Use an annotated syllabus to track changes in your thinking about course design and document the effectiveness of your teaching

April 8, 2014

Faculty should use multiple sources of evidence to document the effectiveness of their teaching for annual evaluations and tenure and promotion portfolios. An annotated syllabus can document how you use feedback from students and other assessment evidence to improve the quality of courses you teach regularly.

Annotated syllabi begin with your current course syllabus and grow in scope and in depth as you add annotations and links to additional materials each time you teach the course. How can an annotated syllabus be useful for faculty? Creating an annotated syllabus prompts regular reflection on the effectiveness of course design and the instructional assignments we create. An annotated syllabus makes the intellectual work that goes into teaching public, documenting the evolution of course designs across multiple terms.

Annotating your syllabus also creates immediate and tangible benefits. During the middle of a term, we may discover small changes that will improve future versions of our course or get an idea about a better way to design an assignment or in-class learning activity. Usually it is not possible to implement these changes during the current term, but we want to capture these ideas for the next time we teach the class. Annotations on the syllabus should describe the precise change we intend to make and articulate our rationale for the change. Thus, an annotated syllabus tracks the evolution of your ideas, impressions, and observations about course design and documents your efforts to continuously improve teaching and learning in this course.

Annotated syllabi can provide entry points in which you can “dig down” and excavate your assumptions about course design, ask questions such as

  • is this textbook really accomplishing what I want from it?
  • does my policy about class participation motivate students to give their best? or
  • is my grading rubric as clear as it can be about different levels of performance?

There are no prescriptive prompts for creating an annotated syllabus; each annotated syllabus is unique to the interests and professional development of the instructor. Simply annotate your syllabus where you have questions about how you want to structure future courses, identify the changes you are considering, explain the scholarly thinking that informs choices you make when designing your course, or identify assignments you plan to use to assess how well students achieve a particular course learning outcome.

Collaboration with other faculty can magnify the benefits of creating an annotated syllabus. Collaborative groups might pose questions that an instructor working alone might not consider, such as

  • why does this rule exist in your classroom?
  • why did you select these materials for your students? or
  • why did you include or not include this language in your syllabus?

If you choose to work alone on annotating your syllabus, consider reading a book about instructional improvement or course design. These resources can prompt you to raise questions about your instructional choices. Good resources include:

  • Ken Bain (2004) What the Best College Teachers Do
  • Donald Finkel (2000) Teaching With Your Mouth Shut
  • Maryellen Weimer (2002) Learner-centered Teaching: 5 Key Changes to Practice.
  • Maryellen Weimer (2010) Inspired College Teaching

Practical Tips for Creating an Annotated Syllabus

Save your current course syllabus as a Word file with a different file name than the one used for the course syllabus (e.g., Syllabus-MMM2345 might be saved as Annotated-Syllabus-MMM2345).

Activate Track Changes in the Review menu in Word.

Highlight a word or phrase in your syllabus that you want to annotate and click on New Comment to add an annotation.

Alternatively, if you would like to access your annotated syllabus from any computer—and perhaps eventually to make it public—use Google Docs or a Wiki such as PBWorks. Wikis allow you to add endless depth to your annotated syllabi!

You can view samples of annotated syllabi created as part of a faculty learning community atMetropolitan State College of Denver Annotated Syllabi.

This tip is based on teaching strategy submitted by Mark Potter, Director, Center for Faculty Development, Teaching Strategy Tips, Metropolitan State College of Denver to the Western Kentucky University Teaching Issues Writing Consortium.

Updated: 04/24/14 tjf