Designing a syllabus

Well, I made it through the first week of classes! It actually went quite well…In the past, I had used a syllabus used at ASU for teaching the elementary science methods course. While the syllabus was sound, it did not cause the preservice teachers never referenced them after leaving the course. Not saying that did not use the ideas learned, they identified more with courses from other areas. What do you do when you are not sure what to do with a class? Maybe you go to google and search the topic… And search I did! But what helped me most of all was turning to my colleagues at other institutions to see what they did. Let me tell you… They are a wealth of knowledge! I contacted Michelle with my question and BAM! I was hit with inspiration and validation for how I was imagining the structure of the course.

1. Identify the core ideas for your discipline, subject, or concept.

In science education, there has been a new set of frameworks that was just released. Now, the ideas behind the frameworks have been developing over time, but not always together. Specifically, there are several ideas that science teachers need to consider when designing instruction: 1) scientific & engineering practices; 2) crosscutting concepts; & 3) disciplinary core ideas (NRC, 2011). While the state science standards have not been modified to align with the new framework, I felt it was a good idea to set the syllabus within the future practices for my   preservice teachers.

2. Determine how these ideas fit together. 

If you have read any website about presentations, the key to the success of any presentation is doing some form of concept mapping (education jargon) or pre-planning on how you see the ideas fit with one another. There may be 5 key ideas that interlink the content. Or are you basing your syllabus on “the” textbook? If so, you have a ready made format for how the author sees the content fit together. But I would challenge you, to move beyond using the book as your template. Unless you are the author, you have your own unique spin and understanding of how the ideas fit together. Embrace your own creative view of your field. Yes, even scientists are creative. 🙂 For me, I was concerned about how I was framing the content. In the past, the major theme throughout the semester was focusing on student misconceptions. The first day students would watch “A Private Universe” which looks at students’ alternative conceptions of how there is a change in seasons. This semester I moved to focus on the nature of science and began class with this milk activity. This is a drastic change in how I am framing the content.

3. Consider the difficulties students may face learning the content.

If you are lucky, you have taught the course before writing this new syllabus. You may modifying the syllabus because of the students’ difficulties. For those of you new to teaching the course, rely upon your colleagues in finding out student difficulties. This includes discussing with them about the backgrounds of the students (e.g., nursing majors vs. chemistry majors) or (Freshman course vs Senior level course). Some knowledge about the students is helpful. In the sciences, there are identified areas of student difficulty. Do a search on journal websites or on the web for identified areas of student difficulties. In chemistry, the atom is often the first idea discussed after the metric system. Chemistry educators have identified that one of the things that make chemistry difficult is the abstractness of the concepts (e.g., Johnstone, 1982, 1991). Besides adopting a conceptual view of chemistry, start with ideas that provide students with a more concrete (macroscopic) view of the topic. There are several ways to address student difficulties through the syllabus.

One might change the activities in the classroom from complex and complicated to a more simplified and straightforward activity (Clermont et al., 1994). Analysis of the activities you engage your students may inform you of where students are having trouble. You can decide to reteach, provide another example, or another action fails to help students understand the content.

Another way is to change the order of when certain concepts are introduced. Research has shown that students benefit from framing chemistry instruction through a historical stance (Ben Zvi, 1986). This idea relates to point #2 but this emphasis here is to address student difficulties. The old adage of “which came first the chicken or the egg” applies here. In the case of chemistry, did we “see” the atom first or did we see an experiment and inferred that something must being doing X. There are certain skills, ideas and concepts that students should know before moving on to another topic. The same can be said for when designing the syllabus. Ask yourself, “what do the students need to know?” and design the syllabus accordingly.

Finally, determining students’ prior knowledge may change how the syllabus is constructed. While you may not determine what your students’ know prior to entering the class, you can leave days within the syllabus to “catch-up” or address student difficulties. Graduate teaching assistant Karen creates 2 syllabi for the semester. One is what she provides the students that is a bit generic only providing the necessary information; the other is for her in which she can add and subtract various activities based on how students respond to instruction. Using this idea allows for changes to address students’ needs and understandings as they need it.


These three steps provide a guideline into thinking about your instruction to impact student learning. Understanding the nature of the content, having a clear message, and considering students’ knowledge help you present a clear message to students. Regardless of the type of course you are preparing, spending time understanding your own ideas and those of your professional community ultimately sets the stage for a clear foundation for student learning.


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