Constructing a Syllabus: Challenges and Insights – Mareike Mueller

ImageFor 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.

Published by

Mareike Mueller

As the International TA Developer, Mareike Müller is responsible for developing and facilitating a series of workshops and microteaching sessions to help international TAs in enhancing their teaching skills and to familiarize them with the specifics of teaching and learning at Canadian universities. Additionally, Mareike is pursuing a doctoral degree in Applied Linguistics at the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies. Her research interests encompass multiple aspects of second language acquisition and pedagogy, with a focus on learner beliefs in the acquisition of foreign pronunciation. She has teaching experience at various institutions across Germany and Canada.

Leave a Reply