APR Update: Course Syllabi Key Elements in APR Application

by Deborah Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
CFLE Network
Content Area
Professional Ethics and Practice

In recent months, a number of questions have been posed about the review process for renewal, as well as first time approval, application materials. In particular, questions have surfaced about the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) Academic Program Review (APR) Committee members' and the Liaison's expectations for syllabi content. This column provides an opportunity for answering many of the key questions that have been asked.

Why are course syllabi deemed so important?

Deb Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, APR Liaison: The Academic Program Review endeavor is an appraisal process leading toward program approval (and subsequent Provisional Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE) certification for program graduates) rather than program accreditation. In my experience with accrediting bodies, their review processes typically involve substantial self-analysis and program mapping; preparation of a self-study report featuring many documents, including course syllabi; a site visit by an external team of reviewers featuring interviews with faculty, administrators, students, alumni, employers, colleagues from departments that service the curriculum/program, and even staff of the unit's office; a report generated by the site visitors that is based on review of self-study documents and site visit observations. Such a report typically speaks to the academic program's quality (e.g., relevant and timely content; rigorous and meaningful learning outcomes; resource sufficiency; faculty qualifications; and evidence of student success) and concludes with recommendations, including whether to accredit or reaccredit the academic program.

By comparison, for purposes of NCFR CFLE program approval rather than accreditation, APR Committee members and/or the Liaison typically review a prepared narrative, supporting documents that accompany the narrative, and relevant syllabi. Lesser documentation is required for this process, thus making what is submitted that much more vital to a reviewer's ability to assess the program's quality with regard to content breadth, depth, rigor, timeliness, and scholarly nature. The more complete and thorough the syllabi are, the more information reviewers have to make their assessment. When academic programs' approved status is up for renewal, it is equally important to provide updated versions of well-fleshed out syllabi. Optimally, a complete syllabus consists of the following:

  • Correct course title and number
  • Semester (date) when syllabus was being followed
  • Instructor name
  • Course description
  • Listing of fully cited textbook(s) and supplemental readings
  • Student learning outcomes and/or course objectives
  • Explanation/charting of means by which student performance is evaluated
  • Basic description of/directions for significant assignments and learning activities
  • Topically detailed course calendar/schedule

Dawn Cassidy, NCFR Director of Education: A complete set of syllabi for CFLE-approved courses are kept on file at NCFR headquarters for a number of reasons. Most notably, the syllabi are referred to when CFLE applicants submit a substitution for a CFLE-approved course. Applicants are allowed to submit up to two substitute courses in place of approved courses. In these instances, applicants are required to submit a syllabus for the course they took in place of the CFLE-approved course. Staff at NCFR review the syllabus for the substitute course and compare it with the syllabus for the CFLE-approved course in order to ensure that the substitute course covered the same content.

Course syllabi are also kept on file at headquarters as a way to maintain overall accountability for the Academic Program Review process and finally, when interested parties ask about exemplary programs, courses, and approaches, access to course syllabi can provide helpful reinforcement for positive evaluations. NCFR hopes to obtain permission from CFLE-approved programs to post syllabi from approved courses on the Professional Resource Library (PRL) in the near future as a way to share information regarding best practices in academic coursework. If you are interested in having your course syllabi posted on the NCFR PRL, please contact me at [email protected].

What aspects of a course syllabus do you pay attention to when determining how well the content (breadth and depth) matches the expectations of the relevant Content Area(s)?

Martin Covey, Ph.D., CFLE, Spring Arbor University: There are five elements of a syllabus that give the reviewer a good sense of how well that specific course matches the expectations of the relevant Family Life Education Content Areas:

  • Thorough course descriptions – A thorough course description will "walk" the student (and consequently, the reviewer) through the course, highlighting the learning experience to be expected. It can also connect course activities/learning to specific elements of the relevant content area.
  • Learning objectives/outcomes – Learning objectives that are worded in such a fashion as to clearly point to specific elements of the relevant FLE content areas assists a reviewer in making the necessary connections. Listing key words from the content area in the learning objectives certainly makes sense.
  • Readings – Course texts, assigned supplemental readings, and academic articles whose titles clearly link to the relevant content area enables the reviewer to "connect the dots" between the syllabus and the content area under consideration.
  • Topically detailed course schedule – Having a detailed course calendar gives the student (and the reviewer) a sense of progress through the course. A detailed course calendar might provide the dates when class will be held, required readings that are due, and key objectives for learning during that class period. It is essential, when listing readings, that chapter titles from the text(s) and the titles of articles are given. Again, this assists the reviewer to see how the proposed course is attempting to address elements of the relevant content area(s) through the readings.
  • Assignment descriptions – Assignments should be clear and thorough enough that a reviewer can clearly see how/if the learning stated in the course description and learning objectives will be evaluated. Don't forget to include assignments that are housed in a LMS (Learning Management System) course shell or online! Just mentioning that the assignment description can be found on-line is not enough!

What parts of a course syllabus do you consider most important to your ability to assess whether or not the course is properly rigorous?

Bethanne Shriner, Ph.D., CFLE, University of Wisconsin-Stout: One of the most important areas we look to when assessing if a course is rigorous enough to meet the requirements for CFLE certification is the student learning outcomes. In particular, we keep in mind how well the action verbs of the learning outcome statements for the course being reviewed (100, 200, 300, etc.) correspond to the various levels of cognitive rigor of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy. For example, if we are looking at 100 and 200-level courses, we would expect that the level of rigor to be less demanding and, thus, are less concerned when the cognitive action verbs of the learning objectives call for students to remember, understand, and apply. However, we would anticipate that a 300 or 400-level course would be expecting higher levels of critical thinking from students and, thus, would hope to see learning outcome statements that mostly utilize cognitive action verbs such as analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and create.

In addition, we also look at the types of readings and assignments that are required of that course. When examining these components, we expect the rigor of the student learning outcome statements to match the degree of challenge students experience with comprehending written material and undertaking assignments. We pay attention to the descriptions of and the direction for the assignments that are included in the syllabus. Once again, in upper level courses, assignments and readings should be more rigorous and challenging. For example, in a 100 level course we might expect students to be required to find one research article, then read it and summarize it. In contrast, for upper level courses, we would expect students to no longer be merely summarizing one article, but instead engaging in research of their own and are creating their own literature review. This would likely involve synthesizing information from multiple articles and then organizing main ideas and findings in a cohesive way that supports their own study.

What components of a course syllabus give you the best insight into the scholarly nature of the content and learning activities?

Janet Crow, Ph.D., CFLE, Kansas State University: When trying to determine the scholarly nature of proposed courses, we have found three aspects of the syllabus key to a full understanding of the course: the learning outcomes/objectives, the required readings, and the assignments. We look for the learning outcomes/objectives to reflect an introduction to scholarly work in lower level classes, while in upper level and graduate classes we look for a clearly articulated expectation that students apply theory and concepts that they are learning to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate "real-life" situations, as well as to scholarly works they are reading. We look for much the same in the required assignments.

Readings should reflect cutting-edge and classic scholarly works. Although well-vetted, popular press publications might be used, they should not be the sole required readings. When journal articles are required for readings and/or assignments, students should be directed to read or select articles from recent discipline-related, peer-reviewed scholarly journals. We look for those parameters, as well as the expectation that students write required papers in a scholarly fashion using current publication guidelines (e.g., APA), to be clearly conveyed to students in fairly detailed directions for assignments.

What aspects of a course syllabus best sheds light on the timeliness/recency/"up-to-date" nature of the course content?

Alice Grimes, Ph.D., CFLE, Urbana University: With regard to syllabi, reviewers consider the required text(s), supplementary reading(s), and other written material, both as a group and also individually, and their clear relationship to the stated course topics and objectives. While some readings that represent a historic or seminal work may be included, it is generally expected the majority will be within 5-7 years of publication or creation. Assignments that are of relevance from a historic perspective should be so identified and the relationship to the stated course topics specified. Reviewers seek indications that the students are receiving information that is current and relevant to the topic, discipline and field of practice.

What components have you most frequently found to be missing or underdeveloped and how does this impact your approach to giving feedback?

Michael Fleming, Ph.D., CFLE, University of Northern Iowa: Many syllabi incorporate substantial space to information that is likely mandated by the college or university where the course is taught. While it is of interest to reviewers to see information about matters such as student support services or policies about academic dishonesty, it is difficult for the academic program reviewer when such information is far lengthier than information provided about student learning outcomes, in-class learning activities, assignments, and coverage of key content as reflected in a topically detailed calendar. An emerging trend in some courses, especially those of online courses, is to move such information into separate documents outside of a syllabus and only briefly reference them in the syllabus. Without such information contained within the syllabus, or as supplementary documents, it is hard for the academic program reviewer to assess the extent the course is meeting the knowledge and skill set associated with the specific Family Life Education content area. It is also problematic for the reviewers when goals and objectives of the course are not clearly distinguished. Often, what are stated to be course objectives are actually goals the instructor has developed for her/himself concerning what course content s/he hopes to expose students to, and not the competencies students are to achieve by the end of the course. When we reviewers come across these situations, we have insufficient insight regarding how the course is taught and what experiences students typically have. In order to render a proper assessment of the course, our only recourse is to ask, and then wait, for more information to be provided.

What are some exemplary ways you have seen various academic programs publicize and promote their CFLE-Approved status? What are some exemplary mean of helping students get ready for submitting their application soon after graduating?

Jennifer Reinke, Ph.D., CFLE, University of Wisconsin-Stout: Programs that we consider "exemplary" in terms of promoting the CFLE credential and helping students prepare for the certification process tend to have a few things in common.

First, exemplary programs explicitly mention how each course meets the 10 Family Life Education content area(s); some programs even include a grid or chart that illustrates this. When we are looking at so many documents for each course, visual aids such as these can be helpful.

Second, exemplary programs infuse assignments and activities into their introductory and capstone courses for which the purpose is to:

The Abbreviated Application Process Directions include information on an application process for graduating seniors that can be incorporated as a classroom activity and allows partial payment of the Abbreviated Application fee.

These small steps can turn a good set of application materials into a great one, and can expedite the process of first-time approval or renewal approval.

If you are associated with an approved academic program and have been directly involved with facilitating (from the campus end) a first time approval or renewal process, what advice do you have to share with others about to embark on that role for their program?

Dorothy Berglund, Ph.D., CFLE, Mississippi University for Women: Recently, my department was successful in undertaking the second renewal of its CFLE-approved academic program. In my view, my colleagues and I were thorough as well as efficient in our efforts. We did our best to follow a few best practices. First, we reviewed sections of the Handbook for Academic Program Review pertinent to renewal of approved status, as well as directions the APR Liaison provided to us. We paid attention to suggestions regarding how to best ready our documents, particularly syllabi, for submission. It was evident to all of us that the syllabi should be as complete and reasonably detailed as possible.

Next, my colleagues and I reflected on all that had transpired within our approved academic program since its last renewal. It was determined we had addressed all of the recommendations identified during the previous renewal. We identified the ways the Checklist needed to be revised and formulated a rationale for why such changes were needed.

A concern we had, and that may be of concern to others as well, is that our department is housed in the College of Education. The current dean of our college is from an education background, and explaining how CFLE program approval and accreditation differs was very important in terms of her understanding of the process we were undertaking and what role, if any, she would play in it. Finally, sharing this information with everyone involved can give a notion of the timeline involved and when people need to have materials (syllabi) into the person who is responsible for compiling and submitting materials for review. In our case, it was decided I would be the person to do the compiling and submitting tasks. Though I am a faculty member, other programs elsewhere have elected to have an administrative assistant or academic advisor do these tasks.

In final preparation to electronically submit the syllabi, I named each file in this manner: course acronym, course number, and course title. The corresponding content area number, date taught, and/or instructor's name are optional pieces of information to include, but doing so makes for a very long file name. Though I did not do so, it is possible to house all of the documents being submitted within a .zip file. When it came time to submit the documents needed for renewal review, most of which were syllabi, I attached them to an email message to an email address the APR liaison shared with me.

After the syllabi I submitted had been reviewed, I received some feedback, which consisted mostly of questions seeking clarification on various aspects of certain courses, as well as a few requests for information that was deemed missing from a couple of syllabi. With the cooperation of my colleagues, I was able to satisfactorily respond to the feedback within a fairly short period of time. Our program is enjoying the benefits of our second renewal of approved status and anticipating our third.

How many syllabi are typically reviewed each year?

Deb Gentry, APR liaison: Were one to say that this year is a typical one, then there are likely to be 32 approved academic programs up for renewal. Couple that with perhaps three or four programs applying for first time approval. If each program features nine or 10 courses, that could amount to as many as 360 syllabi to review. Wow!

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