University News

New syllabus criteria draw mixed feelings

Amid reaccreditation process, U. requires faculty to list hours of coursework expected on syllabi

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 4, 2016

This year, faculty members are required to release syllabi with two new features: the estimated time that will be spent on the course — with a minimum total of 180 hours — and a statement about learning objectives, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel.

The University’s goal with this new policy and another policy mandating that all professors upload their syllabi online during shopping period was to create transparency, Mandel said. But the “federal hour requirement is not a Brown requirement,” she added.

In 2010, the federal government released a mandatory requirement of 180 hours for any class worth four credits, Mandel said. Since the University is currently undergoing its first reaccreditation review process by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges after the federal requirement was put in place, the administration decided to make the changes this year, Mandel said.

Besides just the “formalization of something that already existed,” the new measure also responds to student demand for more syllabi online, Mandel said. While only about one third of faculty members uploaded a syllabus to Canvas before the requirement, 85 percent did this year, with a goal of 100 percent in the future, Mandel said.

Faculty members have mixed feelings about the new syllabus requirement.

While Ross Cheit, professor of international and public affairs and professor of political science, understands the need to think more systematically about learning goals, he does not approve of the idea of putting specific hour limits for activities such as reading and preparing for an exam, which could differ by student, he said.

“The idea of doing that contradicts everything we know about learning — which is that people do it differently,” he added.

Stefano Bloch, postdoctoral senior research associate in urban studies, also expressed concerns about different learning rates. “Students come with different types of literacy in terms of the knowledge that they bring to an assignment,” he said. “The different levels of literacy can mean that some students will take longer than others.”

Bloch said he does not think the requirement is a detriment to the class as long as students understand that the class syllabus is “a living document” subject to change. But if students take longer than the expected time listed, he doesn’t want them to think they are “failing to accomplish the goal in the proper amount of time,” he added.

“How long will it take to do an assignment that should take five hours? I think sometimes it could take the rest of your life,” Bloch said.

Mandel said the 180 hours of course-related time is a minimum requirement for the amount of time “the ideal student” should commit to a given course. The requirement is designed to make faculty members dissect the assumptions they make about how much work students must devote to the class to master the course material, she added.

Cheit said the requirement would have been better if the University had “more foresight.” Faculty members were sent an email in early August that first introduced the requirements and declared the revised syllabi were due Aug. 31, he said. The email also included events intended to help faculty members map out the new hour requirement, but one took place Sept. 13 — after the deadline — Cheit said.

“I feel like this came down from above,” Cheit said. Since professors scrambled to come up with a time scheme that would reach 180 hours, the number became a fictional redundancy, he added.

“I understand the motivation is to try to establish to the outside accreditation people that all of our courses that are weighted equivalently take the same amount of time, but if the exercise is just that everyone came up with a way for their courses to have 180 (hours), that’s a little problematic,” he said.

But to Bloch, the hour estimations should be taken with a grain of salt. “The hours are average ranges for a typical student, and I’ve not known many students at Brown to be typical. I mean that in a very positive way,” Bloch said.

The Office of the Dean of the College has received a lot of positive feedback from students about having syllabi available online, Mandel said.