June 29th, 2010

Students and Syllabus Development


Should students have a role in developing the syllabus for a course? Yes, say 69 percent of a cohort of nursing faculty and 65 percent of a cohort of nursing students. And 92 percent of that faculty group said they did involve students in syllabus development. However, only 12 percent of the students said that they had been given a role in setting up the course syllabus.

I’m not sure how to explain the large discrepancy between what faculty are saying they do and what students are saying they experience. I wonder if maybe faculty are open to student suggestions but then they leave it up to students to take the initiative, which students rarely do.

If you want to involve students in the syllabus creation process, the best way to do that is deliberately with a concrete activity. Here are three articles that suggest specific ways students can be involved in developing aspects of the course that should appear on the syllabus.

DiClementi, J. D. and Handelsman, M. M. “Empowering Students: Class-Generated Rules.” Teaching of Psychology, 2005, 32 (1), 18-21.

—These faculty involved students in setting rules regarding things like arriving late/leaving early, cells phones (add texting to that now), and missing deadlines.

Ludy, B. T. “Setting Course Goals: Privileges and Responsibilities in a World of Ideas.” Teaching of Psychology, 2005, 32 (3), 146-149

—This instructor describes an activity whereby students and the teacher set course goals.

Woods, D. R. “Participation is More than Attendance.” Journal of Engineering Education, 1996, 85 (3), 177-81.

—In this case students set the participation policy for the course.

In my book Learner-Centered Teaching, I describe how I let students set the participation policy for the course—I was inspired by the Wood article listed above. I list participation as one of the course policies on the syllabus, but I leave the space describing the policy blank, telling the students they will create this policy for the course. Like the authors above, in my experience, students do not take advantage of the opportunity and propose some easy, inappropriate policy. Rather, they propose policies much like I used for years. But I have to tell you, when students create a policy, they own it and that does make a difference. They are more aware of the policy and more motivated to follow what they’ve proposed.

As you think about new approaches to try next fall, getting students involved in syllabus development just might be worth considering. If you have, be welcome to share your experience in a comment that responds to this blog.

Reference: Davis, S. and Schrader, V. (2009). Comparison of syllabi expectations between faculty and students in a baccalaureate nursing program. Journal of Nursing Education, 48 (3), 125-131.

  • Hi Maryellen,
    Last spring I let my graduate students set the rules for their behavior and participation in class (inspired by the description in your book!). Next spring I plan to take it even farther by giving them control of the majority of the course content. You can read a description of my plan here: http://www.ctl.uga.edu/ctlblog/?p=942
    Thanks for sharing all of your great ideas!
    Denise Domizi

    Center for Teaching and Learning
    University of Georgia

  • I, too, took the cue from _Learner-Centered Teaching_ and asked students in an upper-level seminar in Spanish to formulate two individual learning objectives and a contract for achieving those objectives during the semester. Students appreciated being able to direct some of their energy toward these objectives and generally took their work in this area seriously. They commented that more of the course grade should be based on their individually defined work. I had determined that this work would be 10% of the course grade, but it probably should have been 20% or so. I'd like to continue finding effective ways to get students involved in course design, since I think their participation creates intrinsic motivation and stimulates thinking about their own learning.