New Ideas about an Old Teaching Tool
New Ideas about an Old Teaching Tool
A lot has been written about the syllabus, but as the authors of the article referenced below point out, almost all of it focuses on “the nuts and bolts of crafting a course syllabus.” It's literature that helps “the instructor anticipate student information needed to begin the course.” (p. 703) Not receiving much focus in the literature are four larger frames Fornaciari and Lund Dean believe orient how faculty think about and use syllabi. Here's a summary of what they write about each of these.
“Syllabi have been fundamental to how we manage our courses, yet they have been the subject of little innovation.” That's what prompted authors Charles Fornaciari and Kathy Lund Dean to revisit this instructional standby. “We build on work that examines how student information processing norms and changing expectations with respect to teaching and learning have fundamentally shifted. ... This body of research makes a compelling case that we have the opportunity to change the way we use syllabi before we risk its role being considered increasingly irrelevant.” (p. 702)
That should resonate with what many faculty have experienced firsthand. Students don't read the syllabus, which faculty say is the reason they must cover it in detail on the first day of class. And even though students aren't reading the syllabus, most syllabi have gotten longer and even more detailed. Faculty now use the syllabus to clarify their expectations and to delineate various course policies. They see this as protection against student claims that they didn't know or weren't told about them.
Fornaciari and Lund Dean use the principles of andragogy (a word used to describe educational practices for adults) as premises for their exploration of syllabi roles and purposes. Andragogy, which is juxtaposed with pedagogy (teaching in ways appropriate for children), vets instructional practices on these six principles: (1) adults need to know why they are being asked to learn something; (2) they learn through trial and error; (3) they want to own the decisions they make about learning; (4) they want to learn what is immediately relevant to their lives; (5) they like learning that solves problems as opposed to just learning content; and (6) for them, intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation.
A lot has been written about the syllabus, but as these authors point out, almost all of it focuses on “the nuts and bolts of crafting a course syllabus.” It's literature that helps “the instructor anticipate student information needed to begin the course.” (p. 703) Not receiving much focus in the literature are four larger frames Fornaciari and Lund Dean believe orient how faculty think about and use syllabi. Here's a summary of what they write about each of these.
Syllabus as contract—This, they say, is the “most common metaphor” and one of the two frames most often used by faculty. “Contractual syllabi are often long, defensive and designed to close policy loopholes.” (p. 706) The language in these syllabi is generally directive and defensive and sometimes as legalistic as that found in actual contracts. “Contractual and policy-oriented language stifles effective learning and dishonors student differences.” (p. 706) These are not syllabi that motivate students or create excitement about the course.
Syllabus as power instrument—“Syllabus as power means that by following its policies and requirements, classroom events are controlled as closely as possible by the instructor.” (p. 707) The message of these syllabi is clear: the teacher has made all the important decisions in this course, none of them are negotiable, and it's the teacher who is the focus of the course. Certainly the syllabus should clarify expectations for students, but these power syllabi often go beyond what's necessary.
Syllabus as communication or signaling device—“Understanding the syllabus as [a] communication/signaling vehicle means acknowledging that we send powerful expectations about what we and the course will be like. ...” (p. 708) The authors offer some specific examples. What's conveyed to students if the agenda for day one is to “go over” the syllabus and then let students out early? What role does the syllabus play if it's covered in detail at the beginning of the course and then never mentioned unless somebody violates one of the policies? How much space is devoted to course policies versus space that describes what students will know and be able to do when the course is over? Does the syllabus identify resources that can help students master the materials and skills of the course?
Syllabus as collaboration—With this frame, the syllabus or parts of it are cocreated by the instructor and the students. The benefit here is how the process motivates students and facilitates greater ownership of learning. The authors note that for beginning students this can a confusing experience and not one they are prepared to handle, so the degree of collaboration should be at an appropriate level.
The authors argue that these last two frames “hold the most promise for matching teaching and learning with andragogical and student-centered learning.” (p. 705) Perhaps the most useful and interesting part of the article is an extended table that lists examples of how syllabi might be changed to reflect the more andragogical approach. The examples are drawn from the authors' previous and revised syllabi. Here's one, first as originally used and then in revised form.
“I do not maintain a lecture format and I expect full participation from you. I have prepared an interactive course. Thus, reading and preparing before class is critical.” (p. 714)
“As partners in learning, we each have responsibilities for every class period. I have prepared an interactive and engaging set of activities for which your reading and pre-class preparation is critical.” (p. 714)
And the authors note that if you want to be even more collaborative, you could describe how the course will be conducted.
“From a list of acceptable readings, we decide together which will most contribute toward learning deemed most vital for that particular section of students. We negotiate common pre-class preparation behaviors suitable for our needs.” (p. 714)
Most of us use syllabi in every course. It's easy for our use of them to become routine. An excellent piece of scholarship such as this calls us to examine what we are doing and why.
Reference: Fornaciari, C. J., and Lund Dean, K. (2014). The 21st century syllabus: From pedagogy to andragogy. Journal of Management Education, 38 (5), 701-723.