For a Canadian student at a Canadian university, it’s probably one of the most normal procedures: receiving a detailed syllabus at the beginning of a term in each course he or she decided to take. For international students, however, such a practice may not be common at all.
Yesterday I facilitated a workshop on the topic of how to construct an effective syllabus for the International Teaching Assistant (ITA) Training. During my preparations I tried to recall my experiences with university syllabi in my home country, and it occurred to me that back then I didn’t really see anything that would qualify as a ‘proper’ syllabus by Canadian standards. Talking to other international teaching assistants in yesterday’s workshop, I found that many of them shared my experiences. Most of us were only used to mere topic outlines and less standardization before attending a Canadian university.
Therefore, international graduate students in particular need to gain knowledge and skills to be able to construct motivating and effective syllabi once they’re given the opportunity to coordinate a course on their own. It is especially crucial to raise their awareness about the various functions a syllabus has and its general importance throughout the whole course. It is not just a tool for instructors helping them to manage their time and organize the content of the course. More importantly, when creating a syllabus, we as instructors should always have in mind whom we are writing the syllabus for: the student. In yesterday’s workshop, most participants had quite clear ideas about the different components that need to be covered in a syllabus. However, it appeared that most of them were unaware of the motivational function each syllabus has. Being one of the first documents students receive from their instructors, a syllabus determines the first impression and shapes the expectations students have about this course.
Besides writing about the challenges which future faculty members may have with creating syllabi, I would also like to share an interesting insight with you. In the preparations for this workshop I came across the idea of supplementing the traditional text-based syllabus with a graphic syllabus, outlining the topic organization in a one-page flowchart or diagram. This is a really neat alternative to typical thematic listings, allowing instructors to include motivating visualizations and helping students to relate the different course topics to the ‘big picture’.
Remembering the time when I first received a syllabus here at a Canadian university, I was very positively surprised by such a detailed course guide. At this time, I did however not realize how much time, effort, and thinking it requires to actually put such a document together. Now I know.