A syllabus encodes a lot of information about a course and the instructor. Much of that information is meant to be made explicit through the syllabus, and other information is conveyed between the lines, through the tone and layout of the document. Students are often introduced to a course through the syllabus, and at many institutions, syllabi are made public or are made more generally available to the community. Because it plays all of these important roles, the syllabus is an important component of a course to analyze for beliefs and practices of the instructor, as this is the document where they are made explicit to the students. If significant changes are made in the way a course is taught, we would expect to see significant changes in the way the course is presented through a syllabus as well.
Collecting data from syllabi
For the TIDeS project, we used a slightly modified version of the syllabus rubric designed and tested at the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Virginia (Palmer et al., 2014). This valid and reliable syllabus rubric is designed to be used for courses in all content areas and can be used as a pre-/post- instrument to probe improvements in course design. The core areas of the rubric (learning goals and objectives, assessments, schedule, and overall learning environment) are well-aligned with the TIDeS materials development rubric, as is the holistic approach to analyzing the syllabus (rather than a focus on singular elements).
Our modifications were in two areas:
- To make the syllabus rubric more content-specific to TIDeS courses, we added our guiding principles as essential elements
- To better align the syllabus rubric with our materials development rubric, we made one minor adjustment: we scored criterion 3 (Learning objectives are appropriately pitched), which is included in the rubric but not scored, as we do have knowledge of the discipline and the curriculum and this aligns with a similar criterion in the materials development rubric;
These modifications increased the maximum possible score from 46 to 50 (without the guiding principles) and to 74 with the guiding principles. We calculated both scores in order to better compare syllabi from our project with the published data and to distinguish three categories of syllabi: content-focused, transitional, and learning-focused.
Download the TIDeS Syllabus Rubric Scoresheet (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 46kB Oct22 22).
Implementing the syllabus rubric
As part of an initial survey, materials developers were asked to upload the syllabus for their current course prior to implementing any changes. We analyzed these syllabi using the modified syllabus rubric, following the developers' guidelines for use of the rubric in research to establish inter-rater reliability. Although not all syllabi were independently scored by two researchers, scores for a subset were discussed and agreed upon through an iterative process. In addition, we identified areas for further professional development on the basis of common themes in the syllabi. Syllabi will be analyzed again for courses in which the new materials are implemented.
Palmer, M. S., Bach, D. J., & Streifer, A. C. (2014). Measuring the promise: A learning‐focused syllabus rubric. To improve the academy: A journal of educational development, 33 (1), 14-36.