Download Syllabus

Course Design

To illustrate my thoughts on course design, I have constructed a syllabus for a hypothetical physics course on special relativity. This page goes through the syllabus and annotates it, to provide insight into my thought processes. Please note that this is the first syllabus I have designed.

I chose the topic of special relativity for my course syllabus. I pitched this at a junior level, which is about the level which would be required for students in physics to understand the various components of what I'd like to discuss in the course. I chose this subject because it's a subject that is often taught poorly and scattered across a number of other courses which pay it lip service, and I've often thought "How could I teach this better?" Many students first encounter special relativity in detail at the graduate level, but there's no reason why that should be the case (particularly if they are also seeing general relativity at an undergraduate level). This course isn't based on anything I've seen before, as I've never seen such a course taught at any institution I've been at.

The main themes or ideas that I want to emphasize are "What does special relativity imply for our world view?" and "How does special relativity constrain the rest of physics?" The main picture is that we can no longer claim that two events are simultaneous, because that means something different for different observers. This simple observation leads to a profound paradigm shift in our understanding of physics. The main questions that I am interested in are "What implications does this have for physics?" and "How can we calculate what different observers expect to see?" I particularly want to promote a new mental model for the relationship between space and time. Twenty years after the discovery of special relativity, textbooks were discussing it as "a neat way of describing things" instead of as the fundamental law of nature, which will probably be the way that students view the subject. I hope to start etching away at that idea, and encourage the paradigm shift that embracing this subject requires. I want to teach my students to translate quantities between different frames of reference, understand how to cast a theory in a relativistically invariant manner, and at the heart of the matter, what all that means. I expect the course to be quite mathematically rigorous.

Course Goals and Learning Outcomes

Rather than thinking about the content of a course, I believe that a better way to construct a course is to first understand what you want your students to be able to do at the end of the course. From there, you can design assessments based around those objectives, and then structure the content of the course to suit. Thus, when constructing this course syllabus, I started by thinking about what I wanted students to be able to do by the end of the course, and what they should have gained. Note that not all of the outcomes listed pertain directly to physics; some of them point more towards life-long research and communciation skills.

It can be quite hard to gear these goals and outcomes towards the higher end of Bloom's taxonomy. Some of the higher end verbs start moving towards graduate level research projects, which is certainly not applicable to undergraduate courses. I think that the most important high level thinking that I want to encourage my students towards is to think like a scientist, or to more advanced students, to think like a physicist. For example, in a service course, I would be stressing the scientific method and the manner of thinking that accompanies it, while for physics students, I would be encouraging thinking in terms of dimensions, symmetries, oscillations, waves, and separation of scales arguments, which are the higher level thinking patterns that are critical for physics research and practical problem solving.

The content part of the goals and outcomes should be geared towards "What should students be able to do at the end of this course?" I think that this should be along the lines of taking a physical concept, and being able to apply it to a system. From the bottom up: identifying when a concept is applicable, understanding how that concept works, analyzing a system to see how the concept applies, applying the concept to the system, combining that concept with others to construct a model of the system, and evaluating the effectiveness of the approach. Reflecting on my draft syllabus with this in mind, I feel that I have some room to grow in terms of constructing outcomes. I shall look forward to seeing how I go with my next syllabus!


The next stage of constructing the course is to decide how to assess those learning outcomes. For this hypothetical course, tailored more towards students in their third or fourth year of undergraduate, I really wanted to get students reading the physics literature and doing some writing of their own. Communication is an important skill in academia, but I find it is often overlooked in coursework. Furthermore, this provides an excellent opportunity for peer assessment. I also wanted to include a presentation aspect to this, where students have the opportunity to sit down with me and share what they have learnt, which allows for personalized feedback, and some experience in presenting a proposal. For this course, the presentation was only at a draft level, because aural exams are scary! While this wouldn't scale well to a very large course, I think it would be a valuable way to assess how students are performing individually, and add a personal touch to the course.

The bulk of the assessment came in the form of weekly problem sets, which I believe are critical to developing understanding of physical systems and equations describing those systems. Finally, I also included a single preliminary exam and a final. I find the idea of multiple preliminary exams strange, even though it seems to be the norm at Cornell.

I discuss my philosophy on student assessment further on the assessment page.

Policies and Expectations

I believe that if my expectations of the students are clear, then they will be able to live up to those expectations more easily. As such, I discuss my expectations in some detail. At the same time, students should know what to expect from me, and so I discuss what they can expect from lectures and assessment. I also discuss my policies a little bit. Some are more flexible than others. For example, it really annoys me to see people using facebook or watching movies when I'm lecturing, and so I will set a strict no-electronics policy. On the other hand, I'm fairly lenient with regards to homework. The point is for students to do the homework and understand it, not to be graded on their ability to hand things in on a deadline. So long as they don't annoy whoever is grading the homework, I'm happy with whatever. Of course, for larger courses, this would not work so well.

Use of Technology

Technology is becoming ubiquitous in today's lifestyle, and it opens up new opportunities for enhancing learning with its use. The ways I plan to use technology include the following:

  • Interactive response mechanisms (for example, "clickers") for large classes
  • Discussion board for peer assessment and selection of topics for final papers
  • Online surveys for course evaluation and optional modules
  • Organisational: Course website and email announcements
  • Physics demonstrations: Exploiting youtube for animations

Optional Modules

Once sufficient background material is covered, I think students should be able to direct their own learning. In this course, I implemented this by leaving the final two weeks of the course for optional topics, to be selected by the students. Granted, I'll probably have to prepare those two weeks differently every time I teach the course, but I think that it would be worth it.