Creating a Syllabus Using Quality Matters Standards

By Elizabeth Lemke

What does a quality online course look like? How do we make sure every course is high quality? How do we measure or define quality? Those are all tough questions we ask ourselves every day (or at least very, very frequently) as we design and develop online courses.

The Distance Learning team has been working hard to establish and implement quality standards using Quality Matters (QM): “a faculty-centered, peer review process that is designed to certify the quality of online courses and online components.” We use QM as framework for quality throughout our course design process, from start to finish, revisiting the quality standards along the way to make sure we are on track to creating a high-quality course. The QM Rubric helps us define and successfully design high-quality courses. One of the first course components we create is the syllabus, which serves as framework or foundation for all of the other course components that need to be included. The QM Rubric helps us make sure we include all the important pieces.

Distance Learning team member Jessica Mansbach wrote a wonderful blog post about the importance of a syllabus. At first glance, a syllabus should accomplish the following:

  • Who is teaching and how do you connect
  • What will students learn
  • Support contacts
  • How to succeed in the course

By applying QM, the syllabus can help us meet many important and essential quality standards that span across 6 of the 8 general standards.

Standard 1: Course Overview and Introduction

This standard focuses on making sure students understand course expectations and how to navigate the course and creates a positive and intuitive environment for learning.

Standard 1 and the Syllabus: The syllabus is usually the first piece of the course students see. By reading the description, learning objectives, assignment descriptions and grading structure, students can easily understand the purpose of the course and what is expected of them.

Standard 2: Learning Objectives (Competencies)

This standard focuses on clearly stating, from the students’ perspective, what skills and knowledge they will master by the end of the course.

Standard 2 and the Syllabus: Including course-level learning objectives is an essential quality standard. Course-level learning objectives  provide the basic framework for all of the weekly learning objectives, instructional materials, learning activities, assessments, assignments, and course technologies and tools. Alignment among these course elements, stemming from the course learning objectives, ensures the course content is sequenced and harmonious.

Standard 3: Assessment and Measurement

This standard focuses on including assessments that measure student progress towards mastery of the stated course and weekly learning objectives.

Standard 3 and the Syllabus: How a student will be evaluated after competing assessments is clear and directly ties back to the syllabus grading policy statement. Rubrics are also a great way to communicate this detailed and often complex information and provide transparency for grading practices and expectations.

Standard 4: Instructional Materials

This standard focuses on making sure the instructional materials help students achieve the stated learning objectives and successfully complete the learning activities and assessments/assignments.

Standard 4 and the Syllabus: It is essential to clearly state the distinction between required and optional materials. While this important distinction can be made in the syllabus, it is also essential to make this clear throughout the course. Supplemental and recommended still imply they must read to succeed in the course.

Standard 6: Course Technology

This standard focuses on making sure course technologies and tools enhance various course components rather than disrupt the learning process.

Standard 6 and the Syllabus: While no specific tool needs to be used to meet this standard, clear and detailed instructions need to be included for any and all tools used. The syllabus is a great place to include information about software downloads for external tools, explanations of when and how tools will be used, tutorials and how to guides, and how these tools support achievement of the stated learning objectives. Examples include: External software and programs (Tableau for PBA); social media participation; integrated Canvas tools such as YellowDig, Zaption, Collaborations, BlueJeans; Lynda.com; discounted software for students (Adobe Suite, Microsoft Suite, etc.).

Standard 7: Learner Support

This standard focuses on the inclusion of support services provided by the institution, where to locate them and how to obtain them.

Standard 7 and the Syllabus: The four main resources that help students succeed should be a common fixtures in most syllabi, but it’s worth noting that all of Standard 7 can be met by including the following information in your syllabus:  

    • Technical support: Canvas support, help desk contact info
    • Accessibility policies and services: how to obtain services and request accommodations
    • Academic support and services: orientations, library, testing and tutoring services, writing/math centers
    • Student services and support: advising, registration, financial aid, campus life, counseling, career services

The syllabus is a powerful tool in any classroom that can communicate essential information to students. For more information about applying Quality Matters Standards to your, talk to your Learning Designer or contact the Distance Learning team: distanceeducation@northwestern.edu. You can also visit the Quality Matters website to review the rubric standards.



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