Course Syllabus

Welcome to Agronomy 591 at Iowa State University!


Instructor: Dr. Mark Licht
Office: 2104M Agronomy Hall
Phone: (515) 294-0877

Office Hours: ​Key activities in Office Hours include answering unclear content from modules, review of key module content, assignment issues/questions, and preparation for exams.


Course Description: Analysis of cropping systems from a problem-solving perspective. Case studies will be used to develop the students' ability to solve agronomic problems. Required course for the Master of Science in Agronomy degree program.

Course Prerequisites: AGRON 511, AGRON 513, AGRON 531, AGRON 532, AGRON 533

Course Overview

Agronomy 591 will help you further develop your agronomic analysis, critical thinking, and communication skills. You will be analyzing real cropping systems in the form of case studies.

Background on decision case studies:

Problem–based learning or scenario–based learning requires students to use their knowledge or gain new knowledge to analyze, make decisions and complete an activity in a real–life context. This learning is founded on a constructivist’s view of learning, i.e., humans do not learn primarily by receiving and copying information from a teacher, but rather by constructing and/or reconstructing their own mental conceptions. Instead of transmitting knowledge through a lecture, the instructor provides opportunities for students to become actively engaged in discovery and construction of their knowledge.

People learn best by doing. Because everyone cannot learn everything from their own experience, we rely on the experience of others, adding their experiences to our experiences. It is critical to have a balance between learning done with experience (experimental) and learning from transmitting knowledge (lectures, books, articles). It is important to have learning environments that are real, with real constraints, and many variables that cannot be controlled as in a research experiment. The problem, dilemma or decision must be real with many possible options, each having positive and negative consequences. The scenario and options are complex, containing uncertainty and ambiguity, with no simple solution.

The problems of life are “messy”. In some scenarios enough technical information is available, but it is the socio–economic factors that influence the problem. Sometimes the decision maker does not have all the information he/she needs, but needs to make a decision. The decision maker is not making a decision in a vacuum, rather in the context of his/her values and personal experiences.

Should decision case studies be real or "designed”? Some educators believe that decision cases are most effective when they are real; others are less concerned that the “players” are not actual people. Real can be “messy” and it is important that readers/learners work with real situations.

In literature about using decision case studies as a learning tool, educators wrestle with the question of open-ended cases versus a more conventional, fixed-answer decision cases. The goal of open-ended cases is for participants to envision a wide range of potential solutions to complex real-world challenges, whereas the goal of fixed-answer decision cases is for participants to uncover known solutions in a clearly defined setting. Students involved in open-ended cases use a discovery process to devise alternative responses to complex problems. Because no 'right' answer to the dilemma exists, students need to evaluate several possible courses of action and consider the impact of each. The decision case studies used in this class, were designed to be more open-ended cases.

Course Objectives

At the end of the semester a student will have:

  • developed a holistic perspective of an agroecosystem, recognizing that an agroecosystem is influenced by biological, economic and social factors
  • further developed skills in acquiring information that is oral and written and assessing the relevance of the information
  • critically evaluated the agronomic and financial aspects of a farming system in order to identify components that can be changed and to understand the consequences of the changes in a farming system
  • further developed skills in critical thinking and problem solving in agronomic situations in order to develop recommendations with justification
  • further developed written and oral communications skills in order to persuade and inform an audience, using technically appropriate terminology

Course Structure

The format for Agronomy 591 is different from the format of your previous courses and moves away from the weekly format. My goal is to help you further develop your critical thinking and problem solving skills, using the knowledge you already possess. In some weeks, following the submission of a document, we will be discussing your conclusions, unresolved questions, or consequences of your recommendations. Additionally, I require that you spend some time in reflection. I will not be giving any exams during the semester.

All of the materials for Agronomy 591 can be found in Canvas. You will not be using the separate course materials system that  was used in previous courses. You may want to visit the MyCanvas Student guide developed by Iowa State University. Complete the first module, called “Getting Started in Canvas”, to learn about Canvas’s technical requirements and which browser you should use for Canvas.

Courses offered only in Canvas are not available for download in a PDF format. To access your content offline follow these steps on a laptop or desktop.

Required Textbook

There is no required textbook in this course. Assigned readings are available to you via the Agronomy 591 page in the University Library's Course Reserve System, which is linked in the Introduction module.

Instructor Interactions

Office Hours: ​Key activities in Office Hours include answering unclear content from modules, review of key module content, assignment issues/questions, and preparation for exams.

Email: Feel free to message the instructor via the Canvas Inbox if you have any questions or concerns.

Discussions: Instructors actively read all discussion posts, and will engage the discussion early in the week. Feel free to draw the instructor into the discussion with a question. 

Graded Feedback: All graded assessments will be returned with feedback usually within 7-14 days of the due date. Be sure to check your graded submissions in Canvas for comments regarding your work.

Grading Procedures

Submitted Homework ~70%
Discussion Comments ~25%
Professionalism ~5%
Total 100%


Submission of Homework

You will submit assignments using Canvas. Some assignments will be submitted as text box entries and file uploads in Canvas. In all instances, it is wise to complete work in a MSWord document and copy/paste into the Canvas text box. Sometimes assignments will be uploaded as MSWord, MSExcel, or PDF documents. When asked to submit documents please use 12 pt, Times font, with 1.5 line spacing, and page numbers. Do not forget to put your name in the document itself. Please use the file-naming scheme “A591FirstInitialLastnameX-Y”, where X-Y is the module and assignment designation.

Sometimes, discussions about the material just submitted will immediately follow; therefore, it is critical that you remain on schedule. I do understand that you are working full-time and that you have personal responsibilities. If you foresee a problem, please let me know as soon as you are aware of any upcoming conflict with a deadline. I will not be responding to email after Friday at 5pm until Monday morning.

Submission of Discussion Topics

Discussions will be via the discussion board on Canvas. To have a fruitful discussion, it is important that you post your comments in a timely matter. Therefore, you will need to check the board frequently. A helpful hint is to subscribe to discussions to receive notifications. Discussions will be graded. Several discussion questions will ask you to critique your classmates' narratives. Critiquing should not be confused with summarizing. Please do not summarize the author's major points. Rather, address the relevance of the problem and the logic of the recommendation to resolve the problem.


Practice and polish your professionalism. Professionalism includes respectful and courteous interactions with classmates and instructor, your active and timely participation in discussions, clear and logical expression of ideas and thought, a willingness to cooperate, and the completion of the course evaluation at the end of the semester. Please take the time to complete the course evaluation. Additionally, there are a few Reflections that will be used to improve modules for future use. These Reflections will be graded in the Professionalism category.

For a professional, good written communication is just as critical as clear, logical arguments. I expect professional writing, which includes good organization, grammar, and spelling. The quality of the writing will be graded for each assignment. While no points are awarded for writing, points can be taken away. Need a refresher on grammar or other writing mechanics? Check out ISU Writing and Communications Consultations. Sources of information must be referenced using the format explained on Citation Guide section of the Agronomy Writing Guide. Plagiarizing published information is unethical and will be reported to the Dean of Students.


Communication Policy

All communication within the course should adhere to University standards of Netiquette at ISU. Specifically, communication should be scholarly, respectful, professional, and polite. You are encouraged to disagree with other students, but such disagreements needs to be based upon facts and documentation. It is my goal to promote an atmosphere of mutual respect in our interactions. Please contact me if you have suggestions for improving the interactions in this course.

Use the Course Questions forum in Canvas (or the Canvas Inbox) to ask questions, share an interesting article or observation, or comment on current and relevant events. Keep informed—check the discussion board frequently. I will monitor the discussion board and my Canvas Inbox during "regular business hours" and you can expect a timely response (usually within one to two business days). I will not be responding to email after Friday at 5pm until Monday morning and you should expect a delay in response during those times.

General announcements will be posted to the Announcements section of Canvas. Additional guidelines apply to communication within Discussion Topics. Please review the Discussions shown above.

Be sure to properly configure your Notification settings or commit yourself to checking Canvas daily for new communication.

Feedback Policy

All graded assessments will be returned with feedback usually within 7-14 days of the due date. Be sure to check your graded submissions in Canvas for comments regarding your work.


All deadlines are posted on the Course Calendar in Canvas. Need extra time to meet a deadline? Explain the situation to your instructor IN ADVANCE and accommodations can be made. The explanation doesn't need to be extensive. The important factor is to attempt to notify the instructor ahead of time. 


Category Description Action

Course Content Support

Questions related to course content or grading should be directed to the course instructor. Instructor via Canvas Inbox

Student Support

The Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching is an organization dedicated to supporting, promoting, and enhancing teaching effectiveness and student learning at ISU.

Self-guided orientation which you may find useful.

CELT: Online Learner Support

Self-Guided Orientation

Canvas Technical Support

If you experience any technical issues while using Canvas, contact the Solution Center. The Solution Center's hours are posted on their website.

Solution Center

Technology support

If you have any technical issues while using the University Library's Course Reserves system, please refer to the Library's FAQ page.

For all other technical issues, contact Agron DevLab Support. The Agronomy Development Lab staff is guaranteed to respond to requests within 24 hours during regular business hours. All requests made during the weekend will be addressed first thing Monday morning.

Course Reserves FAQ


Agron DevLab Support

Writing Support

The MS Agronomy program has built a Writing Guide to help answer some of the questions you may have while working on your courses.

Ms. Amy Pollpeter is available for one-on-one consultations and can assist you with any part of the writing process. Schedule an appointment with Amy through the CELT's website or via email.

Writing Guide

CELT's website or via email.

Library and research support

Anita Kay is the liaison librarian to the Department of Agronomy. She can help find any article, book or any other piece of information that you want assistance finding.  Anita has also built a really useful Agronomy Research Guide (Links to an external site.).

Anita Kay
Agronomy Research Guide (Links to an external site.)

Department Contact

Contact Dr. Mary Wiedenhoeft, Associate Chair for Academics in Agronomy, if issues persist after working with the support systems listed above.

Dr. Mary Wiedenhoeft

Return to top

Course Summary:

Date Details Due