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Syllabus Analysis: A Course Compass

Susan Lesyk, Director, The Teaching and Learning Center

Chapter 6 of Susan Lesyk's The Blue Book: Achieving Success on Essay Exams addresses the value of analyzing a course syllabus in order to develop strategies for test preparation and to predict questions that might appear on midterm and final exams. I would like to suggest using this process to build a fundamental understanding of what the course you are teaching is all about, where it's headed and what will be gained when the student gets there.

Look at The Blue Book's sample course description from a Sociology class:

In this course we will be addressing the role of the financial officer in fulfilling the basic goal of the firm which is to maximize the value of the shareholder's equity subject to constraints imposed by technology, demand, and society. In our discussion of such topics as short-term financial planning, selection of capital investments, capital structure planning, and valuation of the business enterprise, we will continually refer to the problem of proper risk assessment and the necessity of viewing alternative courses of action in terms of marginal costs and marginal benefits.

In order to squeeze every drop of value from the description of the course, begin with these questions in mind:

Analyzing the course by pursuing the answers to these kinds of questions helps students view the course through the professor's perspective. With these fundamental pieces in place, each lecture, reading and discussion can be integrated and understood within the big picture.

from The Blue Book

"Some students approach their courses with surprising ignorance. They assume the passive role of being recipients, not participants, of their education. Given that they are not the professor, they accept that course material seems arbitrary and disconnected. Only the professor needs to know what is really going on in the course, right? In the classroom, however, such ignorance is not bliss. I once overheard a conversation between two students that went something like this:

(Continued on page 5)

'What psychology course are you taking this term?"


'What's that about?'

'It's about humanistic psychology, or humanism, or something like that. Something to do with theories of personality, but not the usual theories. It's different. Some things that come out of the third force.'

'What's that, the third force?'

'I'm not really sure yet. We're just getting to it. It's a little confusing.'

'Is it a hard class? Do you like it?'

'It's O.K. I guess. The reading isn't too bad, but I'm not sure what we are supposed to be getting out of it. We haven't had a test yet, so I don't know how difficult it is. Next week will tell all, I guess, when we have our midterm."

(Continued from page 5)

We can only assume that the professor of Psychology 413 would have described the course quite differently!

As I overheard this exchange between the two students, I couldn't help but think that as far as this class was concerned, this poor psychology student might as well be swimming in mud. Nothing was clear to him about the course, at least not clear enough to be able to articulate the major thrust of the class to another student.

This student's comment that 'next week will tell all' suggests a resignation to knowing little about course expectations until the midterm, when the test questions might shed some light on what the course has been all about. Granted, tests do serve multiple functions in the educational process, but when students rely on them for course enlightenment, any insights will obviously come too late to benefit test performance.

What this student lacked was something many students lack: the big picture, a comprehensive, less fragmented view of the course that would allow specific course material to be placed within a larger conceptual context. By visualizing a picture of the class that has a better focus, this student would no doubt be able to extract much more out of class lectures and readings."

Below is a course description and strategy for analysis from The Blue Book. As you read the paragraph, consider the major themes the professor plans to emphasize in the course.

This course will examine the historical origins and development of class and class systems, including slavery. We will review the major theoretical explanation for social stratification. Although our primary focus will be on social stratification in America, for purposes of comparison, we will also examine how caste and class systems function in other parts of the world. The course will emphasize the relationship between social stratification and how people live, including the effect class has on how individuals develop their value and belief systems.

The first step in the analysis is to jot down four or five topics or themes that a student should anticipate being covered in this sociology course.

Keeping these topics and themes in mind, develop questions that can be used as checkpoints during the course:

  1. Trace the historical origins and development of America's class systems, beginning with slavery during the 1600s.
  2. Discuss some major theoretical explanations for social stratification.
  3. What is the difference between a caste and a class system, and how do caste and class function in various parts of the world?
  4. What are the ways in which a person's class can affect his or her life style?
  5. What are the ways in which class can affect a person's value and belief system?

"Constructing questions of a general nature will help isolate course themes. When developed early in the term before exams, these general questions are an excellent vehicle for collecting and organizing course material. During study sessions, questions that cover more specific content will come to mind based on natural subdivisions that emerge within the organized material."

It might be well worth the five minutes it would take to review the themes and guiding questions developed around the course goals at the beginning of each discussion/tutorial session. Ask, "Given what this course is about and where it's headed, how does today's lecture, reading, or discussion topic fit into the big picture?"

Your students will not need to be geniuses or psychics to stay on top of what's going on in class. They will have a working understanding of the material presented, and, yes, an edge when test time rolls around.

The Blue Book by Susan Lesyk is available at the UO bookstore. Copies are also available for preview in the TEP office, 65 PLC. Come by and take a look.