July 29th, 2015

A Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning

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student at white board

At its most basic level, the syllabus is used to communicate information about the course, the instructor, learning objectives, assignments, grading policies, due dates, the university’s academic integrity statement, and, in some cases, an increasingly long list of strongly worded admonitions on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in the college classroom.

For some faculty, the syllabus is a contract between them and their students, complete with a dotted line where students sign their name indicating they consent to the terms of the agreement. Lolita Paff, an associate professor at Penn State Berks, is a reformed syllabus-as-a-contract believer.

“I will confess, as a former business professional, I did view the syllabus as a contract,” said Paff. “But when you really think about a contract, and you have someone sign a contract, that, by nature, sets up an adversarial relationship. The implied message is, ‘I don’t expect that you’re going to live up to this unless I have it in writing.’ That used to be the tone in my classroom—it’s not the tone anymore. That approach doesn’t foster a good learning environment.”


What is a learner-centered syllabus?

Today, Paff takes a more learner-centered approach to her syllabi. A learner-centered syllabus can take many forms, but it often includes one or more of these features:

  • A rationale for course objectives and assignments. A syllabus can be used to set the stage and the context for the course and where it sits within the discipline. Paff encourages faculty to be intentional about what is and isn’t included in the course, and then share that with students. Why are these assignments a part of the course? Why are we studying this particular topic?
  • Shared decision making. In some cases, a learner-centered syllabus means allowing students to have some say in course policies and procedures. Depending on the course and the students, Paff allows some flexibility in decision making for assignment weights and options. While first-year students typically won’t have the maturity to make these types of decisions, juniors and seniors can often thrive when given some choice in how they will demonstrate their learning.
  • Warnings of potential pitfalls. There are often certain components of a course that students find more difficult than others. Giving students a heads-up of what to look out for or behaviors that could impede success (e.g., “You really want to look out for X, and here’s a strategy so that it doesn’t happen.”) can go a long way. “That advice is going to be well received by students,” said Paff. “It sets the stage that the teacher really cares about them, not just what’s going to be covered and what’s expected of them, but that you’re in this together.”
  • An opportunity for students to set teacher expectations. On the first day of class, as Paff goes over the syllabus and outlines her expectations for students, she asks what they expect of her. The students break into groups to discuss past learning experiences and offer up one or two policies that they think will help them learn, which Paff types into a document during the exercise. Throughout the semester, the class revisits the students’ recommendations. “I might say, ‘See, you asked me to provide review sessions, so I’m extending my office hours before the next exam,’” Paff explained. “It’s another opportunity to talk about what we are learning, where we are in the course, what our expectations were for the class, and how are we progressing.”
  • Recommendations for staying on track. Every syllabus includes a course calendar, but a learner-centered syllabus could also provide guidance on how to tackle specific projects—from how much time something will take to strategies for gathering the necessary resources, Paff said. In addition, students might also need help in evaluating and monitoring their progress throughout the course.

“When it comes to a learner-centered syllabus vs. a traditional syllabus, it’s not really a difference so much in content as it is in tone,” said Paff. “There’s a shift in emphasis from ‘What are we going to cover?’ to ‘How can the course promote learning and intellectual development in students?’ So it’s going to contain roughly the same information, but the language used to convey the policies, procedures, and content is different in order to foster a more engaging and shared learning environment.”

How long should a syllabus be?

One of the big questions faculty have regarding their syllabi centers on length. While there is no hard-and-fast rule about the optimal length of a syllabus, there is often a tendency for policy creep to push the page count higher than necessary as faculty try to anticipate every possible scenario that could occur throughout the semester.

“My syllabi started off at two to three pages, and then as I tried to close every loophole that would develop, it grew, and grew, and grew to the point where I had an entire page on nothing but classroom policies and procedures for missed exams and absences, and how I wanted homework submitted, and it grew to this five-page detailed tome,” said Paff. “Now there’s nothing wrong with a four or five page syllabus, if it serves your purpose and it’s the kind of document that you revisit with students, and it’s one that sets a framework for learning.”

Rather than worry about syllabus length, Paff encourages faculty to think about the tone of the syllabus and the order of the content they’re presenting.

For example, consider the following course description she used in a syllabus years ago:

Econ102 is an introduction to microeconomic analyses and policies. Microeconomic deals with the behavior of individuals and firms and how the behavior is influenced by government policy. The principal objective of the course is to enable students to analyze major microeconomic issues, clearly and critically.

Now compare that to the description she uses now:

Why should you want to study microeconomics? Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of people in the ordinary business of life. Every choice you make, from what time to get up … whether or not to go to class … how long to study, or work, or how much to eat, or where to go on Thursday nights … ALL of it incorporates microeconomic principles. Microeconomics helps us to understand how people and firms make choices, how markets are organized, why and how markets behave differently, and the effects government interventions have in market outcomes. I LOVE this course, and I am hoping that by the end of the semester you will develop a deep appreciation for the subject.

“A lot of times I feel that students think that a course happens at them and they’re not truly engaged and a part of the learning experience,” Paff said. “If the syllabus is structured in a way and the content is delivered in a way that they’re an active part of what happens in the class, and they have some control over how they learn and what they learn, then the random arbitrariness of learning is minimized.”

With a new school year about to begin, take some time to reflect on how you would characterize the tone of your syllabus and what you could do to make it more learner-centered.

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