Syllabus Design for an Unpredictable Semester

Another post on preparing for the fall semester, which, given the pandemic, stands a good chance of going awry despite our best laid plans. Here are a few suggestions on how to cope with the uncertainty:

Obligatory pandemic cat photo

Make it plain to students that as with life, change is likely, if not inevitable. I put an escape clause in all my syllabi: “The instructor reserves the right to change any policies related to this course at his discretion.” The pandemic has given me an additional example to use when explaining to students why this statement is included.

Create multiple, flexible paths for student success. My preferred method is to calculate the final course grade on a 1,000 point scale, where a total of 950 or above equates to an A, but where the total number of points available from all assignments and exams typically tops out at 1,100. This provides students with a buffer — they do not need to complete every assignment or always earn a perfect score for a good course grade. The system gives students an option to exercise in case of illness or some other emergency.

Instead of a few high stakes assessments at the end of the semester, schedule regular lower stakes assessments throughout the semester. Not putting most of your eggs in the same calendrical basket lessens the risk of your course imploding when something goes haywire. Shifting from a cumulative to a more formative assessment regime also generates more learning and reduces anxiety at the end of the semester for students.

Create assignments that do not require a physical presence in the classroom. A year ago when teaching completely online, I designed a series of student field research exercises tied to asynchronous discussions. The system worked well, so I’m doing it again. If holding class on campus on certain days becomes impossible, or even just very complicated, I can easily toggle class to the online LMS/VLE. If class does meet as scheduled, I can simply engage students in a review of their research and online discussion.

These are just a few ideas. If you have more, let us know. We are always looking for guest contributors.

2 Replies to “Syllabus Design for an Unpredictable Semester”

  1. Chad, do you have a copy of your assignment guidelines for the student field research exercises anywhere? I checked the linked post but didn’t see them. I think this would be very useful for an upcoming class I’m teaching, and would love to see how you structured it!

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