Conceptualizing Your Course
This section offers tips and strategies on course design, with particular attention to understanding your students, constructing and using course learning goals, and building a syllabus. We also offer some information and suggestions for approaching online and hybrid courses. Finally, we wrap up the section by addressing gradebook and recordkeeping strategies and some logistical preparation strategies.
Now that you’ve gathered answers to many questions about your classroom, you’re ready to begin building your course. Just as there’s no one right way to teach a course, there’s no one right way to design a course or a syllabus.
The most rewarding courses to teach strike a generative balance between the interests of the faculty member, the goals of the curriculum, and the needs of the students. Keeping these ideas in mind as you’re building your syllabus is a good idea, but also a persistent challenge.
Creating, Adapting, or Receiving Your Course
The amount of freedom you have to craft your course will depend on the department and campus at which you are teaching. Figuring out whether you will be creating a new course, adapting an existing one, or receiving a course that’s been fully planned (perhaps by a faculty member for whom you’ll be working as a teaching assistant) should be one of your first steps, as it will affect how you might manage the balance between your work as a doctoral student and your teaching. Even if you are told you have complete autonomy in designing your course, it’s a good idea to ask if there are particular learning outcomes for your course and if it’s expected they’ll be included on your syllabus.
Creating a Course
When designing a course from scratch, you’ll need to budget time to consider how you will organize readings and assignments to satisfy the learning outcomes. It can be helpful to consult fellow instructors or refer to syllabi used for this course or similar ones, as reviewing other people’s approaches can help you clarify your own. Planning a course from scratch is time-consuming, but also rewarding.
Adapting a Course
You may be assigned a course that has certain required components—including textbooks, particular lessons or units, or assignments—but that also allows 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 a good idea 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? If they could change something, what would they change?
Receiving a Course
Some departments will require you to teach a syllabus that’s already set in stone, or that allows very little space for modifications. There are always reasons for situations like this, but many times those reasons are not made clear to part-time instructors. You should feel comfortable asking 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 the structure of your course rather than constructing it yourself, it’s important that you understand the implicit argument the course is making. If you disagree with the argument, 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. Developing a strong, collegial relationship with this faculty member 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 (introducutory, intermediate, advanced), see our TLC Guide to Teaching in the Disciplines at https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/teaching-in-the-disciplines/.
As discussed in the previous section of this handbook, it’s important to think about the “audience” for your course. Why are students taking your class?
The answer to this question, especially for beginning instructors, rarely (if ever) has anything to do with your identity as a burgeoning scholar. That identity will certainly be why they love the class and remember it fondly after the semester is over. But, we’re sorry to say, there is little chance that it has anything to do with why you’ll find them sitting in your classroom when you arrive for your first day teaching.
For the most part, CUNY students take classes taught by CUNY Graduate Center students for two reasons: either the course is a requirement or it fits their schedule (or both).
As you gain more experience, you may have the opportunity to teach an upper-level elective or a course intended for majors in your field—in which case, you may have students who have self-selected more deliberately into your class.
At the introductory level, however, it can be a particular challenge to translate the sophisticated and contested ideas you’re grappling with in graduate school to an undergraduate classroom where students come in with differing levels of preparation, needs, and interests. Understanding where your course fits within the the department’s curriculum and your students’ college experience can help focus your efforts.
You might ask yourself the following kinds of 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 course, how might the likely majors and career paths of your students influence the types of writing you assign?
By way of context you should know that in 2013, CUNY instituted a common curriculum called “Pathways” which intended to make it easier for students from CUNY’s community colleges to transfer to its senior colleges. Pathways significantly reduced but did not eliminate the autonomy that CUNY senior colleges have over the general education curriculum. It is likely that the course you’re assigned to teach in your first year teaching will be a Pathways course, and it makes sense to review your campus’ Pathways requirements to see how that course fits in.
Learn more about Pathways at: http://www2.cuny.edu/about/administration/offices/undergraduate-studies/pathways/.
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 five, you may have more older students who work full-time. If you teach during the day, your class may have younger students, more recently graduated from high school.
When designing your course, then, 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.
Many faculty approach course design by first asking, “what do I want my students to know or to be able to do by the end of our time together?” A learning outcome (or goal) is a statement of what students can be reasonably expected to learn while in your class, during a particular class session, or by completing an assignment. Think of learning outcomes as the skills or set of competencies that your students will walk away with.
Your department may already have outcomes or goals for your course. If they do, seek a clear understanding of these objectives while you’re doing your planning. If they don’t, then producing your own can help guide you as you select readings and design assignments. 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 stronger sense of what’s expected of them.
The process known as backwards planning (or design)— where you start with your learning goals and then work “backwards” to devise assignments and select readings that advance those goals —can help you you sequence and scaffold the class and identify moments within it where different kinds of activities make sense.
Learning goals should describe actions that students will be able to perform upon completing a course. Therefore, they differ from descriptions of what we intend to teach. When composing learning goals, think not just about what you want to cover in the course but also how you will know that students have learned the things being covered. Some questions to consider:
- 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?
The following guidelines can help you create strong learning goals:
- Goals should be formulated to be as specific 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. For a suggested list of verbs see https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/facultyhandbook/documents/Bloomverbsrevised.pdf (note that the verbs “understand” and “know” are discouraged).
- The learning goals you define may be informed by the mode of instruction you intend to use. For example, if you are teaching an online or hybrid course, consider including learning goals that address how students navigate the tools of the course.
A syllabus is both a pedagogical document and a practical one.
It’s an artifact that tells the story of your course, but students also see it—justifiably—as a contract that will govern your relationship with them while you are together. At minimum, then, your syllabus should be clear and comprehensive. It doesn’t have to and shouldn’t go into exacting detail on every element of the course, but 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.
A strong syllabus, however, can do more than this.
It can present an argument to students that makes explicit the structure that you’ve set up for the course. It can present both the arc of the semester and establish guideposts to help your students along the way. It can also capture and make explicit what your values are and what makes your course distinct.
Make your syllabus as accessible as possible.
Hand it out in class, and post it to your course web site or on Blackboard. If you make any changes during the semester, be sure you distribute and upload the revised version.
Create a hierarchy of what you want to include and be mindful of both the length and the aesthetic qualities of the document you’re drafting.
A syllabus can be overlong and overstuffed with material that might be more effectively delivered another way. Using clearly delineated headings can help break up a long document and make it easier to digest.
Ask yourself: what belongs on your syllabus, and what belongs on a separate document?
Separate documents might include assignment instructions, writing guides, bibliographies, etc.).
In general, your syllabus should include:
- Basic information: course name and number; where and when it 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.)
- Course schedule (a calendar with readings and assignment due dates)
Be sure to consider your (or your department’s) policies on the following topics.
Please see the appendix for a sample syllabus template that includes additional details on a syllabus’s composite parts. This template is also downloadable and editable at http://cuny.is/syll-templates.
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 of your students.
Logistics and Preparation
Starting with short, low-stakes exercises and building up to a lengthier, more formal essay or project—a process called scaffolding—gives both instructor and students many important moments of revision and feedback. You can make sure your students stay on track with their work and improve along the way. For many students, especially those who are not familiar with what goes into larger academic assignments, it is very important to show the structure and process of completing larger projects. Modeling this helps students tackle capstone or thesis work later on.
Sequencing larger, otherwise overwhelming assignments into manageable building blocks also opens up the learning process to both instructor and student. Asking students to share drafts with their peers and instructor, give and respond to feedback, and revise and edit their work lets them reflect on their own learning process. It’s through this kind of meta-cognitive activity that students become conscious of how they learn, and what forms of support they need to learn best. 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.
The Course Calendar
Write down the dates that your course meets during the semester (usually twice or three times a week for 15 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 Friday, etc.) From this calendar, you can begin to plug in your major assignments (any scaffolded steps and due dates) and readings.
Using the calendar as a guideline, begin to think about how you want to divide material:
- Does it make sense to have an exam before a break or after?
- When would you like big projects or deadlines to happen?
- 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?
There are a lot of ways to format your course schedule. Think back to the classes you’ve taken and the variety in syllabus and course calendar formats you’ve seen. What makes sense for your class? For some CUNY campus-specific syllabus templates, check out our TLC Guide “New to Teaching,” especially the section “Before the Semester”:
Once you have the dates penciled in, begin to think about what 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 as the course runs, but if you can get as much of the work around 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 possibly due dates) for the scaffolded steps leading up to your big assignments.
Planning for Preparation
Once you’ve divided the semester into smaller units, think about when and how you’ll prep for individual class meetings:
- How much can you get done before the semester starts?
- Will you have a day or two during the week 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. (Note: Graduate Teaching Fellows are contractually obligated to hold office hours, unlike adjuncts, who are not required to hold an office hour when teaching a single class.)
Keep in mind that course preparation can expand to fill as much time as you have available to do it. 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. Do your best, and keep in mind that “prepping” for a course meeting will entail some (or all) of the following:
- Reading or reviewing assigned course material, as well as any additional sources you may want to share with the class
- Developing course activities, preparing lectures, making and posting slides
- Generating (and where necessary, printing and copying) questions, quizzes, or problem sets
- Crafting and distributing assignments, along with any rubrics you plan to use.
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 and course, and then different course materials (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.
This section offers assistance for assignment design. In addition to helping faculty assess how effectively students are mastering course material, assignments provide the connective tissue between class meetings and give the instructor formative feedback to help them fine-tune their instruction.
Tip: Check out the appendix with twelve sample assignments and project ideas that are adaptable across disciplines, along with a few first day of class activities to help you get started!
As you plan your course, think more about what role assignments will play (as discussed in the previous section). 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?
- What kinds of assignments will be necessary to prepare students for the course requirements you’ve laid out? (For example, many courses require students to make in-class presentations. How might preparation for these presentations inform earlier assignments?)
- 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.
Finally, remember that assignments rarely go exactly as planned the first time we use them. Take notes on what worked and what didn’t, so you can iterate and improve on the assignment in subsequent semesters.
As an instructor, you’ll have the opportunity to choose both what your students read, and how much they read. 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. For instance, do you expect them to engage in close reading—carefully examining the language and rhetoric of a text) and annotate carefully? Skim for the main ideas? Extract the main idea?
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.
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.)
- 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.)
- Whether the texts open up 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
- What types of assignments might grow out of the readings
Gradebook and Recordkeeping
Before the semester starts, take some time to figure out how you’ll organize your gradebook.
- Will you keep grades by hand?
- Use an excel sheet?
- 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.
As you determine how you organize your grades, you’ll also need to think through how you’ll calculate them:
- 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 course work 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 school 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% of the final course grade and you have four of them, do you want each to be 5%, 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?
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.
For more about grading and assessment methods, see the section on “Grading and Assessment” in this handbook.