Blog Post

The Syllabi Are Coming (But They Will Change)

Dr. Anthony Gregorc, creator of the Gregorc Style Delineator, would describe my approach to learning as Concrete Random. While I like to be rooted in the present, I tend to wander through the learning process going from one pretty object to the next. People with my style care that students meet course competencies, but we do not really care how those competencies are met.

Although my dean covers her ears and starts to hum whenever she hears me say it, I have never viewed my syllabi as strict legal documents in which everything is spelled out in specific, unchangeable detail. Instead, I consider my syllabi as starting points for classes; living documents that can be modified throughout the semester based on the needs and interests of the students. For this reason, I had always kept details about assignments and grading sparse.

One of the unfortunate consequences of No Child Left Behind is that we have produced a generation of students who have been trained to simply complete standardized tests. My minimalist syllabi became more and more problematic for students whom have been taught to avoid experimentation and risk taking; students who have difficulty answering the simple question, “What interests you?”

Even though the class notes I regularly e-mail to students include the information they need to succeed, the level of anxiety faced by students reached such an unacceptable level that I needed to consider producing more traditional syllabi.

The first time I did a massive revision of my syllabi , I included specific details concerning assignments and how those assignments met course competencies. The details for assignments were summarized in the grading rational section of the syllabi and expanded in individual sections—one to two pages per assignment. I also included handouts—specifically on how to use the Schoolcraft College databases and Google books—and other materials I would ordinarily have distributed throughout the semester as part of the syllabus. Revised syllabi ran from 20-24 pages.

With my massive syllabi, I had two concerns: (1) that students would be overwhelmed and (2) that I would be so locked into the details found in the syllabi that I would be unable to make modifications that fit the personality and interests of the students enrolled in each section. Ironically, specificity actually made it easier to follow our interests and to modify syllabi.

Because the students were presented with a detailed plan, they remained comfortable even as we deviated from it. Throughout the first semester I used the new syllabi, we combined and modified and eliminated and added new assignments with the same concrete random approach that I had previously used. To my surprise, during final conferences, many students complimented me on how organized the class had been and how much they appreciated the syllabus even thought we did not follow it exactly.  This was a marked change from the previous semster when students complained about my lack of organization.

I am very random in my teaching and learning, but I like the concrete expectations spelled out in the course description, course competencies, and grading rationale developed at the departmental level. In the same way, the No Child Left Behind generation appreciated the detailed syllabi that made taking responsibility for their own learning less scary.

Since that first major revision, I have continued to revise and expand my syllabi which now run about 50 pages.  So as not to scare students, I refer to the document as a Course Pack/Syllabus.  Page one is a table of contents.  I encourage students not to read the syllabus. Instead, I assign sections of the syllabus as they become relevant. 

During the last revision of my syllabi, I added boxes for "Additional Notes" thoughout each syllabus.  When we go over a section of the syllabus--such as the description for a specific assignment--students have ample room to take notes right on their syllabus.

At the end of last semester, a student commented that I begin class by encouraging students not to read the syllabus.  Yet, we had relied on the syllabus more in our class than in any of his other classes; classes where his professors simply told students to read the syllabus.

–Steven L. Berg, PhD

An earlier version of the blog posting was previously published in Etene Sacca-vajjena.

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