Rethinking the syllabus… one learning outcome at a time

The semester has begun and now, three weeks into it, I feel as if I can finally catch my breath and get back to writing about teaching.

I had tried, and flailed, to keep up with Jim Groom and his band of merry pranksters and the #ds106 online storytelling course. I did what I could to keep up but was soon left breathless and panting on the side of the track while others hurtled by… By the time the end of January rolled around my attentions had to be focused on both HISP 205 and getting faculty ready for the new term. Alas I now can only watching the mayhem from afar.

There are a couple of things I learned thanks to #ds106 (aside from the fact that I cannot do it all), and there are few ideas I stole liberated from there for my own course, and I will report about them shortly.

In the meantime, I thought I might share a letter I sent to some of my faculty as we were gearing up for the new term. I am working with these faculty in a year-long collaboration with our language colleagues in a large university to our north-east. When we first met together as a larger group, there were many animated discussions about how the syllabi can be restrictive and confining; it can be less of a plan and more of a ball and chain if it ends up calculating every moment of your semester.

And yet, some said, we are creatures who like and need to plan, plan and plan some more. We are told our students need structure and expect a thorough, detailed syllabus. Our department chairs tell us they need to have a paper copy for our program reviews every few years.

As I knew that many of my colleagues were in their offices til late the weekend before the term, writing their syllabi, I thought I would send out a reminder about what we had discussed last fall. Below is the letter I sent.

Have any of you done something like this with your faculty? And if so, what was the response?

As always, I welcome your comments.


As we gear up for another semester, undoubtedly each of you has spent time crafting your syllabus…mapping out the days and the tasks and the grading schemes along with your fellow faculty or department members.

Before you hand them out to your students, we thought it might be helpful to remind you about the things we discussed as part of the xxx project…especially as it relates to the syllabus.

As you look at your syllabus and your plans for the semester:

~ Have you clearly articulated the learning outcomes you hope your students will achieve in your class?

~ Are there activities, exercises, events, readings, (the list goes on) to help your students move towards accomplishing the learning outcomes (vs going through exercises in the book because the department makes me use this book, so…).

~ Have you built in time in your course for scuba diving vs just snorkeling through the material? For example, if your students became deeply interested in one aspect of your course and wished to delve deeper…would your plans provide the time and the flexibility allow for that?

~ Have you made plans for incorporating spontaneous informal assessments into your class, and then the time to report back to the class on those findings?

~ If you are thinking about using technology in your class, will it serve to facilitate your students learning outcomes…or are you using it because you think you should?

~ Will your students be allowed to show you what they have learned via something other than a test or an essay?

Remember: I am around and happy to talk about teaching, and teaching with technology, any time. Let me know and have a great first week!


Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. triplingual · March 2, 2011 Reply

    I really like the way that you’re working with assessment and outcomes as foregrounded means of constructing a course. In my current flirtation with gamifying a language course (hypothetical, of course, since I do not teach), I sometimes think that it would be an interesting idea to expose course goals to class members and add both a meta-challenge of meeting the goals before the end of the term and a meta-goal of designing what the class would do after the other goals are met.

  2. Barbara · March 7, 2011 Reply

    Thanks for the comment, Trip. Indeed, that sounds very similar to how I teach this class…”Tell me where you want to go, and together we will figure out how to you get there…” For their final assessment, they need to ascertain whether they attained the goals they set for themselves and if so, how do they know they got there, and if not, why do they think they fell short?

    Is that what you are thinking about as well?

  3. Daniel Jiménez Sánchez · June 22, 2012 Reply

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