-mail, telephone, text message, or through the learning management system or a social networking site. Indicate the link for your Web page and the course Web page. List the days, hours, and access addresses for online chat, if your course has this component, and the mail-list for the class if you have established one. Include the names, offices, e-mails, phone numbers, and Web addresses of any teaching or laboratory assistants.
  • Note: You could provide a brief profile of yourself letting students know about your background and your research interests.
  • Describe the prerequisites to the course. Help students realistically assess their readiness for your course by listing the knowledge, skills, or experience you expect them to have already or the courses they should have completed. Give students suggestions on how they might refresh their skills if they feel uncertain about their readiness. Show how skills and knowledge from past courses will be used in your course. It is also helpful to clarify the target audience for the course: is the course required for the major in your field? Required for the major in other departments? A general elective?
  • Clarify the conceptual structure used to organize the course. Students need to understand why you have arranged topics in a given order and the logic of the themes or concepts you have selected. Describe the format or activities of the course.
  • Let students know the components of the course (for example, discussion sections, fieldwork activities, labs) and how they will be spending class time (listening to lectures? participating in small group work? giving oral presentations? collaborating online?). Select instructional activities inside and outside of class that reinforce the learning you want to encourage.
  • Schedule time for gathering feedback from your students. Set a time midway through the term when you can solicit from students their reactions to the course so far. See Chapter 52, "Early Feedback to Improve Teaching and Learning," for ways to get feedback from students. You might also include an example or two of how student feedback has improved the course. (Chen and Hoshower, 2003, as cited in Davis [2009]).
  • List important drop dates. Include on the course calendar the last day students can withdraw from the course without penalty.
  • Estimate student work load. Give students a sense of how much preparation and work the course will involve. How much time should they anticipate spending on reading assignments, problem sets, lab reports, or research? See Chapter 1, "Designing or Revising a Course." 
  • Include supplementary material as appropriate. For example, consider providing one or more of the following: tips on how to study, take notes, and prepare for exams glossary of technical terms lecture notes or study guides, bibliography of supplemental readings at a higher or lower level of difficulty in case students find the required text too simple or too challenging, copies of past exams, model papers, or projects areas of difficulty experienced by students in past classes, characteristics and behaviors of students who have done well in the past classes, information on the availability of webcasts or podcasts of lectures, a list of campus resources for tutoring, academic support, and time management, (including contact information, physical location, hours of operation), calendar of campus lectures, plays, events, exhibits, or other activities of relevance to your course. 
  • Include a statement on civility and academic freedom. Let students know that you expect them to listen to and respect points of view other than their own. Course content that may be controversial could benefit from a brief note that students' perspectives may be challenged and that they may encounter attitudes, opinions, and information counter to what they believe or think. (Parkes and Harris, 2002, as cited in Davis [2009]).
  • Describe procedures for emergencies. Indicate what to do if there is an earthquake, fire, bomb threat, or other emergency during class. Identify the location and phone number of campus security. Clarify notification procedures for inclement weather conditions which may force the cancellation of classes.
  • For the hard-copy syllabus, provide space for names and contact information of two or three classmates. Encourage students to identify people in class they can call if they miss a session or want to study together.
  • Provide a disclaimer. Let students know what aspects of the schedule may be subject to change (for example, guest speakers, some topics). Dates of exams and deadlines for assignments should not change. If the schedule does change, inform students as early as possible both in writing and orally in class. End the syllabus in a positive, upbeat fashion. For example, describe that the class will be a joint intellectual discovery. Or end with a meaningful quote, relevant graphic or cartoon, a final thought, or words of encouragement. (Matejka and Kurkc, 1994, as cited in Davis [2009]).

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