Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Changing of the Syllabus

Thinking about yesterday's discussion of differences in teaching Science vs. Humanities topics, I wondered how often we professors, over time, change the syllabus of the courses we teach, and, if they do change, why they change. By the phrase "over time", I am trying to say that I mean changes over the years, not within a particular term.

I think it is entirely possible, in any discipline, to teach a "classic" topic that doesn't change dramatically from year to year, or even decade to decade, no matter how much the broader field itself has changed. And then there are courses on "topical" topics, that include or focus on concepts or methods that were unknown in the past, perhaps even in the fairly recent past; this, too, could apply to any discipline, even if not to every course within every discipline.

I was thinking about some of my "classic" science courses in this context, and realized that they have actually changed quite a it over the years, not in terms of the core concepts, some of which have remained unchanged for a long, long time, but in the examples I discuss. There are new applications that did not exist a decade ago (or less), and if I taught the course the same way that I did 20 years ago, students would learn the basics but not be aware of how these can be used to do Modern Science.

I don't think I could specify exactly how much these courses have changed with time, but a very rough guess would be somewhere between 20-40%. In some cases, these changes are reflected in the syllabus (in terms of the list of course topics) and in some cases, not so much. That is, the listed topics are the same, but what I say about them has changed a lot over time. I refer here to changes that are driven by advances in the field, not variations I might introduce to keep from being bored with teaching the exact same thing year after year.

The above discussion refers primarily to undergraduate courses and to some advanced courses, but, for me, graduate seminars are a different beast. The topics of graduate seminars that I teach change significantly over time. It would be impossible (or, at least, very unwise) for me to teach the same graduate seminar over the years; things (including the scientific literature) change too much, too fast for that. I could organize a seminar on the same or similar (very) general topic every 10 years (for example), but the content of the seminar would be very different each time. I would think that this, too, could be said for many other disciplines.

Have you ever taught a course that literally could stay pretty much the same year after year, for a long time, perhaps even decades? Or, (more likely, I think) if you teach a course with content that can, should, and does change with time owing to advances in your field, how much does it change (per whatever unit of time is relevant to your situation)?


professormamallama said...

I do this systematically in one of my courses (a mid-upper level undergrad course). Every semester, and I teach this course every semester, I take two weeks of the material and start over with it. I catch up on relevant new developments, gather new data and new examples, and end up replacing 10-100% of the content of each class meeting.

By taking two weeks every semester, I end up revising my class roughly 3-4 years, maybe every 5 years when I include the sleep-deprived postpartum years I scraped by...

Although some of the important concepts and examples remain unchanged (perhaps 25%), I've changed that particular course 75% in a dozen years.

I think it would be really really boring to teach the same thing all the time. But, I like teaching... and I'd like to continue liking it.

Andrea said...

I have both. I teach an introductory course in the field and that hasn't changed much since I started as a TA in grad shool. I do change the examples (I'm in media) but even then, the students havnt seen older films so while I like to include current stuff, I also want to include the old stuff as part of their learning process. I also teach a grad class focused specifically on the latest media trends so that is radically different each time I teach it. And then there are many in between.

Anonymous said...

What are the courses that never change?

- courses on "old" literature or ancient history (or even then, have ideas and approaches changed)?
- courses on "core" concepts (thermodynamics? or again, maybe there are new applications that would be taught?)

Are there any courses that never change and really don't need to, or are unchanging courses only taught by professors who don't want to change them (for whatever reason)?

Anonymous said...

Most of my colleagues and I revamp, freshen up, update our courses every time we teach them, at least in some ways. Not every science class needs to incorporate the very latest thing, but it's important to show students that these are dynamic subjects, with new things being discovered and important things yet to be discovered (perhaps by them, the students, in the future).

Anonymous said...

I teach a course in taxonomy and plant identification. And while on the one hand a red maple is a red maple (Acer rubrum, and the meaning of the term pubescent (fuzzy) won't change, plants names are continually changing and plants come in and out of fashion, so my course is continually being revised, even if at it's most basic, a rose is a rose by any other name.

Anonymous said...

I teach General Chemistry frequently. The content doesn't change much if at all. I try to change the pedagogy I use and the ways I try to put the material in context on a regular basis-meaning little adjustments to about 1/3rd of the lectures each semester.

I also teach instrumental analysis and that class changes up very regularly because new technology and dominant technology changes so often.

nanoalchemist said...

The most recent updates to the syllabus for my freshmen chem class syllabus have been:

Three years ago: added a "understanding of expectations" to be signed by the students indicating the have read the syllabus, know who to talk to about problems, how to calculate their grade, when the exam dates are.

Two years ago: added an e-mail policy requiring complete sentences, opening and closing, and hours available/ return time.

Last year: added a section on estimated time/effort the students should expend on the course both inside and outside study based on the types of classes they had in high school.

The core content for freshman chemistry is pretty much the same as when I was an undergrad, so there is not much change there, but I do constantly revise notes, examples, problems, and most importantly demonstrations in class.

Alex said...

What are the courses that never change?

Freshman physics.

Somebody will no doubt say something about exciting interactive methods to teach freshman physics. Yes. But all that means is that you use a clicker and have a group discussion of a block on an inclined plane, instead of a lecture about a block on an inclined plane.

One could change freshman physics, if one adopted a curriculum like Matter And Interactions by Chabay and Sherwood, but that would mean doing something different, and that would be different and hence bad.

Sofia said...

I had a comment that grew long. It's on teaching calculus and the constraints on dramatically changing content covered. Find it here if you desire.

Doctor Pion said...

I find this discussion quite amusing. I teach freshman physics, and one of the things that I have changed dramatically in the last decade (reflected in the syllabus sequencing) is thermodynamics. I just wish there was a way to get nonsense like "specific heat" (which has nothing to do with heat, because it is determined by the change in internal energy) out of there completely. Students follow the subject much better if stat mech comes in at the start, but that is for another blog.

I have also changed the emphasis in several significant ways, testing heavily on some problem-solving skills used in both physics and engineering that were never assessed in any way in classes I've been involved with in the past or observed more recently.

Examples? All the time, sometimes, but never, in a few cases. The forces on Cameron's deep-sea exploration vessel really engaged the class this year and will be useful for a few years.