It was a syllabus used in a small, upper-division political science seminar, which explains the name and the question of interest to the teacher of the course. “Can giving students more power over course content enhance their understanding of democratic authority and process?” (p. 167)
Three features of the course made the syllabus democratic, and they are features that could be incorporated into other courses. First, the instructor gave students some control over the seminar's discussion topics. The course began with two weeks' worth of teacher-selected introductory readings that addressed “the general idea and practice of democracy in America.” (p. 168) Topics for the next five two-week-long sections were selected by student vote from a list of 22 subject areas.
Near the end of the semester, two weeks were devoted to student led-discussions. Each student selected the topic and readings and then led a half-period discussion of them. The teacher participated in these discussions as a student, limiting herself to one comment or question every 20 minutes.
Finally, students had some control over their two major assignments. In the first, they were given more than 100 websites important to democratic practice. They had to select five, visit those sites, and write short reflection papers about each experience. In the second assignment, they had to develop “a plan for expressing a public position or educating American citizens on an issue and then [execute] that plan, reflecting on the experience in writing.” (p. 169) The instructor gave the students “wide latitude about when and how they completed their work, emphasizing that independent thought would be rewarded.” (p. 169)
“Ultimately, my students and I deemed the democratic syllabus a great success in terms of both the classroom dynamics it created and the thinking about democratic politics that it encouraged,” the instructor wrote. (p. 167) Student comments in the article offer insights on what made this a successful learning experience for them. They said that being able to select discussion topics increased their interest and investment in the course. “There wasn't a single class where I felt like we were talking about something that didn't matter,” wrote one student. (p. 168) They also reported that deciding on discussion topics increased their sense of camaraderie. “All of us knew we were talking about these things because we wanted to.”
Students also responded positively to the student-led discussions, as evidenced by one student writing that they “were among the best ones we had.” (p. 168) The loose structure of the assignments generated some anxiety in the beginning, but once students got comfortable with the freedom they used it to “think outside the box” and “do things I was really interested in.”
It's a unique course design that blends content and learning processes in a way not possible in non-political science courses. But the syllabus design is worth considering in other courses, especially those upper-division, integrative seminar or capstone courses. It's also worth noting that despite giving students control over certain course decisions, the teacher still retained a significant amount of control. The teacher let students select discussion topics from a designated list, and once the topics were selected the teacher decided on the readings for each of those topics. The student-led discussions happened at the end of the course and in a two-week time frame, with teacher-led discussions up to that point in the course. The teacher proposed the basic assignment structure, with students free to fill in the details. As in democracies, there was a balance of power in this seminar.
The teacher does offer an important caveat: “Teaching a course with a democratic syllabus requires substantial work before and throughout the semester.” (p. 170) There were course design challenges involved with creating the list of potential discussion topics. Whatever topics the student selected, discussion of that content had to result in a coherent course and one that met the course learning objectives. Once the students selected the topics, the teacher had to quickly assemble the readings that would be used to frame those discussions. The open-ended nature of assignments required consultation with students. This teacher estimates it took four times longer to run the course this way. The course also required more from the students. But a truly quality learning experience was the outcome. “More than a year later, I still hear from graduating seniors that this was the most important course they took in college.” (pp. 167-8)
Reference: McWilliams, S. (2015). The democratic syllabus. PS, Political Science and Politics, 48 (1), 167-170.