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A Common Syllabus – A Common Dilemma


David Schmidt
TA Development Services
A common syllabus should act as a road map and guide for both teacher and student. It keeps everyone on track so that they all arrive at a stated destination at a stated time. It should, however, allow time for interesting side trips and necessary pit stops.

While a common syllabus can provide a desirable structure of uniformity and fairness, support for a common syllabus is not universal. Some argue that it is the role of the academic unit to set instructional standards, not to manage the day-to-day classroom experience. Peter Moshein, Assistant Chair of Pitt’s Department of Psychology, explains,

We tested and abandoned the common syllabus model several years ago. We found that it was more satisfactory to have faculty members choose their own textbooks and organize their teaching independently, even if they were teaching one of multiple sections of the same course. Syllabi are periodically reviewed by our curriculum committee, but this is an informal process.

We’re confident that the core material which forms the foundation for advanced study appears in every introductory course. The variety from section to section is healthy. The breadth of experience our faculty brings to the classroom is one of the strengths of our department. Many of them have written texts in the field. Denying an instructor the opportunity to introduce personal research interests and enthusiasm is counterproductive.

Is academic freedom at odds with the demand for uniformity of instruction? Not necessarily. It seems reasonable that multiple sections of a course have an obligation to cover similar skills and knowledge, but this does not have to come at a cost of the instructor’s freedom to teach independently. A common syllabus can be a helpful tool for new instructors and for studying reform, without diminishing faculty freedom to personalize teaching. Indeed, shared course design may offer new opportunities for instructors to shape and contribute to departmental planning.



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