Syllabus Blues? Try Reciprocal Peer Review

08.07_syllabus-blues

For university instructors, late July and August signal the transition from flexible, grading-free weekdays into long (re)orientation sessions and faculty meetings. Amidst city buses full of brightly colored T-shirts and the U-Hauls plaguing one-way campus streets, instructors often retreat to their cramped offices to create syllabi for their fall courses. While the process can be exciting, it can also be frustrating, isolating, and exhausting. To counter some of these negative feelings, consider introducing new perspectives into your course by inviting your colleagues to review your syllabus. Peer-reviewing syllabi with colleagues can allow you to create meaningful reciprocal relationships and leverage your teaching network to improve your course.


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For university instructors, late July and August signal the transition from flexible, grading-free weekdays into long (re)orientation sessions and faculty meetings. Amidst city buses full of brightly colored T-shirts and the U-Hauls plaguing one-way campus streets, instructors often retreat to their cramped offices to create syllabi for their fall courses. While the process can be exciting, it can also be frustrating, isolating, and exhausting. To counter some of these negative feelings, consider introducing new perspectives into your course by inviting your colleagues to review your syllabus. Peer-reviewing syllabi with colleagues can allow you to create meaningful reciprocal relationships and leverage your teaching network to improve your course.

Peer-reviewing your syllabus with a colleague can add a social component to your early course prep and can help you identify whether your syllabus is serving your students as intended. Depending on your course needs and personal teaching style, your syllabus takes on a specific role that shapes both your relationship with your students and their relationship with the course; as Weimer (2019) explains, these roles include a road map, contract, manual, or invitation. By swapping syllabi with a colleague, instructors can collaboratively navigate their syllabi to determine whether these documents are meeting the specific goals instructors have for them.

Considering your expert blind spot

Peer-reviewing syllabi directly combats the expert blind spot, which Nathan et al. (2001) define as “the inability to perceive the difficulties that novices will experience as they approach a new domain of knowledge”; Norman and Bridges (2017) also list it as one of the “Four Horses of the Teaching Apocalypse.” As experts of our disciplines and our courses, we might miss connections or gaps between topics or skills. These gaps leave students stuck and, often, frustrated with themselves, their classmates, or their instructors. By asking a colleague to review your syllabus, you can leverage an “advanced novice” relationship. While your colleague will not (and should not) have the same detailed understanding of your course that you do, they will have an advanced perspective that allows them to tune in to potential learners’ needs. This “middle-man approach” (Ambrose et. al. 2010) can allow your colleague to look for potential points of confusion, misunderstood tones, or unclear explanations. Armed with this knowledge, you can then revise your syllabus to create an effective, learner-centered syllabus.

Ensuring reciprocity

The process of peer-reviewing your syllabus should be a reciprocal one. When we seek out feedback from a colleague but fail to provide any in return, we minimize opportunities for reflection and transformation. Not only that, but one-way investments in a colleague’s teaching do little for the creation of meaningful campus teaching cultures. On the surface, closely reading and providing constructive, critical feedback on a colleague’s syllabus allow us to identify to what extent a course is student focused. The advanced novice mindset might, for instance, prepare you to anticipate which learning outcomes, assignment descriptions, or policy language may seem less clear or undecipherable to students. Beyond these individual course-level concerns, however, this form of peer review is an opportunity to glean the instructor’s pedagogical values. Does their syllabus in its current form align with the values they exhibit (less formally) in conversations about teaching or (more formally) their teaching portfolio? If, for example, the instructor’s brand as a teacher centralizes inclusivity and compassion, where do their assignments and policies reflect those values? Ultimately, peer reviewing a colleague’s syllabus better equips us to know what kinds of questions to ask about the courses themselves and those who teach them. Once you know what to look for and how to anticipate the kinds of questions both students and administrators might have about a course’s design as the syllabus conveys it, the better you can self-monitor your own materials as you move through the course design process. This practice teaches you how to ask the hard but necessary questions about how a course will be taught. The more you refine your ability to pose them to a peer, the better able you will be to apply them to your own courses.

Exploring relationships outside your department

Peer-review partnerships may most naturally begin in your home department, especially if you are teaching a course that was previously designed and taught by a colleague. We encourage you, however, to seek out external reviewers who will provide a variety of different perspectives on elements of your course. By using reviewers outside your department, you have a better chance to leverage the advanced novice review and combat the expert blind spot. If your university has a teaching and learning center or pedagogy-focused faculty groups, these are excellent opportunities for networking and finding colleagues interested in participating in cross-disciplinary peer review. You might also find that what starts out as peer review naturally evolves into a more substantial partnership. For instance, after completing a reciprocal syllabus review, you might find that your colleague in a department across campus shares an interest in using social annotation to improve students’ reading comprehension. After working through how you might tailor these strategies for your individual course contexts, you may be well positioned to share your insights with others.

The relationships you create in these contexts can lead to important pedagogical work beyond your individual courses. If you find that you and your colleagues not only have similar pedagogical values and interests but also inspire each other to think innovatively about teaching, you become positioned to expand this collaboration into departmental, university-level, or professional-level service. If your tenure and promotion guidelines require you to demonstrate excellence in teaching or service or you are simply passionate about pedagogy and want it to be a recognizable aspect of your academic brand, these collaborative partnerships can open important doors. The sky’s the limit for those who continue to build and nurture these relationships.

While there are plenty of resources that discuss course design and what makes an effective syllabus, few include the value of fostering teaching-focused partnerships in this context. Reciprocal peer review creates a richer experience than solitary syllabus creation. Not only will these partnerships help you create effective syllabi and predict learner needs, but they can also evolve to help promote a pedagogical mindset on your campus. So, as you begin your course prep this fall, consider asking a colleague to work through your syllabus. After all, we embrace peer review in many components of our academic lives; why not extend it into our teaching practices?

References

Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., & Norman, M. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Nathan, M. J., Koedinger, K., & Alibali, M. W. (2001). Expert blind spot: When content knowledge eclipses pedagogical content knowledge.

Norman, M. K., & Bridges, M. (2018, March 1). Four horsemen of the teaching apocalypse. The Teaching Professor. https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/preparing-to-teach/course-design/four-horsemen-teaching-apocalypse

Weimer, M. (2019, March 11). What role does your syllabus play? The Teaching Professor. https://www-teachingprofessor-com/topics/for-those-who-teach/what-role-does-your-syllabus-play


Sarah Pedzinski is an instructional consultant in the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning and a PhD candidate in English at Indiana University Bloomington. Her pedagogical interests include inclusive teaching, general education courses, and student-faculty partnerships.

Gabrielle Stecher, PhD, is an associate director of undergraduate teaching and a lecturer in the Department of English at Indiana University Bloomington, where she supports graduate student instructors and teaches composition and intensive writing courses.