Reviewing Syllabi

Some months ago, there was a flurry of articles related to a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), “Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them: Training Our Future Teachers.”  Maybe not a flurry, but I did see articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed and even The Huffington Post. I am sure that there are others.  Most of the articles announced the results and cited critics denouncing it – largely for inappropriate methodologies.  For example, The Chronicle offered a commentary by Donald Heller, Dean of Education at Michigan State University, wrote: “this one has fatal flaws that undermine most of the conclusions articulated in it.”

There is much to be said on this controversy.  There are complaints about the organization conducting the study, the data collection, the methodology and the conclusions asserted.  I don’t want to weigh-in on this study at all except for a narrow issue of some consequence for advising: the use of syllabi.  In the context of commenting on the Easy A study, Lauren Ingeno reports, “Leaders of teacher preparation programs complained that the review relied almost entirely on syllabuses, course descriptions and other ‘inputs’ rather than ‘outputs.’”  One dean she quotes adds, that a syllabus is “’a very, very thin and indirect determinant of what the students who take that course actually learn.’”

Of course, that’s correct, a syllabus is not a measure of learning at all. A syllabus is an indication of instructor intentions.  Moreover, within higher education, a course syllabus is widely taken to be a fairly reliable indication of instructor intentions.  Faculty, deans and others routinely rely on them in evaluating course content.  If an instructor departs too far from a syllabus, students rightly complain.  Advisors suggesting courses or placements to students need to rely on syllabi too.

Students learn – or fail to learn – many things in their courses.  Still, I find it hard to assert or imagine building a course or curriculum around a view that students reliably learn subject-related material other than matters detailed in the syllabus.  Quite commonly, success in, let’s say, Course B depends on knowledge, skills or abilities taught in the prerequisite, Course A. Not to rely on syllabi, at least for purposes of course articulation, is an affront to comity between different educational institutions.

In looking over syllabi, which is a day-in-the-life of advisors, or at least this one, we need to look beyond the broad proclamation of “learning objectives” or “outcomes” and drill down.  What are the readings? What are the assignments? How are students graded? And so on.  The question is what can a student be reasonably expected to learn from those readings and those assignments, well-assisted by lectures and feedback from grading.  Those are the essential questions for me in looking at and advising relative to a syllabus.

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