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Syllabus:  How to improve your syllabus

I sometimes supervise ASL instructors in various programs.  Prior to the beginning of the course I like to ask instructors for a copy of their syllabus.  Since it may be of value to you I'm sharing below an example of a submitted syllabus and my feedback. Note:  I have changed a few of the details to maintain the privacy of the instructor.
-- Dr. Bill

Dear Instructor,
I have looked over your syllabus (posted below) and it looks good.  I now encourage you to expand on the section of your syllabus called "Course Evaluation" items. 

Your syllabus states:

ASL 104 Course Evaluation    Pts. of Final Grade       
Participation/Attendance    50
Workbook assignments      50
Expressive Exam                 100

Each of those items, (Participation/Attendance, Workbook Assignments, and Expressive Exam) would benefit from a paragraph or more explaining in detail exactly what constitutes "A"-level work.

A syllabus is intended to provide a way for a student to defend themselves from a capricious teacher.

For example: If we say "completion of assignments" is also part of the "participation" grade (as you do in your syllabus), without stating clearly how much of an influence missing an assignment will have on the participation grade that is the same as saying "I'll grade you however I feel like and I'll make up the numbers at the end of the semester based on my gut."

If a student misses one assignment out of ten -- how will that affect her PARTICIPATION grade?
Sure, she will lose the points the assignment itself was worth, but now, according to your syllabus she is supposed to lose ADDITIONAL points from her participation grade as well. But "how many" additional points is never clarified and thus the student gets to go through the semester "hoping" she is participating enough, and "hoping" that the one missed assignment won't hurt her grade too badly. She can only "hope" and not "know" because the syllabus only says it will have an influence--but not how much.

I've always found "participation" to be a vague term and very subjective.
If I were a student, how would I know my participation level is sufficient to score enough points?
Does the teacher provide some sore of daily "participation score?"
If regular feedback isn't provided, then going to class becomes sort of like bowling with no scorecard and the computer won't tell you your score until the match is already over and you have either won or lost.

Should we have a score card and make a mark on it every time a student says anything in class?
At the end of the day, the students with the most marks under their name would be considered excellent.
If a student shows up each day in class and raise his hand once per hour does that constitute sufficient participation?

Realistically, most instructors are indeed able to mentally sort out who is a "good participator" and who is a poor participator, but that isn't the problem.

The problem is when the teacher's idea of participation is different from the student's idea of participation.
How does a teacher quantify "engagement in discussions?" At what point does engagement become domination when one student won't shut up? How is a student to know throughout the semester "how they are doing" regarding participation. In many classes students have no idea what their participation grade is until the END of the semester when it is too late.

Think of it from the student's perspective, they have a limited amount of energy and some of them might be shy or come from a culture (Asian for example) where exaggerated facial expressions are not the norm. A small amount of participation from such individuals constitutes a "huge" effort and a major departure from their comfort zone. Suppose at the end of the semester a student challenged your "evaluation" of her participation. Suppose she took her challenge to the Department chair and claimed that she had participated fully in the course and deserved a full 100 points for participation. Then the Chair might ask you to explain on what exactly did you base your "evaluation" of that student's participation. How will you account for your evaluation? Your gut level feeling? Your intuition? Your judgement? That is all very nice, but such things are "subjective" and research shows that subjective judgements are influenced by bias, lookism, and prejudice. The "pretty students" who have the same skin color and world view as the instructor tend to be judged higher and with more leniency than other students in class--unless you have very clear criteria on which to base "participation."

Until you specify exactly how much those criteria to your students you are operating in a subjective rather than objective mode.

On your syllabus you have stated, "Absolutely no make up for the exam." 
What will you do if a student is genuinely sick, misses the exam, and comes to you later with a note from a doctor and requests to take the test?  If you don't give the student the test and their scores will not allow for a passing grade, the student may justifiably petition for an grade of "incomplete." Whereupon it would be expected that you indicate what "work" was missed and must be made up in order to "complete" the course.  The work that was "missed" was your final exam and you will likely end up having to give the student the final exam regardless.

Workbook Assignments: 
Exactly what are those assignments? 
List them all. 
Include page numbers, due dates, examples, and submission criteria such as formatting, length, and expectations for spelling (if any) or grammar (whether you will accept "gloss" or do you expect English translations). 

Please keep in mind that the students will have little or no time to do such "workbook" assignments.  They are in class from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. When will they do such assignments?  Thus you will need to provide sufficiently clear instructions "from the beginning" to make it possible for them to work ahead and plan their time very carefully.  As an instructor it is inappropriate to "make up the assignments as you go."  Some instructors begin teaching a class and halfway through the semester they are STILL figuring out and coming up with graded assignments to add to their syllabus.

Expressive Exam:
What are the details?  What will it cover?  How long is it?  What format?  Is it taken individually?  What is the weighting of the individual items?  How can a student prepare for it?  How can a student know whether or not she is ready for the exam or needs to study more? 

I note lower down in your syllabus you have a section on "ACADEMIC DISHONESTY" in which you state:
"Plagiarism is a serious academic offense that is to be avoided at all costs. A student who plagiarizes on the cumulative exam will receive a grade of “F.  Students who plagiarize will be recommended to the Program Coordinator for disciplinary action."

Discussion:  Plagiarism generally refers to the act of copying a written work or an idea and claiming it as your own.  You caution students against plagiarism on the "cumulative exam."  This gives the impression that the exam is a written test.  Yet in your list of assignments and evaluations there is no "cumulative exam" of that nature.  You list an "Expressive Exam" not a "cumulative exam."  The idea of "plagiarizing" on an expressive ASL exam seems odd.  Consider for the example how odd is the idea of a swimmer at a swim competition "plagiarizing" the swimming of the person competing in the next lane over.

So, again, all in all your syllabus looks very nice.  I encourage you to specifically list out all assignments and explain your criteria sufficiently so there is no doubt in the mind of your students how to get an "A" out of your class.

Dr. Bill

Note to readers: The syllabus below is not intended as a model to follow, (it has some problems) but rather it is provided for discussion purposes.  For a ideas on designing a good syllabus, see:  syllabus matrix see:  Designing your syllabus


ASL 3 & 4
EDS 153 & 154
 6:00 PM-9:00 PM


Instructor:  Mary Smith                        
Office: by appointment


MTWHF 6:00 PM -  9:00 PM   Napa Hall, College of Continuing Education

Meeting Dates-  8/04/2008 - 8/15/2008

Participants will be receiving 8 units of academic credit.  The two, four-unit courses are currently:

ASL 103: American Sign Language 3.
Expand communicative repertoire developed in EDS 151 to talk about people and places in a contextually-reduced framework. Students learn to describe places, objects, and events. Students develop basic narrative skills to tell about past events. Through in-class discussions/demonstrations, course readings, and out-of-class field experience, students are exposed to elements of the deaf community and culture. Prerequisite: ASL 102 or equivalent. 4 units.
ASL 104:  American Sign Language 4. Principles, methods and techniques of manual communication with deaf people using American Sign Language. Emphasis on the continuation of developing advanced manual communication skills for students who work or interact with adult deaf persons. Continuation of the analysis of the culture of deafness with emphasis on participation in the community. Prerequisite: ASL 103 or equivalent. 4 units.
Note: Taught in ASL without spoken English.

Signing Naturally, Level 2 and 3  Workbooks and DVDs.  By Ken Mikos, Cheri Smith, and Ella Mae Lentz.  Dawn Sign Press. 

Free lessons in the ASL University website—

This course requires your active participation (engaging in pair and group dialogues) and daily preparation  (completed workbook assignments, and assigned readings).  To encourage your out-of-class preparation, in-class activities, many of which are small group exercises, are, due to the accelerated summer schedule, may be truncated.  Because your participation in these activities is evaluated, your daily attendance is required.  The expressive final exam for both classes will be explained in detail on the first day of class so you will be able to prepare appropriately for it.

ASL 103 Course Evaluation    Pts. of Final Grade       
Participation/Attendance    50
Workbook assignments      50
Expressive Exam               100

ASL 104 Course Evaluation    Pts. of Final Grade       
Participation/Attendance    50
Workbook assignments      50
Expressive Exam               100

Final course averaged will be calculated and assigned letter grades.  The scale is as follows:
100-95%=A, 90 = A-, 87=B+, 83=B, 80=B-, 77=C+, 73=C, 70=C-, 67=D+, 63=D, 60=D-, 59=F.

Two week  schedule (subject to revision) 


Aug 4

Tuesday Aug 5

Wednesday Aug 6

Thursday Aug 7

Friday Aug 8

(Name on file)
6:00 to 9:00 PM

Chapter 14: Complaining, Making Suggestions and Requests

14: (continued from previous day)

13: Locating Things Around the House

13: (continued from previous day)

Review, Testing,
Feedback, &
Teacher evals



Aug 11

Tuesday Aug 12

Wednesday 13

Thursday Aug 14

Friday Aug 15

(Name on file
6:00  to 9:00 PM

20: Explaining Rules

20: (continued from previous day)

23: Making Major Decisions

23: (continued from previous day,

Review, Testing,
Teacher evals & wrap-up

Plagiarism is a serious academic offense that is to be avoided at all costs. A student who plagiarizes on the cumulative exam will receive a grade of “F.  Students who plagiarize will be recommended to the Program Coordinator for disciplinary action.

If you are a student with a disability that will require accommodation, it is your responsibility to contact the Disability Resource Center at the beginning of the class. 

What I look for participation is a student’s preparedness, engaging in classroom exercises and discussions based on Signing Naturally lessons and workbook assignments.   Conversations in classroom will be solely in American Sign Language. Speaking in English is not allowed and this policy is strictly enforced.

If you miss  an evening class you will lose 10 grade points off of the final class grade unless a written excuse can be provided for an illness, death of family, etc.    Absolutely no makeup for the exam.

Note to readers: The above syllabus is not intended as a model to follow, but rather it is provided for discussion purposes.  See above.