Blog Post

Getting Started, Pt 3: The Syllabus

This is the third in a continuing series in step-by-step series on How to Get Started in Student-Centered Learning:  Read Part 1; Part 2  

Next: Part 4: Students


It takes confidence to be able to trust your students. It also takes planning and care to provide them with the best foundation for their own learning.  In this third entry in the series on how to get started with student-centered learning, I will discuss how to use the syllabus as a persuasive and protective instrument, and how to involve your students from the very beginning in constructing the syllabus for their class.  I promise you that, if they feel empowered (and confident enough) to design the semester, they will set the bar higher than you would have dreamt possible. 

First, confidence and courage:  As with any deviation from the status quo, student-centered learning is profoundly disruptive and that takes courage, flexibility, and strength.  It just does.  It's also deeply satisfying.  If you watched any of the videos or read any of the brief essays at the end of my previous post, you saw that there are decades of research in support of student-centered learning, at every level, in all fields.  Credential-centered learning is inherently successful if all you want is a credential; if you want is learning, if you want is a more confident life, if you want is a better and more equitable society, then, hands' down, progressive student-centered learning is an incomparably better model, not only for the student but for the teacher too. What's not to love about engaged, progressive, student-centered pedagogy? 

BUT  . . .   and this is a really big caveat.  Even after you convince yourself, you will still have everyone else to convince. 



That means convincing:  your students (who have spent twelve years learning how to thrive in a passive, credential-centered formal education system), their parents (who pay good money to have you teach their kids), your administrators (who hire you to teach not to be a “co-learner”), and everyone else who has survived formal education (“Hey, school didn’t kill me. Why should you be any different?”).  

That is what the syllabus is for.

I find that a syllabus is a great tool for arming myself against the skeptical.  

Not everyone agrees with me.  Some progressivists dispense with the syllabus entirely.  My method is to be very explicit in the syllabus about what I am doing and why.  I include some theory, some resources, and a lot of the most basic information.  And then I proceed with the most open, radical, student-centered approach I can think of.  


I emphasize this because, in my last blog, I warned that the biggest obstacle to transforming to a student-centered learning environment is the professor.  We come up with all kinds of reasons why it won’t work and the one I hear most frequently is that it’s “dangerous” or “risky.”  I personally believe that taking strategic risks for things that matter to you is the only way to survive--in this profession, in any profession, in life.  At the same, time, I believe in being smart, so I go with the ultra-responsible syllabus model.  It works for me and it helps my students who, after all, have succeeded at twelve years of traditional education.  The syllabus is a kind of half-way house between traditional education and progressive learning.

[One professor I know, who is in a more precarious professional space than I am, uses his syllabus in an exceptionally interesting way.  It grows and grows every year until now it is practically the size of a book.  The first few pages are the actual assignments for the course and the rest are “Prof X’’s Toolkit for College Success” and include an annotated bibliography of resources (many of them created by past classes of students), some essays on aspects of progressive education (some of these also written by past students), and other useful materials.   If anyone questions him about his innovative student-centered methods, he hands them this tome/syllabus and says most of their questions will be addressed here (I believe it even has a formal Table of Contents, maybe even an FAQ), but he is delighted to entertain other questions.  His integrity, seriousness, concern for his students, and his hard work are unquestionable when someone sees this remarkable compendium of pedagogical materials. No one accuses him of not doing his job.]

This is important:  the single most frequent critique leveled against anyone using student-centered learning techniques is that we’re “not doing our job,” that we’re “getting out of work,” that we’re “having our students do what we’re paid to do.”  You can calm a lot of nerves simply by beginning with a carefully crafted, responsible, thoughtful syllabus that addresses a number of the key questions of progressive education, that includes a bibliography of the most important thinkers (almost everyone has heard of Montessori and Dewey, for example--and Plato, of course).  


Although I often do not specify the actual assignments--I often have my students construct the reading list, for example--I almost always have a syllabus that begins by looking very conventional.  I like experimenting radically, and find that, if the basics are taking care of, it makes experimentation easier.  


So the first page of my syllabus typically has The Basics.  


THE BASICS  (examples):  

--Course name, course number, credit hours, meeting times, location, interdisciplinary cross listings, time, room number, office hours, contact information for me, contact information for anyone working with me (I often work with a team of assistant teachers or student mentors or teaching assistants or postdocs who are learning these student-centered methods)

--Scheduled official university/college deadlines:  midterm, final.

--Course policies:  attendance, make-up exams, disability compliance

--Plagiarism, cheating, honor policies  [NB:  I sometimes have students decide these with a --Class Constitution [if applicable:   to be discussed in a future post]

--Grading policy and philosophy  [NB:  I sometimes use contract and peer grading to be discussed in a future post]

--Any other business [holidays, classes that need to be scheduled, required office hours, etc]

--Any other relevant business that can cause anxiety



I find it is most effective  with student-centered learning to teach in public.  When the object of the course is to produce something that will be seen beyond the professor--by a "public" that includes the other students and anyone else the professor defines (anyone, the college or university, other students, a network of other students, etc)--it automatically takes the emphasis off producing work good enough to get a good grade and places emphasis on the students' own pride in representing themselves well enough to stand by their own work in public. 


The rate of plagiarism I've seen in student work has gone way down since I've had students write in public.  A future blog will focus specifically on these issues but, as a preview, I'll mention that,  since I have begun having students work in teams, with stucents taking turns as editors, approving work before they publish it, and signing on for editorial credit, I no longer look for plagiarism:  that is part of being an editor.  Since students know that is part of their jobs as editors, they rarely try to sneak a plagiarism past their peers.

I will also write a future post on how I work with students on their resumes and give them citations that they can use so they receive credit for work they publish and work they edit.  This also gives them professional responsibility in a way that focuses on what it means to be a student, to make a public contribution to knowledge, and to see your school work as a pathway to your professional life beyond school--all important charactieristics of student-centered pedagogy. 


 I typically use a Word Press site or I create a Group on HASTAC.  HASTAC is free.  Over one hundred courses, probably it's two hundred by now, have used HASTAC to host their student work in a safe public place.  In either, you can make settings either private to the group or public to the world.   



There are as many ways to create a syllabus as there are professors and courses.  I myself have done it so many different ways.  But since this is a step-by-step guide, let me use a course that is fully online to illustrate what I did.  Also because I team-taught this course with a social scientist, you will be able to see applicability to a humanities or a social science course.

Because we were team teaching, we each had issues such as COVERAGE of topics that were important and pre-determined and then other areas where we took a radically student-centered approached.  The course was called:

“Surprise Endings:  Literature and Social Science”  Team-Taught, Cathy N. Davidson and Dan Ariely, Spring 2013, Duke University, ISIS/English 390-S   

32 undergraduate students, majoring mostly in English, literature, economics, psychology, public policy, or working towards a certificate in Information Science + Information Stucies

4 MFA students in Experimental Documentary Arts (first year of this program; we partnered with this new program and were able to offer 4 Teaching Assistantships, so the students received stipends and also were Assistant Teachers, earning instructor portfolio credits.  Because of this special arrangement, we designed a production component of this class--with high end video and digital production--that most courses would not offer.)


For the rest of this post, I’m going to focus on the syllabus for a course I team taught in Spring 2013 called “Surprise Endings:  Literature and Social Science”  with behavioral economist Dan Ariely at Duke University.  Dan had never before taught a student-designed course before; I had never team-taught with another faculty member before.  We had a blast.  We were joined by four MFA students who were both working as TA’s and getting credit toward their own degrees in Experimental Documentary Arts--teaching and learning as part of the course.


Our syllabus is here:     


You will see the course begins with “The Basics,” including an explanation of why we are doing what we are doing, what the learning theory behind student-centered learning is, and so forth.


However, the rest of this syllabus was pretty much blank.  


It was all created by the students.

In  future blog posts, I will describe how we did this.  

However, to give you a taste of the scope of student-centered learning, I will quickly summarize in a very specific way, what we did and what the students did.  


COVERAGE . . . . (And the problem is???)

The single most common worry I receive about going to student-centered pedagogy is "But I'm teaching a required course and we have to cover a set syllabus of _____."   So?   That's implicitly or explicitly the course in most courses.   In this case, Dan and I worked hard to think about which subject areas in his field of behavioral economics and my areas of literature and also technology and attention we wanted to cover in order to be able to maximums the interdisciplinary work we could bring to students.

Our "coverage" begain with us pre-selecting seven required topic areas.   In a different kind of course, you might pre-select a syllabus, problem sets, concepts, methods, or whatever else is required by your department or your school or your licensing body.  You can set the required areas.    And then build from there. 

Dan and I chose seven topic areas we wanted to cover, and we built the (very clunky) Word Press site to host the course.   The seven topics we "covered" were:

Self Control

Relativity and Defaults

Obedience, Evil & Resistance

Race, Prejudice & Political Correctness

Social Proof

Gender & Success

Honesty & Dishonesty

These were areas in which he and I had each done research and where there were ample bodies of both social science empirical research and extensively literary texts---movies, poems, plays, tv shows, films, and videos.   



Here is the crucial part:  that is all the syllabus we had on the first day.  The theory, the justification, the basic logistics, all the facts and the details, the pre-defined topics.  We did not have any of the actual texts nor did we have a schedule.  All that was left up to the students, as you will see.   But because we laid a clear foundation, the students felt confident about building a course upon it.  And they far, far exceeded any expectations we had for them. 

If this had been a required course with required course content, instead of those set topics, we might have had core texts as the backbone of the course.

In literature, it might have been a set of core literary works.  In sociology, it might have been key articles or scientific papers on set topics.  In history, a set of monographs.  In anthropology, maybe a combination of articles and monographs.  

In other words, we started with a conceptual skeleton, a theoretical framework, an overarching set of principles, an architecture, and a calendar:  and then we let the students design the rest.    That format could be adapted to just about any course content, in any situation, at any college or community college or university or graduate program in any field.

"Scaffolding" is what Vygotsky calls it.  You scaffold an intellectual structure in the syllabus itself and let your students build upon it.


Here is what the students did in our class:  (I’ll blog about each of these in this series)

  • chose the specific social science papers and literary texts and movies we read and viewed
  • organized themselves into teams by topics and assigned readings and orchestrated online discussion groups and kept track of who did or did not participate in each discussion
  • interviewed Dan and me in class and led the in-class discussions
  • turned the video interviews, their external experiments, into a public course module on the topic (in lieu of a final paper)
  • designed and signed contracts for the amount and nature of the team project work they would do
  • wrote their own “job descriptions” for their project responsibilities, and evaluated their own and one another’s contributions to the project
  • turned the entire course into what they called a SPOC (Self-Paced Online Course):It is still available and it is gorgeous:    “DUKE SURPRISE:  STUDENT-LED, FUTURE DRIVEN.”   You can still take it today!


Here is what Dan and I did on the first day of class to get this started:

  • We put up 7 giant Post-It Notes around the room
  • On each Post It, we had one topic, one date (the date of the presentation) and four or five lines for students' names and their project role or "job" descriptions--
    • CALENDARING:  Do not skip this step:  If you are going to have students create the course syllabus, make sure that you have laid the foundation by checking out all the vacation times, the midterm and final dates, any special visitors or breaks or absences, and that each presentation or other delivery deadline has been worked out in advance.  That way they can concentrate on intellectual areas and they can also check the deadlines against their other requirements, midterms, term paper deadlines, GRE or M-CAT or other requirements.  You want to take care of the basics to help ensure their success. 
  • We also had projected on a screen a Google Doc that also included one section for each topic.
  • We got things started by describing each concept and then giving about 5-7 minutes for an “idea sprint” in which students worked on laptops (some shared, some we provided, some they had with them) to fill in as many movies, poems, novels, plays, or other literary works as they could think of for the topic.  They also filled in some social science experiments, articles, and papers on the topics.  This ws all "open book" and they were talking, googling, working together.   Then we moved to the next topic.  (The long list you see on the syllabus is what we “crowdsourced” in the first hour or so of the first day of class: ) A "sprint" is an energetic and informative way--adapted from open source coding and applicable in any field in any discipline-- of building a sense of class contribution and participation, it’s fun, and it gives students the confidence to know that they have ideas and already, collectively, possess a remarkable store of knowledge).Nothing about this was fina.  It was just a very loose first draft to show that student-centered learning was based on the idea that, collectively, students bring a lot to the table--more, sometimes, than the professor brings by himself or herself.  Tapping into the collective knowledge and skills in a classroom is one of the benefits in student-centered learning.  Learning the skills, in any life situation, to tap into all the experiences in a room is invaluable.
  • We then took a brief break and let students get to know one another informally.  
  • When we came back, Dan and I made a startling announcement (and I’ll write more about this tactic later:  I use it a lot):  We said that we would be leaving the students alone for half an hour
    • Dan, the four MFA students , and  I all left the room.  (This is key.  You have to leave.)  When we returned, we said we would expect that the 32 students would each have chosen a topic team. They would have each chosen a role on the team--such as Project Leader, Research Leader, Technology Leader, Communications Leader, etc--and written a brief job description, taken a photograph of the Post-It, and uploaded it to our website. 


This is student-centered centered learning:  when the instructors were out of the room, these students created the syllabus for the course, down to the roles assigned to each and every student.

I will be writing more about each of the points later but the point is you must leave the room or it does not work.  It's like parents leaving so the kids can work out the disagreements.  As long as the prof is present, it simply won't get worked out (it was a 16 year old math prodigy who kicked me out of a classroom that wasn't organizing itself well; he said, "Prof D we'll never get this right if you are here--you have to leave.  Now."  He was right.)





Mentors, Teaching Assistants, Assistant Teachers:

One very cool aspect of this particular course is that the undergraduates were working with our very first cohort of Duke’s first ever MFA program, in Experimental Documentary Arts.  The MFA students were also getting credit for working with the undergraduates in turning a course into a beautiful, meaningful “public interactive” (in theorist Anne Balsamo’s term).  Yet in many cases, the  nteractions went both directions:  the MFA students were professional-level designers and photographers and video and digital artists and some of the undergraduates were serious about going to graduate school to pursue careers as  social scientists and already had published articles using experimental methodologies. So the whole course was about students learning from and teaching other students.  




How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom

​Read Part 1; Part 2

The series is being posted on a Google Doc for editing, comments, suggestions, revisions, additions -- available here



1 comment

Cathy: I began a brief comment about syllabi that morphed into a blog posting of its own:  "The Path from Minimalist to Comprehensive Syllabi."  As I reflected on the changes I have made over the years, I remembered a course in educational technology I took in the early 1990s.  I already had my PhD, but I wanted to keep current.  In the class,  I learned how to make really effective overheads among other technologies that students would not recognize today

At one point, the professor asked what we might want to change about syllabi.  I said that it would be nice if we could write them as if we were talking directly to our students.  His response, "Why can't you?"  I had never seen it done, but that doesn't mean that I could not do it. 

His response applies to so much more in developing effective pedagogy than just writing syllabi.