This section offers tips and strategies on course design, with particular attention to constructing and using learning goals to select readings, shape assignments, and plan activities. We offer suggestions for logistical preparation, and guidance for designing a syllabus. Finally, we wrap up the section by addressing gradebooks and recordkeeping.
- Before You Conceptualize
- Course Design
- Teaching Your Research (or Not)
- Creating Assignments and Assessments
- Flexibility in Your Course
Before you begin conceptualizing your course, make sure you know how much flexibility you will have in the course design, in what mode your class will meet (face-to-face, hybrid, online, etc), and what departmental or college requirements your class has and/or fills. Regardless of the type of course you’re assigned, it’s a good idea to ask for sample syllabi from your campus department and from other colleagues as a reference point.
When designing a course, you’ll need to budget time to consider how you will organize readings and assignments to satisfy learning outcomes, either those mandated by the department or that you create yourself. Planning a course from scratch is time-consuming, but also rewarding, as it offers you an opportunity to teach your interests and research (more on this later).
You may be assigned a course that has certain required components—including textbooks, particular lessons or units, or assignments—but that also may allow you space to teach topics of your choosing. Any requirements should be clearly communicated to you by your departmental contact. If not, ask for clarification about what kinds of flexibility you have in the course.
If you are adapting the course from one previously taught in your department, it’s especially important to try to get a copy of the existing syllabus and reach out to any colleagues who taught it in its previous iteration. What worked, and what didn’t? Consider asking them about what they might change, if they had the chance to teach the course again.
Some departments will require you to teach a syllabus and course materials that are already set in stone, or that allow very little space for modification. You should feel comfortable asking other faculty in the department why the course is organized the way it is, and when the syllabus was last revised. You should read through the assigned readings and see if the logic aligns with your understanding of the discipline, or whether your approach to the topic is in tension with the one currently represented by the course.
If you are receiving your course rather than constructing it yourself, it’s important that you understand the implicit assumptions the course is making about how knowledge is constructed in your field. If you disagree with the argument—say, for instance, if you are teaching a literature course where diverse voices are underrepresented, or a psychology course where students are expected to uncritically engage with theories you find problematic—you might raise your concerns with a trusted colleague at the Graduate Center, or on the campus where you’re teaching, or with TLC staff.
If you have been appointed as a teaching assistant for a course, you may have little say in determining the structure or contents of the course, but you can (and should) engage in dialogue with the instructor about the pedagogical rationale behind the course, and how you might best support the instructor and the students in the class and perhaps take a lead on designing the structure of your discussion section. Developing a strong, collegial relationship with the faculty member of record is important, and will allow you to ask questions that can improve both your teaching and your experience in the course.
For more information about teaching in specific disciplines and at different course levels (introductory, intermediate, advanced), see our TLC Guide to Teaching in the Disciplines.
It’s important to think about the “audience” for your course. Why are students taking your class? Is your course a requirement? Are there prerequisites students need to complete prior to taking your course? Many courses are built upon prerequisites and it can be helpful to acquire some knowledge about what courses your students may have already taken before enrolling in your course. Remember, though, that while a course may presuppose that students will have a certain skill set, it’s not always the case that they do. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consider prerequisites as you plan, but also to anticipate how you’ll support students with different levels of preparedness for your course. You should also consider how your department is situated within the college to develop a sense of what students may expect to get from their time in your course and/or in your discipline.
- Does the department where you are teaching offer a major, and if so, how many students are in the major?
- Or is it one that’s often referred to as a “service department,” which offers introductory or skills-based courses to students who will then major in other disciplines?
- Will the majority of students in your course pursue careers in different fields?
When designing your course, it’s useful to think about why students might be in that particular class at that particular time, and how the experience may fit into their course of study and their lives. Understanding where your course fits within the department’s curriculum and your students’ college experience can help focus your efforts. It is important to remember that both non-majors and majors will likely come in with differing levels of preparation, needs, and interests.
Another other reason that students may find themselves in your class is because of when it’s scheduled. CUNY students are busy. Many work at least part-time, and squeeze coursework in between jobs and responsibilities at home. As such, CUNY’s classrooms tend to look different at different times of day: if you teach early in the morning or after 5 p.m. you may have a larger number of older students who work full-time. If you teach during the day, your class may consist mainly of younger students who recently graduated from high school.
You’ll be able to glean a lot of this information from looking at your class roster on CUNYFirst, but this is also a great thing to ask students about directly during the first week of class. As part of class introductions, it’s often revealing to ask students why they chose the class, what they’re interested in learning, or other casual questions connected to their goals for the semester. This helps you get to know the class and also provides an opportunity to make some adjustments to what you cover or how you frame it based on student interest. Consider creating an anonymous survey using a tool like Google Forms or PollEverywhere to collect this information. For more information about using digital tools in your course, see chapter 7.
In order to best prepare to support your students, you might ask yourself the following questions:
- If yours is the one foreign language or political science course students will take on the path to becoming an accountant or a physical therapist, how might that affect the design of the course?
- If you are teaching a composition or writing-intensive course, how might the likely majors and career paths of your students influence the types of writing assignments you design?
- If you are teaching in a STEM field, is this a required course that students will need to apply to graduate programs and will they need to earn a certain grade to get accepted?
There are a number of ways to approach the process of designing a course, and you will likely refine your method frequently over your teaching career. Regardless of which approach(es) you use, it is helpful to keep in mind the core aspects and work back and forth across them. These should each be included on your syllabus:
- learning goals and objectives,
- course narrative or argument,
- calendar/schedule, and
- course policies.
If you are teaching a course such as a language or math course where certain units need to be completed by certain points in the semester, you might start your planning by plotting those dates on a course schedule. Doing so may help you get a sense of the pacing that will be required, and help you begin to identify where you may have some flexibility in assignment design or instructional method.
Starting to plan your course through an examination and consideration of your learning goals and working back from those goals to make decisions about content and assignments is known as backwards planning (or design). Backwards planning can help you sequence and scaffold the class, as it invites you to think not only about what you want to cover in the course but also how you will know that students have engaged with or learned the material being covered.
Some questions to consider in backwards planning:
- How will students demonstrate their progress? In other words, what kind of assignments or activities will they be asked to accomplish and how will that work help students satisfy each learning objective?
- How will you evaluate whether or not students reach the objectives? What assessment criteria will you use?
- How can you create space for students to set and pursue their own goals within the context of your class?
A learning goal is a statement of what an instructor or program aims to do in a class, during a particular class session, or by completing an assignment. Learning outcomes are expectations of what students will be able to do after they’ve completed a learning sequence. Think of learning outcomes as the skills or set of competencies that students will take away from your course. These can be tied to big conceptual understandings and skills that are important to students who are taking required courses as well students majoring in the discipline alike: outside of the content and information of the course, what skills, processes, methodologies, etc. will students learn that can be applied across fields?
Your department may already have goals or outcomes identified for your course. If they do, seek a clear understanding of these objectives while you’re doing your planning. Also think about any goals or objectives that are central to your understanding of the material, or to your teaching philosophy, that you want students to engage with by the end of the semester.
The following guidelines can help you create strong learning goals:
- Goals should be formulated to be as specific to your course and discipline as possible.
- If you are going to assess student learning goals separately, then list them separately.
- Use active verbs that represent a student’s ability to do something related to the course.
The verbs “understand” and “know” may be too broad. “Define,” “develop,” “build,” “explain,” “compare,” and “utilize” are examples of more active verbs that place the student in the role of the producer of knowledge.
When you clearly communicate learning goals to students, not only do you make assessment and course design easier, but you also give students a map and a clear sense of what’s expected of them, and introduce multiple ways and motivations to engage activities and material.
A syllabus is both a practical document and a pedagogical one. Practically, the syllabus communicates key information and course expectations. It should let students know what will be expected of them, what policies they need to be aware of, and how they will be evaluated and supported. Pedagogically, your syllabus makes explicit the structure of the course, offers your students an arc for the semester, and highlights guideposts to help your students navigate along the way.
In general, your syllabus should include:
- basic information (course name and number, where and when the course meets, campus, semester, and year);
- your name and contact information (how and when to contact you);
- course description (your own and/or the department’s);
- learning goals;
- course materials;
- grading breakdown;
- course policies (attendance, late assignments, technology, etc.);
- campus policies (plagiarism, accessibility accommodations, sexual misconduct, etc.); and
- course schedule (a calendar with readings and assignment due dates).
Below are two model syllabi which represent two approaches to crafting this document. One is a straightforward, text-based document which lays out of the structure and expectations for a class. This approach will be familiar to most readers. The second model is what is called a “visual syllabus,” an approach to syllabus design which some students may find more inviting, absorbing, and accessible than familiar blocks of text. No matter which approach you choose, ensuring that your syllabus is clearly organized and readable is crucial to making sure that all students have a chance to begin the semester with an understanding of how the work of the course will proceed.
Beyond covering the essential components and logistical information about your course, your syllabus should also articulate your course’s narrative or argument.
In addition to thinking about the syllabus as a practical document, you can be intentional by developing your syllabus as an artifact that establishes the narrative or argument of the class. This argument may be presented directly in the syllabus in a “course description” paragraph or may be communicated through unit titles, thematic or conceptual considerations, the reading list, or other choices. The more specific and explicit you can be about the rationale behind your choices and intentions, the better. The course description can also give students a sense of what your values are and what makes your course distinct, as well as introduce elements of your teaching philosophy. Thinking through the syllabus as an argument for and of your course can be an especially helpful tool when trying to select readings. A syllabus with a strong narrative or argument presentation can also form the basis of a study guide resource for your students.
You might also consider inviting students to help shape or contribute to the trajectory of the course by soliciting their input on reading selections, assignments, and course policies. For instance, you might offer choices for when students complete an assignment, or offer students the opportunity to select topics or readings for a unit. The more students feel connected to the course’s narrative, the more likely they are to actively participate and learn. Welcoming student input on class content and policies can cultivate for students a sense of ownership over the course that enhances the experience for everybody, and makes a transformative learning experience more possible.
Make your syllabus as accessible as possible, in as many ways as possible. Hand it out in class, and post it to your course website or on Blackboard. If you make any changes during the semester, be sure you distribute and upload the revised version. Consider keeping parts of the syllabus as a “live document” or creating a system where students might write notes or make other annotations to it—built-in exercises or invitations to return to the syllabus can help keep both course policies and the course narrative fresh in everyone’s mind. It’s also important to ensure that your syllabus is accessible to students who use screen readers or other assistive technologies. Further information and resources are available through CUNY Assistive Technology Services (CATS).
To help make your syllabus readable, carefully consider what information you want to include and be mindful of the length of the document. Use headings to break up a long document, and be sure to keep in mind a clear purpose for the syllabus by asking yourself what belongs on your syllabus (class policies, structure, and expectations), and what might work better as a separate document (supporting documents, assignment details, resources). Both in the layout and at the start of class when you go over it, teach your students how to read your syllabus.
Designing a course is often as much a process of taking away or cutting down material as it is adding readings and assignments. Being specific and intentional in what you select and why can help you decide what to pare down. When looking at the assigned readings for a given day, ask yourself, “What does each of these readings accomplish? Why am I assigning it? What would happen if I omitted this reading?" There are other workarounds like assigning different readings to different subgroups; or enfolding material into a lecture rather than assigning it to the students to read.
Write down the dates that your course meets during the semester (usually twice or three times a week for fifteen weeks, though some of the community colleges have a different schedule). Refer to the campus’s academic calendar to make sure you note when you won’t meet (holidays, breaks, a Wednesday that becomes a CUNY Tuesday, etc.) From this calendar, you can begin to plug in your major assignments (and any scaffolded steps and due dates) and readings.
Using the calendar as a guideline, begin to think about how you want to divide material, taking note of how the experience of the class flows through the calendar:
- Are you teaching in units or modules? (Sometimes dividing the semester into smaller, discrete chunks can help with your planning.) If so, pencil them in.
- Are there any extended breaks as the result of holidays? If so, how could you plan your course to make best use of that time? How can you include flexibility for holidays some students but not all students observe, like Rosh Hashanah, Eid, or Lunar New Year?
- What are the likely times your students will have major due dates in other classes, or may need a break from high stakes assignments?
- How might you distribute feedback and graded work throughout the semester so that you remain in varied and regular communication with your students?
- What would be key times during the semester to check in with students who are struggling or haven't been present often or at all?
Once you have the dates penciled in, return to the goals you have for the course: what do you want students to walk away with, and how will you incorporate it into your class?
Tip: Post materials to your course site or to Blackboard as early as possible. You’ll still have to make changes and modify the course as it runs, but if you can get as much of the work generating and organizing material out of the way before the semester, it will save prep time during the semester.
Some things to keep in mind as you fill out your calendar:
- Be aware of your own deadlines, and stagger due dates when you can. Staggering due dates is especially important when teaching multiple classes.
- Think about how long it takes to respond to student work (and how heavy it makes your bag if you are using paper submissions/exams).
- Keep in mind the requirements of the assignment and how much time you want to offer students to complete it. If you introduced the material on a Tuesday, do students have enough time to understand and implement that material for an assignment due on Thursday, or would they benefit from the weekend?
- Build in time (and due dates) for the scaffolded steps leading up to your big assignments (see next section).
Once you’ve decided on your course schedule, think about when and how you’ll prepare for individual class meetings:
- How much can you get done before the semester starts?
- When will you make time each week to set aside for class preparation?
- Can you schedule office hours directly before or after the class period? This way, you can either use them to prep for class, or get a head start on responding to and grading student work.
Keep in mind that course preparation can expand to fill as much time as you have available to do it. You will be planning the structure of each class session in addition to doing the assigned readings, grading, managing student communication, and designing activities and assignments. However, as a graduate student instructor balancing many commitments, you may not always have as much time to prepare for class as you might like. Alternatively, you may find yourself over-preparing, running out of time in class, and not being able to cover all that you had planned. Be realistic and flexible about the amount of reading you ask students to complete, and adjust if needed. If students are overwhelmed by the reading, they may be less enthusiastic about participating in class discussions and activities.
Managing your time includes balancing class preparation with your own research and coursework. When you plan out your work time, you may find it useful to identify what your goals are for particular class meetings. Some use a time management tool like the Pomodoro/Marinara method to help track their time on task. You might also consider creating a focused work environment by checking your email only at scheduled times during the day and/or using social media blocking apps or timers limiting the time spent on these apps.
Tip: Always make sure that you have well-organized backups of your materials on your computer or in a file organizer/cabinet. Consider creating a “Teaching” folder with subfolders by the semester, by each class, and then by document type (syllabus, readings, assignments, etc). The semester will go by quickly, as will the years, and having a clear, consistent method of organizing your materials will be invaluable as your teaching career evolves.
Course policies help establish the tone and expectations for your class. As you begin to think about the policies central to your class, be sure to consider your (or your department’s) expectations about the following:
- Will you accept late assignments? If so, is there a penalty for submitting material late?
- What are your goals for students’ use of technology in your course? How will you balance the need for technology in the class and protection of your students’ privacy?
- In-class Policy Example: Laptops and cell phones can be used to take notes and participate in class activities. Personal use of devices in class is discouraged and will decrease participation grade.
- Online Policy Example: Cameras are not required for online class meetings*, but you are encouraged to turn your camera on to participate in class discussions and breakout rooms.
- * It is best practice to allow students to leave their cameras off if desired when they are attending an online class. We cannot require students to turn on their cameras when in personal spaces.
- What does a student need to do to be marked as "present” in your class?
- What counts as “participation”? Will that be graded separately and, if so, using what criteria?
- Do you have specific policies for exam days or paper submissions?
- Do you have any classroom etiquette policies?
- Is there space for inviting students into the process of determining policies and expectations for your class?
These policies should be clearly stated on your syllabus so that students know what to expect. Policies should also be uniformly implemented as they are written. Avoid stating one thing on your syllabus and doing another, as this is unfair to students and can cause anxiety and confusion.
If you teach in-person or online synchronously, there are many different ways you can choose to handle student attendance. Here are a few options to consider, though they each come with their own set of benefits and disadvantages.
- Mandate attendance. A common version of this approach is to allow students a grace period of a certain number of missed classes (perhaps one or two weeks’ worth of classes), after which each additional missed class lowers the student’s grade by a certain number of points. Some instructors with this policy permit extra “excused” absences with no penalty (e.g. absences that the instructor deems are for a good reason, with required proof, such as a doctor’s note). This policy can be implemented, for example, by calling out names at the start of each class, by passing a sheet of paper around on which students write their names, or by using entrance/exit tickets (students complete a short assignment or written activity at the beginning or end of class, and turn it in in order to be marked as present for that day).
- Incentivize attendance. For example, you might offer students extra credit for perfect or near-perfect attendance, or give students points for each class attended, which can or cannot be made up in other ways. Alternatively, this article suggests allowing each student to choose at the beginning of the semester whether they would like to follow an incentivized attendance policy or a mandatory attendance policy, and then holding that student to the policy they chose for the rest of the semester.
- Don’t take attendance. This approach does not reward students for coming to class, nor does it penalize students for missing class. You may still choose to discuss class attendance with students, explaining when and why it is or is not important to come to class. You may even ask students to agree to come to class as often as they can, using an honor system like a class contract or agreement. Make clear to students ways that they can “show up” to class besides their physical presence, such as participation and engagement in online activities or discussions.
As an instructor, you may have the opportunity to choose both what your students read, how much they read, and what they do with that reading. Steve Volk, director of the Center for Teaching, Innovation and Excellence at Oberlin College, offers some questions to guide your selection process:
- What do you want the reading to do?
- Where does the reading come in the course, and will this impact your students’ ability to complete it?
- Can less reading be more impactful?
- If students are novices in our field, how should that impact our expectations for their reading?
There’s no magical number of pages that’s perfect for each and every course or class meeting. As you consider how many pages of reading to assign, make sure you’re clear–both in your planning and when you communicate with your students– about what kind of reading you expect students to do. If you’re assigning a brief reading, you might ask students to engage in close reading—carefully examining the language and rhetoric of a text—and annotating carefully.
If you’re assigning something a bit longer, like a book chapter, you might ask them to skim for the main ideas, or isolate 1-2 things they were curious about. If you’re assigning a whole book or particularly long reading, you might ask students to develop discussion questions, or you might assign subsets of the material to different groups of students and then put it all together in class.
Don’t assume your students know how you expect them to engage with different kinds of texts. During the semester, it could be beneficial to model the reading practices you expect, or to give students guidelines that encourage those practices. One possibility is to share a text you’ve annotated, or to annotate a text together using an overhead projector or online annotation tools, like Hypothes.is.
Click here for more examples of Hypothes.is in the classroom.
When selecting readings, make sure that students have the access and time necessary to fully engage with them—though also be prepared for some of your students not to have completed the readings before class. You should also consider:
- the type of text (theory, novel, textbook chapter, philosophy, poetry, etc.);
- whether the readings you’ve selected are inclusive of a diverse array of voices.
- what you want students to do with that text before, during, and after engaging with it;
- what you want the text to do (provide background context, be the basis for class discussion, supplement the lecture, etc.);
- what types of assignments might grow out of the readings
- whether the texts offers opportunities for place-based or problem-based assignments that would allow students to take a more active role in their learning;
- what points of comparison or contrast you could draw among readings;
- the cost of and access to the texts. High-cost textbooks can create access issues
Academics often conceive of research and teaching as two separate practices competing for time. It is never too soon to start thinking about how these activities can feed each other since they are at the core of our professional practice. Often, we don’t control which courses we teach and the levels of correspondence of those courses with our academic interests vary. We may be fortunate enough to have a perfect match, but often there is a significant gap.
Could your research (or an aspect of it) provide an underlying narrative for the course? Do you want your students to learn a methodology or a specific approach to your discipline? How would your research fit within a module or sequence?
To reach and engage students outside your discipline, you’ll have to introduce concepts that in your field may be taken for granted. What kinds of operations and adjustments will you need to make to present your research in accessible ways? What is the level of your students’ familiarity with your discipline?
As scholars, we spend a lot of time confined within very specific boundaries: a period of time, a geographical area, or a conceptual/theoretical frame. Gaining expertise and confidence talking about your research is a needed skill on its own and is a major reason you should pursue chances to teach it. Many opportunities (of publishing, funding, or creating professional connections) depend on your ability to explain both the nature of your research and its value. You need to present your research as part of the big picture of your field or discipline, while conveying what is unique about your work. Teaching requires you to find a balance between the general and the specific as you consider students as your audience.
Even if you don’t see an apparent overlap between your research and your teaching, bringing them together when and where you can is a win-win-win situation. Make room to create that connection; it will be worth the effort.
It’s always a good idea to let a friend or a trusted colleague review your syllabus and give you feedback on both the sense of the course it conveys and how it reads as a document. The TLC offers opportunities for this feedback in the weeks and days before the semester starts; we strongly encourage you to make use of it. Even the smallest tweak to a syllabus—increasing the font size of a heading, clarifying the wording of a policy—can improve the experience for your students.
Tip: To help you get started, check out the many different activities assignments and project ideas that are adaptable across disciplines, along with a few first-day-of-class activities, in Section III.
As you plan your course, think about what role assignments will play. Some questions to consider:
- How will your assignments promote student learning? How will they connect to the learning goals of your course?
- Will you use assignments to assess your students’ comprehension of course material (as in an exam or quiz) and/or will some assignments give students the opportunity to problematize, and eventually synthesize course material?
- Will your assignments provide lower-stakes scaffolding for work that builds towards a higher-stakes culminating assignment or project?
- Will you vary the types of assignments you’ll require? If so, how will you decide what to assign and when?
- How might secondary course objectives inform your assignment design? (If you’re interested in students working with technology in the classroom, for instance, could you design an assignment that makes use of the technology you’re exploring?)
- If you’re breaking your course into modules or units, might it be beneficial to think about assignments in terms of micro (unit-specific) goals, and macro ones that ask students to make connections across units?
- How will you represent these assignments on your course syllabus? One option is to include a three-column table that lists, in the first column, the date; in the second column, the reading due; and, in the third column, assignments due. Another option is to include a table or list of key due dates on your syllabus. Since you want your syllabus to be a manageable document, consider passing out or posting assignment-specific instructions in a separate document.
As you design assignments, keep in mind how you’ll calculate grades:
- What percentage of the course grade do you want the major assignments (exams, papers, projects, etc.) to be?
- How will you balance those with other coursework such as homework, participation, presentations, attendance, etc.?
- What other categories should have weight in determining the final grade?
- How will you assess and factor in attendance, participation and late work?
- Are your course policies in-line with department and college policies? Remember, not all campuses have the same policies (particularly around attendance) so make sure you check!
Once you have your big category numbers, begin to break them down. So, if papers are 20 percent of the final course grade and you have four of them, do you want each to be 5 percent, or will they be weighted progressively more as students learn and build on new skills?
Think, too, about your assignment return rule:
- Are you planning on returning papers the next time you meet?
- If so, does it help if you have the weekend to grade? Or do you want to avoid weekend grading?
- Do the students need feedback on the assignment before completing the next homework?
For more about grading and assessment methods, see the chapter on “Grading and Evaluating Student Work” in this handbook.
In assignment design, scaffolding refers to a process where assignments begin with a series of low-stakes (low grade impact) exercises which build up to a final, larger assignment. Scaffolding allows you to break down the component parts of a skill or assignment and to offer students the opportunity to check in and receive feedback at each juncture. In this way, scaffolding is both a planning and learning tool and follows a similar process to backwards design to consider what a student needs to know in order to complete a task or assignment. For many students, especially those who are not familiar with what goes into larger academic assignments, it is very important to make potential structures and processes for completing larger projects more visible. Modeling that building academic work is an iterative process can help students tackle more complex projects later on in their careers.
Sequencing large assignments into manageable building blocks also opens up the learning process for both instructor and student. You might begin with ideation or brainstorming by asking students to create mind maps, identify a few sources, or create an outline and bibliography to build toward the ultimate assignment. Asking students to share drafts with their peers and instructor, give and respond to feedback, and revise and refine their work lets them reflect on their own process of knowledge making. It’s through this kind of meta-cognitive (thinking explicitly about how one learns/thinks) activity that students become conscious of how they learn, and more likely to discover what forms of support they require to learn most effectively. A simple way to encourage meta-cognition is to ask students to submit a short note along with an assignment in which they describe how it went. Such self-assessments will also help you respond more constructively to student work. When you know students were struggling to formulate their argument or synthesize material, or were happy about their improvements in clarity and style, you can focus your own comments accordingly.
- Art History
- Education Research Methods
- Geophysics & Metallurgy
- Organizational Behavior
- Social Psychology
- Public Policy
Before the semester starts, take some time to figure out how you’ll organize your gradebook.
- Will you keep grades by hand?
- Will you use a spreadsheet?
- Will you grade on an online platform such as Blackboard?
As you’re setting up your gradebook, keep in mind that students will likely ask you how they are doing in the class during the course of the semester. It will be helpful to you if your grades are in an easy-to-manage space so that you can access current grade information for students.
Colleges vary in terms of how long students have the right to dispute their grades. Be sure that you know your school’s grade change policy. In the event a student initiates a grade dispute, it’s important that you have the necessary documentation to support the given grade. Students may come to you a semester, a year, or even a couple of years after you’ve had them in your class. You’ll likely have engaged with dozens or hundreds of students since then, and the records you keep will be helpful in refreshing your memory.
Taking a few minutes to write up some notes after you’ve graded each assignment or taught each class and unit to reflect on what went well (and what didn’t), where students struggled, and how long it took you to mark or prepare can be a helpful tool for revising your class after the semester and balancing your workload.
“Effective teachers are not so devoted to their practice that they ignore the students in front of them.” - Leila Christenbury, “The Flexible Teacher.”
No matter how much teaching experience you have, you will never be able to predict with complete accuracy how your students will best learn in your course, because different students have different needs and learn in different ways. By approaching your course and teaching with a willingness to adapt, you can be more responsive to your students’ needs, as well as your own.
Being flexible does not mean not planning or preparing for class, changing plans on a whim, or doing whatever your students ask you to do. Instead, we suggest an approach that embraces flexibility within structure. Decide which elements of your course are non-negotiable, based on what you want your students to get out of the course and what your personal and professional boundaries and limitations are (such as how much time you’re able to spend grading, or how much mental bandwidth you have for class planning). Then, craft an overarching structure for your course. Stick by your non-negotiables, and then enable student choice by offering students a limited number of options within a particular framework. In this way, you empower students to take agency over elements of their learning, encourage productive metacognition (thinking about how they think), and validate that their individual needs and interests matter. At the same time, providing flexibility within your established structure ensures that students accomplish your non-negotiable goals for the course, and abide by your personal and professional boundaries and limits. Specific examples of where and how you might practice flexibility within structure include:
Learning Goals: In addition to the learning goals that are important to you and/or required by your department, consider doing an activity early in the semester in which students devise their own learning goals individually, in groups, and/or as a whole class. Then, include these on the syllabus, and build in elements throughout your course that accomplish these goals.
Lesson Structure: Sometimes it can be a good idea to approach a particular lesson with a firm idea of the goal/s of that lesson, but with different options and tools prepared for how to achieve those goals. For example, if you expected to cover topic B today but discover that students are still struggling with topic A from last class, consider integrating more opportunities for them to engage with topic A in today’s lesson, using different tools than you used last class. If you find that students are very interested in topic A, find meaningful ways to connect topic A to topic B, or create opportunities for students to pursue issues related to topic A while still accomplishing the day’s goals.
Deadlines: Strict deadlines are a major cause of anxiety among students, and there is little research to show that students learn better or are better prepared for the “real world” when subjected to them. Consider incorporating flexible deadlines into your course. You might implement “makeup days”: one or more days throughout the course when students may submit some or all late work with no penalty and no excuse needed. Or you might implement “late days”: give students a certain number of late days they can use at any point in the semester, with no penalty and no excuse needed. Or, you might implement “soft” (suggested) and “hard” (definitive) deadlines for some or all assignments. We encourage you to consider adopting a flexible deadline policy that does not ask students to provide excuses, and that offers students the chance to turn in some or all work late without penalty.
Assignments & Assessments: There are many ways you can be flexible and provide choices in your assignments and assessments. Here are some examples:
- Use a “total points” grading structure with points that exceed 100%, so students can choose which assignments/assessments to do
- Assign students select “core” assignments, to be supplemented with additional assignments that they choose from a list
- Provide options for assignment formats, such as essay, podcast, or presentation
- Allow students to choose assignment topics from a list or within certain parameters
- Allow students to choose which or how many assignments to do, such as two smaller assignments or one larger one
- Offer multiple types of questions on assessments, such as multiple choice or short answer, and ask students to choose a certain number to complete, allowing them to choose the types of questions they prefer. More models in Section III.
Participation: Provide multiple diverse ways for students to participate in your course, including online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous options. For example, students might speak up in class, a Slack chat, or a Blackboard discussion board.
Class Schedule: Schedule your classes such that what you cover and when depends on what the students need at the moment. For example, leave one or more days for catch-up or review as needed; switch the order of lessons or delete content depending on what students need more or less time on; take instant polls to survey students when they would rather take that quiz, cover that topic, or do that reading; choose or swap content based on student interests or needs. Leave blank or flexible spaces in your class schedule at the beginning of the semester, and provide an updated schedule later in the semester. Always provide plenty of notice to students that changes to the schedule have been made, refrain from making a plethora of changes as this can cause anxiety and uncertainty among students, and avoid making changes that end up giving students more work, or less time to complete their work.
Attendance: See section on attendance.
Grading: For example, you might drop the lowest grade/s of a particular assignment/assessment type, or of multiple types (e.g. students take five quizzes but only the highest four grades count). Or, you might give students the opportunity to choose how different assignment types are weighed in their final grade, from a range of options (for example, see “A Model of Flexible Grading” document available here).
For sample syllabi that demonstrate different kinds of flexibility in different areas, see: