16 things to consider as you assemble your syllabus

  1. Do you tell students how long it will take for you to respond to emails?
  2. Do you have clear-cut consequences for academic misconduct such as cheating and plagiarism? Do you know exactly what you plan to do when you find misconduct? (Here is how I deal with it.)
  3. Is your course designed to minimize the probability of cheating?
  4. Are you offering extra credit? If you are, do all students have equal opportunity to get the extra points, considering that different students have different schedules outside of class time? (Maybe extra credit isn’t a good idea.)
  5. Have you ever changed the date of an exam from the one on the syllabus? Be sure to put in print whether or not an exam date is a firm promise or just a guesstimate; students schedule around these dates.
  6. Is your grading scheme designed so that it is unambiguous, fair, and minimizes student stress (and in general make your life easier) ?
  7. Do you have a very clear-cut policy on laptops and phones? Many people have phone addiction issues and the learning environment is ruined if you don’t deal with it respectfully.
  8. Are you okay with students using earlier editions of the textbook, and is this on the syllabus? Students often ask or wonder because current editions are so expensive and typically are very similar to previous editions.
  9. If a student misses a class that has an assignment turned in or a quiz or exam, does the student know exactly what will happen? Is it possible to design your grading scheme so that accidentally missing a class will not be a personal disaster for the students? Could you design an assignment policy so that nobody will feel compelled to invent a dead grandparent?
  10. Do you include participation points? If so, are these points administered in an unbiased and transparent way so that the students will be able know their exact score at the end of the semester without having to guess? If not, your participation policy is too subjective and unfair.
  11. When students turn in written assignments, will they know the specific criteria upon which these will be evaluated? If you have expectations for writing, could you put the criteria for the rubric in your syllabus. Grading writing without a rubric is unfair to students as they won’t know what you are expecting in the written assignment before doing the work.
  12. You’re going to get grade disputes, even if you say that you do not entertain grade appeals. Do you have a clear policy about grade appeals on your syllabus? Do your policies and practices deter unreasonable appeals?
  13. Is it possible to assign grades to students not based on scores that they earn on assignments, but instead on what competencies they are able to show by the end of the semester?
  14. Some students really love getting their grades through the course management system (Blackboard/WebCT/Moodle/whatever). Do you specify in your syllabus how you use the online course system?
  15. Do any disabled students — including those with a learning disability — know that you’re prepared to provide accommodations for them? Some students can be anxious that faculty might not be receptive and going beyond institutionally required boilerplate can be helpful.
  16. Is there anything in your syllabus that would look bad on the internet? It’s now a very small world.



*Note: now that buzzfeed is starting to gain the appearance of something like journalism once in a while, I’ve decided that the title of this piece of writing is journalistic enough for today.

Dead grandmothers no more: the equal accommodation classroom


Let me tell two anecdotes to put the Dead Grandmother Syndrome in perspective.

I remember when I was a student in Evolutionary Biology in my junior year of college. Right before the midterm, I got really sick with the flu. I felt like hell and doing normal things seemed like a physical impossibility. If I took the miderm, I would have gotten a horrible score, only because I was so darn sick. Continue reading

Driftwood faculty and decisions about course content


Here’s an incident, or really just a conversation, that left a little scar on me.

Around the time I was finishing up my PhD, I was given the opportunity to give a seminar at my alma mater. I had sit-down conversations with some of my undergraduate professors. As I was somewhere in the process of starting a faculty position, this was a mind-bending role change, no longer a student but now a junior colleague of my former professors.

I took three excellent courses with one professor, whose courses were well designed, all with engaging and creative labs, and with lecture content well grounded in the primary literature. I worked somewhat hard and I learned a helluva lot, especially in Evolutionary Biology and Biogeography. He definitely had his theoretical biases (a la Gould & Lewontin), but this didn’t stop him from being an excellent instructor.

When we were chatting, he was interested in learning what I was up to, and how I ended up working on the ecology of ants. I told him that my interest started with the evolution of sociality, and that I was curious about the Hamiltonian predictions for colony structure. (When I started my dissertation, people had only just abandoned using allozymes to look at relatedness inside colonies). He tilted his head and said asked me a bit more. Before I realized what was happening, he let me know he wasn’t familiar with kin selection theory. He said that he hadn’t heard of any of the WD Hamilton papers from the 1960s. He didn’t seem think that this wasn’t a big deal, that this was just an inside baseball discussion among social insect experts. We moved on to new topic.

But it was a huge deal. If you’re not a biologist, you might not recognize this But if you are a biologist, you’ll recognize that my professor openly volunteered (to his credit?) that he was ignorant of something really foundational in his field. Frankly, nobody teaching evolutionary biology at the college level, at the time, should have been unfamiliar with the concept of kin selection.

This blew my mind in three ways. First, it’s bizarre to think that the man who started me on the path to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology didn’t have an adequate map of the territory. Second, he was a top-notch instructor and it was clear to me that we didn’t suffer much (if at all) for his lapses of awareness in the field. Third, I suddenly realized why the supposed controversies that I learned in college were actually tired arguments among everybody in grad school. My professor was merely out of date.

In hindsight, I see he was a classic example of driftwood. But not deadwood. He was a dedicated teacher and engaged evolutionary biologist, but his research was not well engaged off campus.

The stereotype of the professor who teaches outdated material is one who is retired-on-the-job, uses the same powerpoints over and over, appears bored, and uses old textbooks because they can’t bother to update the course.  That stereotype was not embodied by my Evolutionary Biology professor. But the content itself was not only stale, but it wasn’t even up to date at the outset. And he was an evolutionary biologist!

Ironically, I think the content of the course would have been more representative of introductory evolutionary biology if it was taught by someone who was not an evolutionary biologist. This instructor would have been relying more heavily on a textbook, and covered the major topics as decided by the textbook authors.

So, which one would have been better for me? Either the professor who was an amazing teacher and specialist who was aware of some topics, or one someone who was not a specialist who covered all of the bases? I think that’s an unfairly dichotomous question, so I won’t answer it. But it’s fuel for thought.

If I had to list three undergradaute-level course titles that would be in my field of expertise, they would be ecology, insect biology and tropical biology. I would clearly choose to amplify some topics over others, and these decisions would result in a course that would look very different than if it were structured by a non-specialist who was merely assigned these courses.

For example, I’m not a cracker-jack population biologist, and I don’t build life tables for my work. This is, however, bread and butter for introductory ecology courses. Since I don’t regularly work in population biology, I can’t honestly tell you whether this is an actual skill that every undergraduate biology majors needs to know. (I’m not sure it is, though some of the embedded concepts are very important.) Would I include in my class? You bet I would, because it’s in every textbook and it’s expected of everyone who finishes introductory ecology and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for underpreparing my students. Even though I’m an ecologist, I wouldn’t teach only the parts of the ecology that are my specialty. But I can see how some others can be tempted to leave life tables out of an ecology course. And, I wonder if they need to be within the   30 lessons we get to teach each semester.

Overall, I have no idea how the community collectively decides what concepts are truly important. I don’t think the K-12 approach of statewide standards is the way to go for higher education, and the culture of Assessment is still leaving us plenty of latitude, which is good. But why do we teach some things as canon, and overlook others?

I get that some topics are important. But what makes them important? What defines a field? is it the people actively doing research or the people looking at a distance? When we define the topics of lessons in our syllabi, what are the criteria we use when making our choices? I haven’t thought much about this other than “I think it’s important,” but I realize that’s not good enough.

Efficient teaching: grading schemes


What is a grading scheme for our classes that promotes the best learning with minimal agony for all?

Everybody who has been teaching for a while has come upon a set of practices that works. I still don’t have a pat format, and I continue to tweak grading schemes as I gain experience, and as the content and level of the courses I teach vary. Though I don’t always do the same thing, I design my grading scheme to avoid particularly annoying or time-consuming parts of teaching, and I also make sure to include elements that are designed to improve learning. Here are key concepts that I take into account when building my grading scheme for a course:

  • Students that are overly stressed about the grades on their assignments are less likely to genuinely engage with the course material and will not learn deeply.
  • Students who are concerned that grading might be unfair will not be as interested in engaging with the course material.
  • Some of the students in the class might have valid reasons for needing to miss a class session. If students have worries about missing class or an assignment, regardless of the cause of these concerns, it takes a boatload of time of the instructor to deal with these concerns.
  • No instructor can be in a position to accurately and fairly judge the legitimacy of any excuse that a student might choose to provide.
  • Students learn most effectively when assessments (tests, quizzes, returned assignments) are frequent.
  • Students need to be able to calculate their grade in a class, and how many points remain in the semester, at any point during the semester. This requires a transparent grading scheme.

What does my grading scheme look like to deal with these principles? Here are some elements that I almost always include in my courses:

  • I do not take attendance, so that students don’t get overly worried if they have to miss a class.
  • I structure the course so that a person who chronically misses class will take a massive hit to their grade, by not having completed a number of in-class activities tied to a grade. A person who aces all of the exams, and assignment, but doesn’t do in-class assignments and quizzes, will earn a C. So, these in-class activities should constitute 20-30% of the grade.
  • I include some kind of frequent assessment (quizzes, homework, in-class assignments), to let students know how they’re doing. These may be graded or ungraded. Ideally every class has a very short exercise for students to size up if they’re up on the latest material.
  • I accept late assignments, but the moment they are late they lose 50% of their value, and it then declines by an additional 10% each week. This encourages completion on time, but still provides value to students doing the assignment later; if I did not accept late assignments then these high stakes would lead to extreme stress for some students and this would get in the way of learning. If I accepted late assignments with a minimal penalty, then too many students wouldn’t be doing their work on time and would get behind in the class.
  • I drop one or two of the quizzes/assignments; this can include ones not completed because a student is absent. This way, I don’t ever have to be in a position to judge whether one absence is more legitimate than another absence.
  • I make sure that non-exam assignments make up at least 40% of the total grade, to make sure that the exams are not high stakes.
  • I don’t make the final exam worth more than 35% of the total grade.
  • I place the first midterm exam relatively early; even with quizzes, the first exam tends to be a jolt into reality to let the students that they need to buckle down. The sooner this happens, the better.
  • I don’t post grades on the course management system; this keeps some students from getting any information about their grades outside the classroom, which lets them only access course content, rather than performance, when they’re not in class.
  • I require students to formally identify one or two partners in the course, which they may contact for a variety of questions. Students should not be asking me what they missed in a class; it’s their responsibility to find that out.
  • I use straight scale, such that > 90% = A; >80% = B, and so on. I only occasionally use pluses and minuses, at my discretion, and only to boost a student’s grade. I tell my students that I’d be over the moon everybody got an A, but also that that has yet to happen. This overtly encourages cooperation and group work in the course.
  • Grades are assigned using final scores blind with respect to the identity of the student. I sort grades from highest to lowest and evaluate the distribution. Typically, the distribution is multimodal and the grades fall out easily, and the ones on the boundaries get pluses or minuses to boost them up. I make sure that the grade a student receives is at least the minimum that they would earn under the straight scale; typically results are no different than the straight scale.
  • I never assign a single grade to a group assignment; I can’t see how this could not be unfair.

Once I abandoned the midterm altogether. In that class, very two weeks, we would have a short exam that took the first half of a class period. There were six or seven of these throughout the semester, and I’d drop the lowest one. The stress of midterms is gone, and students don’t stress about cramming material from long ago. There are two reasons I haven’t done this again. The first is that the one time I did it, some members of my department freaked out because it broke the mold in the department, and students in my section were happier than in other sections. (That was at a different university; now I am sure that everyone would be totally fine with it.) The second is that I haven’t had the time management skills to pull this off in future semesters. I tend to grade in big batches, and having a batch of exams every two weeks is a bit too much. I recognize that it’s better pedagogically, but I’m not sure the improvement is balanced out by the time I have to put into it.

Last semester, I offered my graduate biostatistics students the option of of a cumulative oral exam instead of a written take-home exam. Nobody took me up on that offer.

I don’t do extra credit. There’s a whole separate post about that for some point in the future. I also don’t hold out-of-class review sessions or host in-office-hour reviews with gaggles of students. And that’s also a whole ‘nother post. Students in my classes never be surprised about any exam question. That’s a third post.

What is always in your grading scheme? Do you do something overly different than me, and how do you think it affects the way that students study and learn in the long term?

What do our “Overly Honest Syllabi” remarks say about how we approach our craft?


Sometimes, an idea gets explosively popular for a day or two. Earlier this week, that happened with the twitter hashtag for Overly Honest Syllabi, for university instructors who made remarks on ideas that might cut too deep to share with students in writing. But somehow it’s okay to broadcast it globally on twitter.

If you’re a twitter person, it was #overlyhonestsyllabi. Non-twitter people: Ugh, I know.

I tried my hand at a few:

@hormiga: Extra credit, schmextra credit

@hormiga: Don’t apologize after you skip class. It’s not a personal offense. Your choices merely reflect your priorities.

@hormiga: You’re over 18, you’re an adult. I’m treating you like one and expect you to act like one, whether you like it or not.

These are all concepts that I find often find myself explaining to students throughout the semester, and if students actually read the syllabi closely, then including these in an overly honest syllabus might save me a number of redundant conversations.

I guess I broke the rules of twitter, because those are things that I do put in the syllabus, or tell my students on the first day of class. They all know that I don’t take attendance, I don’t assign extra credit opportunities, and I don’t take it personally if they choose to skip class because they need to approach their role in the classroom professionally. My students also know that they’re my top priority tied to my job, that I will respond as promptly as reasonably possible to correspondence, and that I vow that they will not be surprised by anything at all on the exams. And a whole bunch of other stuff.

However, there were all kinds of approaches to this hashtag genre, that were different from my own.

If you want to read about a bunch of ugly ones by professors who don’t seem to have much respect for their students, then here is a blog post by someone else about that. (The comments on the post, in my view, are particularly interesting, so check those out.) The author of the post had an experience teaching first-generation students from underrepresented groups, with many non-scholastic obligations who were “at risk.” (Maybe she was adjuncting at my university, for all I know.) Anyway, this experience with students who are underprepared and are accustomed to little support was a huge amount of work and a huge inspiration. I know where the author is coming from and I’ve been fortunate enough to have that kind of job every semester.

So, I’m also sensitive when faculty do things that show overt disrespect for their students. And there was plenty of that in this distributed conversation on twitter, because, well, most university instructors don’t seem to enjoy teaching. That’s not news, though. Some professors are jerks. Our students often act unprofessionally when they interact with us. Dealing with inappropriate behavior by some students is part of our job. Working with underprepared students is definitely our job. Venting on twitter only alienates the students, who are listening to this conversation.

There were a couple other currents in this Overly Honest Syllabi conversation that were really interesting. One was that faculty want to inform students about the feudal state of universities and the fact that the bulk of instruction comes from poorly paid part-time labor:

@phillyprof03: B4 you complain that your adjunct prof didn’t spend enough time mtg w/ you, know that many of them teach at 4-5 places.

@drugmonkeyblog: I am an adjunct and yes, I teach this same class over at the CC. You could pay a quarter of what the U is charging.

@GracieG: I am an adjunct faculty member who has been hired to teach this class for less than your student loan refund check.

@_JoyCastro: Be aware that there’s only a 30% chance I’m a tenure-line professor. More likely, I’m overworked & underpaid.

While ironic humor is typically overvalued on twitter, there are also some spectacular ones that show the great hearts of faculty, especially Dr. Dez:

@docdez: This class is a SOOC (Small, Optimal, Offline Course). Thank your lucky stars, and use it to your advantage.

@docdez: While all emails will be answered, you’ll get more pedagogical bang for your tuition buck if you talk to me in person.

@docdez: Let’s not both simply aim to survive this semester. Let’s shoot for thriving.

@drisis: The non-traditional student working and trying to take your class may think college is not viable for them

@Salmon_language: My comments will be intentionally illegible because it’s the only way I can get any of you to come to office hours.

@drdanoconnor: “I’d never let on, but these two hours with you guys are actually my favorite part of the job”

And, once again, there are a ton of jerky ones out there. Some professors seemingly don’t understand that when there is a power differential, and differences in experience and maturity, all people still deserve equal respect.

Students seeing this might, justifiably, look at this conversation and realize that their professors are inclined to mock them once they step away from the classroom. And, there can be truth to that, and I’ve once worked in an environment like that.

For students reading this, let me reassure you that this is far from universal, and the bulk of your faculty have good intentions and are working with the goal of your success. Some are better at it than others, and many of them have a hard time understanding where you’re coming from. You probably have a good idea which of your professors respect you, because respect is shown with deeds.

The internet, like everything else, can be a lens. A lens is only as good as where you focus.

What is the big lesson in “Overly Honest Syllabi” for students? I think it was summed up best by a colleague of mine:

@Jspagna1: While a professional, your instructor is human and can’t help but take some things personally.