What Are the Characteristics of a Learner-Centered Syllabus?

student engagement
A learner-centered syllabus shifts the syllabus emphasis from “What will be covered?” to “How can the course promote learning and intellectual development in students?”

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A learner-centered syllabus shifts the syllabus emphasis from “What will be covered?” to “How can the course promote learning and intellectual development in students?” The focus of the learner-centered syllabus is on students and their learning outcomes. [It] contains the same information as a traditional syllabus. However, the information is presented in a way that creates a community learning environment in which power and control are shared between the instructor and the student.” (p.489). ~ M. Robb, 2012. “A learning-centered approach to college education asks you to consider how each and every aspect of your course can most effectively support student learning. How, then, can you use your syllabus to promote your students’ engagement with subject matter and their intellectual development?” Grunert, 1997, P3.

Six Goals of a Learning Centered Syllabus

(R. Diamond, 1997)
  1. Define responsibilities- who is responsible for what in the learning process?
  1. State course goals, from the perspective of students
  1. Establish standards and procedures for evaluation
  1. Acquaint students with course logistics, including course policies stated in a way that encourages students to take responsibility for their learning.
    1. “If an absence is unavoidable, you should…”
    2. “Late assignments will receive…”
  1. Establish lines of communication
  1. Provide access to course materials

Functions of a Learning Centered Syllabus:

(Grunert, 1997, p14-19)
  1. Establishes an early point of contact and connection between student & instructor
  2. Helps set the tone for the course
  3. Describes your beliefs about educational purposes
  4. Acquaints students with the logistics of the course
  5. Contains collected handouts
  6. Defines student responsibilities for successful course work
  7. Describes active learning
  8. Helps students assess their readiness for your course
  9. Sets the course in a broader context for learning
  10. Provides a conceptual framework
  11. Describes available learning resources
  12. Communicates the role of technology in the course
  13. Can expand to provide difficult to obtain reading materials
  14. Can improve the effectiveness of student note taking
  15. Can include material that supports learning outside the classroom
  16. Can serve as a learning contract
“You might want to think of your syllabus as a negotiable contract, a well-considered plan in which you are willing to reinvent some of the structure according to the students and situation you find in your class” Grunert, 1997, p 21. In addition to the purpose and content of the syllabus, what else should teachers consider?

Striking the Right Tone

Question for readers to think about:
“A syllabus, like any other text, cannot be separated from its author; nor is it above scrutiny and deconstruction. Professors, as critical thinkers themselves, should be aware that their syllabi are alive, symbolic, and vocal. A syllabus really can talk, and it's saying a lot more than we think.” ~ M. D’Antonio, 2007 “Legalistic statements about attendance and academic honesty are often required by university handbooks and state laws and can easily undermine student/faculty relationships. Nonetheless, with forethought, one can be clear about the rules governing classroom behavior without being cold and accusatory” ~ Slattery & Carlson, 2013, p. 162. “The implicit message of the modern course syllabus is that the student will not do anything unless bribed by grades or forced by threats (p52)… It is assumed that we have to teach in an authoritarian manner because of the way students are. However, all of the literature on student motivation has convinced me that the opposite is likely to be true: students act the way they do because we treat them the way we do” (p55) ~ Singham, 2007. Collaborative syllabus construction (Blinne, 2013)
  1. What topics or areas are of greatest interest to us as a class?
  2. What are your goals, expectations, and learning needs for this course?
  3. How can we best connect our readings and discussions to our everyday lives?
  4. How can we engage with multiple learning styles throughout the semester?
“With these guiding questions, we explore multiple options for constructing a syllabus. One option is to set aside time during the first week of class, asking learners to work together in small groups to discuss what their expectations are of themselves and each other, their expectations of me as a teacher, what constitutes disruptive behaviors and committed and active participation, as well as “good” and “bad” discussions. After setting up our classroom policies and expectations, based on group consensus, they sign a classroom agreement, acknowledging individual and group responsibility for their learning process” p.42. Syllabus as Employment Contract (Campana & Peterson, 2013) The authors prepared an employment contract rather than a syllabus, and created assignments and class activities that required students to explicitly consider how their college experiences might apply to the workplace. Students at both institutions thought the framing was interesting and fun, and thought the professors should continue to frame future courses as jobs. The instructors found that students were more professional, prompt, and detail-oriented. It also provided them with multiple opportunities to engage students in serious discussions about transitioning to the workplace upon graduation.

Getting Students to Read Your Syllabus

“The current Generation Y students manage information in small chunks (not paragraphs explaining assignments and rationales), default to digital information retrieval and storage (not paper copies we hand out on the first day of class), expect learning to be interactive and interesting (not dry bullet points), and believe that their personal situations and needs are unique and should be attended to (not blanket policies and consequences). All of these well-documented factors contributed to our relatively slow-dawning realization that our students are not using our syllabi with any regularity toward its intended purpose.” ~ Forniciari & Dean, 2013, p. 4  “…when students attend on the first day they often come to a class expectant but uncertain. What they know is what they have read in the catalog and what information the student grapevine has provided (including online resources such as ratemyprofessor.com). They want details: How can they get a good grade? What are your expectations? In addition, they do not want dissemination of this information to take the entire class period… If this is their first class with you, they are waiting to see you, observe your posture, hear your voice, translate your tone, and get a general feeling about you; but these initial impressions are not just about you - these impressions are more about the perspective you have about them as students, as people: their capabilities, their ability to trust you, and their desire to work alongside you. As class leader, you must decide how to use this day” ~ Anderson, Mcguire & Cory, 2011, pp 293-294.
Questions for readers to think about:

First Impressions

1. Learning begins the moment THEY arrive… even before you are present. 2. Whatever you plan to do during the semester, do it on the first day. 3. Get students talking. Expectations for an interactive course should be set from day one, and telling students that you want them talking isn’t nearly as effective as getting them talking. They should be talking to you and talking with each other.

Syllabus Review & Revision

Questions for readers to think about:
During the course: “After distributing the original syllabus, I create a separate working version of it in Word, distinguishing it from the original by adding the phrase “Assessment Version” to the file name. …During the semester, whenever I have a fresh idea for a course or encounter a glitch, I add notes to the assessment version of the syllabus, including editorial corrections and calendar adjustments; reminders of problems with assignments, tests, or policies; and, most important, ideas for pedagogical improvements.” ~ M. Roberts, 2013. (p.109) After the course: I reconsider the policies, assignments, and exams in light of any major changes I have in mind for the course. My assessment also describes key successes to ensure that the strengths of the course are preserved. This post-semester reflection process often has the added benefit of generating ideas that I can apply to other courses and that I record in the assessment versions of their syllabi…. If we treat a syllabus as a document in process rather than as a finished text to be “put to bed” at the end of each semester, we have created a powerful course assessment tool that can play a useful role in conjunction with standardized and open- ended student evaluations as well as classroom observations. In other words, to be genuinely “promising,” a syllabus needs to be a “dynamic one.” ~ M. Roberts, 2013. (p.109) References Anderson, D.M., F.A. Mcguire, L. Cory. 2011. The first day: it happens only once. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(3): 293-303. Baecker, D. 1998. Uncovering the Rhetoric of the Syllabus. College Teaching, 46(2): 58-62. Blinne, K.C. 2013. Start With the Syllabus: HELPing Learners Learn Through Class Content Collaboration, College Teaching, 61: 41-43. Campana, Kristie L. and Jamie L. Peterson. 2013. Do Bosses Give Extra Credit? Using the Classroom to Model Real-World Work Experiences. College Teaching, 61: 60-66 D’Antonio, M. July 19, 2007. If Your Syllabus Could Talk. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed April 26, 2014. http://chronicle.com/article/If-Your-Syllabus-Could-Talk/46604 Fornaciari, C.J. and K.L. Dean. 2013. The 21st-Century Syllabus: From Pedagogy to Andragogy.  Journal of Management Education, published online Oct. 29, 2013. DOI: 10.1177/1052562913504763 http://jme.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/10/21/1052562913504763 Grunert, J. 1997. The Course Syllabus: A learning-centered approach. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company. Oxford Dictionary. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/syllabus?q=syllabus Accessed: April 25, 2014. Parks, Jay and Mary B. Harris. 2013. The Purposes of a Syllabus. College Teaching, 50(2): 55-61. Robb, Meigan. 2012. The Learner Centered Syllabus. The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 43(11): 489-490. Roberts, M. 2013. Creating a Dynamic Syllabus: A Strategy for Course Assessment. College Teaching, 61: 109. Singham, M. 2007. Death to the Syllabus! Liberal Education, 93(4): 52-56. Singham, M. 2005. Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom. Change, 37(3): 50-57. Slattery, Jeanne M. and Jane F. Carlson. 2013. Preparing an Effective Syllabus Current Best Practices. College Teaching, 53(4): 159-164. Walvoord, B. E., and V. J. Anderson. 1998. Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Weimer, M. August 24, 2011. What Does Your Syllabus Say About You and Your Course? Faculty Focus. Acccessed April 26, 2014. https://qa.teachingprofessor.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/what-does-your-syllabus-say-about-you-and-your-course/

This material was previously published as part of Dr. Paff's "Talk Higher Ed" interview with Magna Publications on March 31, 2015.