Blog Post

Three Easy, Smart Ways To Transform Your Classroom Tomorrow

We're all weary, nervous, anxious, and sometimes a little overwhelmed at the start of a new year.  Many of us have the best intentions of trying something new and then fall back on the tried and true.  Pause a moment! Breathe! And take a few minutes to look at these three blog posts, each of which will give you some fresh ideas about how you can enliven any class, especially those numbed by the ritual of "going through the syllabus." 

(1) Invite your students to create the "learning outcomes" for your course.

The first is a piece I wrote for Inside Higher Ed on a student-centered way of having every student contribute to writing their own aspirations for what they learn in the class.  These can substitute or supplement the required, assessment-based outcomes many profs must put on (or want to add) to the syllabus with students' own ideas for what the class might mean.  In this piece, I've assembled a compendium of learning outcomes that others--students and colleagues--have offered over the years. You can use these to get your class started and to build their own.  I use the familiar pedagogical technique of Think-Pair-Share (TPS) to engage each and every studenrt in the exercise. It works in a class (or a faculty meeting) of six or sixty people, to break through the Alpha-Student stereotypes of only a few students contributing/dominating class discussion.  I once did it with 6000+ IB teachers in the Philadelphia 76'ers auditorium.  It works.  Here's the link to the Inside Higher Ed essay:

Bonus link:  Blog spelling out Think-Pair-Share (TPS) in detail:


(2)  The "Shadow Syllabus": What We Are Thinking But Afraid To Say in a Syllabus (but that students should know we know) by Prof Sonya Huber.

The second link is to a blog by Prof Sonya Huber, about the kinds of things we don’t say in our syllabus (but we're thinking).  One of my former students shared this.  Prof Huber talks about the “shadow syllabus,” all those anxieties and hopes and knowledge and fear that we don’t ever say in a syllabus but pervades them.  I found this deeply moving and smart and it eases anxiety to know we share these kinds of insights (and anxieties!)  Why don't we tell these things to our students. I'd love to distribute this along with the typical syllabus and have a discussion on the first day of class about both.  The typical syllabus these days is more like a "terms of service agreement"--and we know how often we read those. The genre of the syllabus is almost designed for inattention and disaffection. Prof Huber's "shadow syllabus" is the opposite.  I’d love to know what you think:

(3) Starting a course with students creating collaborative community guidelines inspired by Claudia Rankine's Citizen by by doctoral candidate Danica Savonick

Finally, to really inspire your semester, read the brilliant blog by former Futures Initiative Fellow and Graduate PhD Candidate in English Danica Savonick on how she engages her students at Queens College in creating collaborative community guidelines.  She uses the powerful poem Citizen by Claudia Rankine as her starting point. This is a careful, step-by-step blog that also explains the how and why.  I cannot recommend it highly enough!


And if you really want to go full-tilt into a student-centered classroom, here's a booklength, ten-chapter, step-by-step guide to everything from class constitutions to assessment methods:

How Do I Get Started:

A Series in Ten Parts to Help Anyone Get Started in Turning a Traditional Classroom into a Student-Centered, Active, Progressive, Engaged, Constructivist Learning Experience


Part One:  Where and How Do I Start?  

Part Two: It’s All About You

Part Three: The Syllabus

Part Four: Students

Part Five: Collectively Writing a Constitution

Part Six:  Contract Grading and Peer Review

Part Seven: Assigning Public Student Writing--With Safety

Part Eight:  Tired of Assigning Term Papers?  Your Students Are Too 

Part NIne:  Transforming Classroom Techniques: 4 Good Reasons, 4 Good Methods

Part Ten: Everything You Need To Know About the Easiest, Most Transformative Classroom Method: Think-Pair-Share  



Cathy N. Davidson is HASTAC's Co-Founding Director (2002-2017) and now Co-Director with Jacqueline Wernimont from Arizona State University.  Davidson is also Distinguished Professor and Founding Director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center CUNY where she moved in 2014 after two decades at Duke University as a distinguished professor and the university (and the nation's) first Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies. Appointed by President Obama to the National Council on the Humanities and on the Board of Directors of Mozilla, she is also the 2016 recipient of the Ernest J. Boyer Award for Significant Contributions to Higher Education.  She has published some twenty books, including most recently The New Education:  How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (Basic Books, Sept 2017).    (Please note:  In honor of the publication of The New Education, the author contributes to a scholarship fund created at the Graduate Center, CUNY). 


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