This paper (revised from 2003 and 2004) was presented in workshop and discussion form (Blue Pencil Café) to faculty at St. Thomas University on 25 August 2005 in Room 202, Brian Mulroney Hall.
Road Map -- A course outline may be seen by some as a road map. From this point of view, it tells students and teachers where they are going, how they will get there, and what are the stops along the way. As with any journey, the road map vision of the course outline can be flexible, subject to changes, and alternate routes can be taken once the journey has begun. That said, the journey must never be chaotic, and students have a right to know where they are at any particular moment, where they are going, and what they are going to see along the way. Student input is usually acceptable and alternate routes should be clearly signposted and approved by a substantial class majority.
Course Contract -- The course outline is considered by some to be a contract – unchangeable, unchanging – between student and teacher. However, such a description sometimes sees teaching as an automated transfer of a fixed body of knowledge rather than as an organic growth process in which student and teacher can make changes when, and if, necessary. There is nothing wrong with a rigid approach to course outlines; however, once the idea of outline-as-contract is established, then even the most authoritarian professor must be aware that both sides are bound by the contract.
Student Input -- If student input into the course outline is acceptable, then this should be clearly stated on the course outline. Special days, after tests or other set work is usually good, may be set aside for class discussion and input. Any changes made should be made with clear approval from a large majority of the class and obviously should be beneficial to the working of the class. Note too that student input is more acceptable at the third and fourth year level when students have a sense of their own needs as well as of the subject matter than at first year levels, when students have less knowledge of the subject matter and of university culture in general.
Exams and Tests -- No matter how one looks at a course outline, exams and tests should rarely, if ever, be rescheduled. Set dates should be respected at all stages since work schedules and room bookings are often made well in advance to account for set examination and test dates. The same is true for essay deadlines and other set dates as there is nothing more unsettling than to have dates changed at the last minute, with or without mutual consent. Such changes, especially if made at the last minute, often work against good students (often a silent majority) who have planned well and prepared ahead.
Two approaches -- These two approaches to course outlines -- course contract versus general roadmap -- (there are, of course, many more views of course outlines, including negotiated bargaining positions between student and teacher and negotiated scores for group work) may be considered the extremes to which the pendulum may swing: teacher control vs student control. At either extreme there is the potential for danger: too much teacher control may lead to a lack of student input and commitment; too much student control can lead to a watering down of course material and an errant, wandering route that leads nowhere. A happy medium should be sought; but this will vary with the skill and knowledge level of the individual teaching and the group being taught.
Flexibility and Change -- If a teacher is flexible and is willing to make student generated changes while a course is being taught, this must be stated clearly in the course outline. Rules dictating the manner in which the course may be altered should be established because sudden and unwarranted change (especially of tests and of written assignments) is a potential minefield, especially in larger classes where not all students attend all the time. Professors should also state clearly what figures they are referring to when they write, for example, that changes may be made by a majority of the class. Some professors like ALL students to agree to ANY change; others work with a two thirds majority; others with a simple democratic vote 50% + 1. Indeterminate phrases (absolute majority, clear majority, substantial majority) should be avoided or defined clearly!
Quantity and Quantity -- The perfect course outline often depends on the departmental or university culture. It is well worth while for younger faculty members to seek out a peer mentor who will initiate them into this culture; such a mentor might talk about office hours, work load, student absences, types of written and oral assignments, value of group work in that particular discipline, amount of material to be covered, type and style of reading to be expected ... It is most difficult for the beginning teacher to enter an established culture, often with high expectations from graduate school or another university, and to establish the perfect combination of quantity, quality, flexibility and discipline first time around.
THE OUTLINE ITSELF
Common Ground -- Common to most course outlines are the obvious: course name, teacher’s name, class times, outside of class contact times and places, scheduled rooms, dates of operation, number of classes, marking scheme, attendance policy, calendar description, expanded course description, other important policies (sickness and absence, for example, or nature and structure of group work).
The Professor -- In the course outline itself, professors may choose to write about themselves: name, title, degrees, publications, office, office hours, expectations, means and times of contact, office telephone, policy on home contact, policy on replying to emails.
The Course -- Professors may write about the course: calendar description, number, location, meeting times, expanded course description, way course fits in to professor’s research interests, pre-requisites, objectives, learning and teaching methods (where applicable), text book, availability of online sites and workbooks, work plan (scheduled readings and chapters), scheduled tests and essays, bibliography.
Marking Scheme -- Professors may write about the mechanics of marking: scheduled tests, essays, projects, group work, mid-term examinations, final examinations. A special comment may be necessary on group work, how it is perceived and how it is assessed. Detailed marking schemes -- the meaning of signs and symbols etc -- may also be explained when and where necessary. This is particularly necessary for those who use patented grammar assessment and correction techniques!
Terms and Policies -- Professors may explain specific terms and policies: attendance policy, policy on plagiarism, rules for participation, perils of absenteeism, policies on doctor’s certificates, permitted absences, absences with excuses, sport absences. Often, professors may choose to direct students to the appropriate calendar pages referring to these topics.
Mutual Expectations -- The idea of mutual expectations is becoming more important and reference should be made to the university policy on this topic as expressed in the calendar. It may be a good idea to establish a day in which class protocols and mutual expectations are discussed. An early discussion of this topic often avoids conflicts and behavioural problems later in the school year.
Group Work and Plagiarism -- Oscar Wilde once wrote that "To borrow from one author is plagiary while to borrow from many is research"! It is worthwhile to consider that, as more and more team work and group work is performed by our students, the fine lines between individual knowledge and group knowledge are being sharply eroded. Professors may well decide to open a class discussion at some stage upon this delicate topic. Alternatively, a clear definition of cheating, per se, may be offered. These are delicate issues and ones that I believe should be explored by the university community in much greater detail. This statement by no means contradicts the need for students to learn, as early as possible, correct citation methods for each subject as well as the necessity for establishing clearly the exact origins of borrowed and quoted material.
Detail versus Flexibility -- Some professors like to write brief outlines with a minimum of detail and a maximum of flexibility. Some like to plan their classes day by day, hour by hour. The choice is yours: but be aware of what you are doing and make your students aware of your aims and purposes too.
Expanded Course Outlines -- Some professors like to expand their outlines. Such expanded outlines might include place of course within program, job opportunities for students during term time or after graduation, progress to graduate school, how to write an essay, how to write a test, how group work is organized and marked. An expanded outline might also include essay topics, essay outlines, project outlines. There is no upper or lower limit and some course outlines read like books in themselves.
Circulation of Course Outlines-- Course outlines can be published in three different ways (1) printed and circulated by hand, in class; (2) published online on a professor's website; and (3) published on WebCT. Personally, I use all three methods, linking webpage and WebCT and circulating any changes by hand as well.
WebCT -- WebCT is excellent as a class communication tool and comments and discussion can be generated online with WebCT. In addition, changes to course materials or changes to the course outline can be announced on WebCT. It is, possibly, the single most effective way of establishing contact with students, especially with those who, for whatever reason, do not attend class regularly. The professor's use (or non-use) of WebCT should be stated clearly in the course outline. This is particularly true if regular announcements are made on WebCT and if students are expected to use it and react to it.
The course outline has become much, much more than just a course outline for it is also a key component of the professor’s teaching portfolio. Course outlines necessarily change over time. At the most basic level, they change because new articles, new books, are written every year. They change because dedicated teachers attend teaching workshops and teaching conferences which assist in their development and course planning. More: as teachers evolve, so their teaching skills evolve. Methodology changes. IT has developed, and is developing, at an enormous rate. We may choose to use IT or to ignore IT; however, we cannot deny its existence. In a changing world, do we, as teachers, change? Some choose to change and develop; others choose to defend older values and to develop teaching methods within older models. There is nothing inherently wrong with either stance. Nor is there anything wrong with establishing that stance in the course outline and explaining to the students what you, as a teacher, hope to do. And remember: keep your course outlines. They are invaluable for your teaching portfolio and demonstrate the progress that you, as a teacher, are making along your own chosen road.
See also STU teaching webpage.
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