Negotiating the Syllabus

Course Syllabus
Many faculty consider the syllabus a contract for learning that they set up for students. However, there continues to be suggestions in the literature and among pedagogical experts that this is a troublesome perspective. The language used in syllabi modeled like contracts sets a tone that is often defensive. In strongly worded statements, students are told what to do without having been consulted or being given any choice.

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Many faculty consider the syllabus a contract for learning that they set up for students. However, there continues to be suggestions in the literature and among pedagogical experts that this is a troublesome perspective. The language used in syllabi modeled like contracts sets a tone that is often defensive. In strongly worded statements, students are told what to do without having been consulted or being given any choice. Offered as a take-it-or-leave-it deal, contract syllabi dramatically underscore does and doesn't have power in the teacher-student relationship. Teachers do have more power than students but does that mean they need to present themselves as so completely in charge? And when they do, does that motivate students to either challenge the rules or look for loopholes in the contract? And finally, much in the literature about those conditions most conducive to learning are violated when there are no opportunities for collaboration or involvement in the design of the one's learning experiences. In a lengthy article, David Kaplan and Monika Renard share their experiences negotiating the course syllabus with students. They've mostly done this in management courses on conflict resolution and negotiation where the activity jives perfectly with course content, but they propose that it's possible in a much wider range of courses. Their article is very detailed and embedded in the content they teach, but their approach is still an interesting one that merits consideration. Early in the article they explore what the process requires of faculty. “An instructor must have a willingness to engage with students in a positive, problem-solving way to meet both the students' and the instructor's needs. This requires the ability to be flexible, to listen to students' desires, to propose options helpful to both, and to be open to trying new things.” (p. 402) They note this means loosening one's grip on the syllabus which isn't easy when it's been so completely under teacher control and when teachers feel strongly about most of what it contains. However, “An openness to change is not the same as abandoning standards.” (p. 403) The negotiation, which starts on the first day of class, begins by explaining the process to students, most of whom have never participated in an activity like this. Then the class is presented with an “initial offer” syllabus. “On the surface, this syllabus is similar to any one we would prepare for a course, including topics, schedule, grading, and so forth. However, on the items that we wish or expect our students to negotiate, we describe them in ways that most students would find unreasonable.” (p. 405) So, they propose two exams with no format specified, each worth 50% of the grade. They propose a 15 page term paper with 20 citations. There's a journal assignment and a collective bargaining project. Homework and quizzes with the number of each unspecified are recommended as 10% of the grade. Students may propose changes in any or all of these items which the teacher may accept, reject or respond to with counterproposals. The process focuses the negotiation on the graded work in the course because students aren't in a position to know what material should be included in the course. The details associated with the graded work, how many pages for the paper, how many exams and what type, etc. are specific and easier to negotiate expeditiously. The authors propose a couple of different timelines; one where the negotiation is mostly completed on the first day and a second that takes two days. They do point out that whatever they propose to students, they need to be able to live with as instructors. So, if students fail to negotiate on the 15 page term papers, then the instructors are reading and grading papers of that length. They also make clear to students that there are aspects of the course that aren't negotiable. They cannot change the meeting days and times of the course, and they won't not cancel class the day before spring break, for example. Students work in teams to develop their proposals. The instructor facilitates the organization of these. Student proposals are argued in class. If the class proposes that the instructor prepare a study guide, they have to make the case for study guides. Saying a study guide makes it easier to get good grades is not as persuasive as pointing out that study guides will help them learn the material. The authors conclude with a number of benefits they observed accruing from this process. Students feel as though they “own” the course and that has a positive effect on their motivation (an observation verified by much of the research on adult learning). But there's one benefit that should resonate with most faculty: this is an absolutely effective way to get students to read and become familiar with the course syllabus. The value of this article is not so much the detailed model it proposes. It's the idea that the syllabus can in some significant ways be co-created with students. And when that occurs, the environment for learning in the course is changed, as reported in this case, in some pretty dramatic and significant ways.  Reference: Kaplan, D. M. and Renard, M. K., (2015). Negotiating your syllabus: Building a collaborative contract. Journal of Management Education, 39 (3), 400-421.