Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

Planning a Course

Planning a Course
It doesn't matter which discipline, all teachers are nagged by the same questions every time they're assigned a course.

What do I want my students to know?

What skills do you want your students to acquire? Jot down a list of 3-5 and think it over. Give some thought to how you would measure each skill, so you can be sure your students are sufficiently accomplished by the end of the semester. It helps if you edit your list of learning objectives every time you teach the course, and revise it in light of your experience last time out, to include any textbook changes you might make, and to incorporate something new you might want to try, like a field trip.

Which books should I use?
Is your course an introduction or an elective? How difficult is the reading? What's the optimum blend of textbook overviews, necessary to give students the big picture, and primary sources, necessary to engage them in the crucial details? Do you want to pick certain web sites for recommended reading? You will have to decide what works for you.

Whatever is appropriate, it's always helpful to introduce next week's reading in class, so students know what to look for when they go to the books. There are a variety of time-tested methods to ensure that students have grasped the key points: you can set a reading quiz, or ask them to write a short essay in class. The Internet provides a further alternative: you can direct students to continue class discussion by making postings to on an online forum.

Whichever methods you use, enlightenment won't come all at once! It is always helpful to repeat key points from earlier topics later in the semester. Reflection, response, and revision (think of the back and forth hum of a flatbed scanner) are the ways to deeper understanding. In their finals and their term papers, you will see how much they have really understood.

How many topics should I use?
You can aggregate issues into big topics, or you can give every issue its own topic. Many professors oscillate back and forth over the years, going from a new topic per week back to a new topic every two or three weeks. It's generally helpful if you keep to the same system across the different courses you teach.

Beware of dividing the course up into topics of equal length. It's always tempting to meter topics evenly and make the first topic easy and the last topic hard. However, students' attention spans and faculty patience are greatest in the first month of a semester, and decline rapidly thereafter; in the Fall semester as it gets colder and darker and students start to get sick; and at the end of the Spring semester as it gets warmer and students start to get distracted by one another and the prospect of summer.

It's a tricky task, and it doesn't always work, but it helps if you can get 3/4 of what you want to cover out of the way in the first 2/3rds of the semester. This will give you more time to deal with difficult material at the end of the course.

Do I grade on a curve or a fixed scale?
Grading on a curve means that whatever the distribution of scores in any one semester, the professor divides the distribution up in such a way that the proportion of As to Bs to Cs remains the same (roughly 25:50:25). Grading on a fixed scale means that the distribution of scores in any one semester does matter, and that some classes generate more As than others.

Many professors merge the two techniques; if they grade on a curve, they will allow themselves the discretion to award a few more As to a very good class; or if they grade on a scale, they will allow themselves the discretion to adjust the scale slightly up or down so as to bring this semester's grade distribution into alignment with previous semesters'.

Either way, you could indicate to students which method you use, and you might also mention which factor you use to break a tie when a student falls on the border between two grades - some common candidates are attendance and class participation, or performance on the Final.

What should my academic policies be?
Academic policies come beneath course requirements on the syllabus, but they are longer and more specific. You don't have to put them on the syllabus, but it helps to have thought through what you want to say when students ask. Here are some examples of issues where a policy might be useful:

Plagiarism policy
This can be a reminder of Fordham's policy (see the University Handbook) or it can be some examples of what you are on the look out for - for example, copying paragraphs from web pages and not properly attributing them. Most student plagiarism is the result of carelessness, so by pointing out how seriously you take the issue, you can ensure that your students pay more attention to their citations when they are proof-reading.

Internet sources
How are you going to treat Internet sources? Which web sites do you want to recommend? Do you want students to cite only from the Internet sources you put on the syllabus, or do you want them cite from their own sources too? For your purpose,are sources found in the proprietary databases in the library Internet sources or library sources? You might remind students that they can access the databases off-campus too, and that they can pick up a leaflet at the library telling them how to do this.

Attendance policy
How do you treat lateness or leaving early? Most faculty take attendance at the beginning to deter lateness, and wind up with the problem of students cutting out of class early. If this becomes a problem, you could try mixing it up, and occasionally take attendance at the end instead. Taking attendance at the beginning and again at the end is quite effective, although even then,you will still have to decide what to do about students who cut out of a class for half an hour. If you use a course site, you can always use an absence form to track the reason for absences and check this against the student's record of attendance at the end of the semester.

Laptops and cellphones policy
You could make it clear on the syllabus that you won't give credit for attendance to students who distract their classmates by doing their email in class or by persistently leaving to take or make a phone call. There will always be genuine emergencies, such as a child care issue for parents, and you will have to decide how you want to be notified about these. Pointing out this policy on the syllabus won't eliminate disruption from laptops and cell phones, and you will need to reinforce your policy from time-to-time by speaking to a student after class or contacting them by email. At the same time, having such a policy on the syllabus can reduce the instance of such disruptive conduct in the first place. When students know where their boundaries are, they're less likely to cross them.

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