Kevin Gannon

Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University

DIY Syllabus: How to Move Beyond the Transactional

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We all know that a syllabus has to convey information and set an open and inviting tone. But no matter how skillfully and engagingly it does those things, to be truly effective, a syllabus has to move beyond the basics and embody the actual substance of the course.

In the two previous installments of DIY Syllabus, I considered what a syllabus is (and isn’t) and the types of things that should go into (and stay out of) a course syllabus. In this latest installment, I’d like to consider how we can use our syllabi to do more than merely convey information or set the tone for the course. To be sure, those are essential functions of a syllabus, and it’s important to do them well.

But stopping there keeps the syllabus firmly within the realm of the transactional, when what we’re really after in our teaching is the transformational. How is the course going to excite, interest, challenge, and transform its participants? What is it — specifically — that students are being invited into? It turns out that we’re asking quite a lot of the syllabus. We’re asking it to become an effective entry point into a course that we hope will be empowering and transformative for our students’ learning.

One of the most influential examples of that approach is the “promising syllabus” model, described in Ken Bain’s 2004 classic What the Best College Teachers Do. In researching the practices of effective and inspirational college instructors, Bain and his colleagues found that a common denominator was the type of syllabus they used: “First, the instructor would lay out the promises or opportunities that the course offered to students,” which “represented an invitation to a feast, giving students a strong sense of control over whether they accepted.”

The key element was the sense of ownership imparted to the students. Accepting the invitation was an autonomous decision, made with a clear sense of the work involved. In the “promising syllabus” model, students are introduced to the work (which we often label something like “course requirements”) from a place of trust.

The syllabus, Bain wrote, “was the beginning of a dialogue in which both students and instructors explored how they would understand learning, so they could both make adjustments as they went and evaluate the nature of learning at the end of the term.” In doing so, the syllabus “became a powerful influence on setting high standards and encouraging people to achieve them.” In addition to conveying specific information and setting a general tone, then, the “promising syllabus” is an active agent in opening the course to students, who are then asked to take ownership of their part of this common scholarly enterprise.

Those promises — our commitment to students via the syllabus to create an environment where they will be both challenged and supported in a meaningful learning experience — embody what Ed Cunliff, a professor of Education at the University of Central Oklahoma, has called the “meta-communication” of the course. Just as we want our students to learn about their own ways of learning — metacognition — so, too, ought we to consider what we say to them when we communicate via the syllabus and other course apparati.

In a syllabus, meta-communication operates at a number of levels:

  • Do we describe course activities with active or passive verbs?
  • Are learning outcomes phrased in the imperative (“Students will accomplish X”)?
  • Do we use different types of assessments to underscore that there are different ways of approaching the disciplinary content? Or is it just midterm, final, done?
  • Is there a course calendar that lays out topics, assignments, and activities clearly for students, or merely a laundry list of aggregated topics?
  • What is our syllabus saying (in the broadest sense) to students? Into what kind of course experience are we inviting them?

All of which matters deeply to students and their approach to learning in our courses, as demonstrated bya recent study of effective syllabi conducted by three professors at the University of Virginia. (This team also designed a rubric to assess how learner-centered a course syllabus is; it is an excellent resource that I highly recommend.)

As we design a meaningful syllabus, we need to bear in mind that our “invitations” are going out to a variety of recipients. It does no good to invite some students, but not others, into the course-as-transformational-experience that we’ve so painstakingly built. Our syllabi are the first (or at least one of the first) acts of communication with our students — and as the cliché goes, there are no second chances to make a first impression.

So an invitation to a course that doesn’t meet the standards of Universal Design for Learning runs the real risk of inviting some students while turning away others. If I receive an invitation to a party that tells me I won’t be permitted to go beyond the front parlor, I’m not going to be too enthused about going. If we try to invite students into a course that isn’t fully accessible, we’re doing the exact same thing and eliciting the exact same reaction. Meta-communication, then, not only embraces what our syllabi say but, in some important cases, what they don’t say.

Embracing the “promising syllabus” model is one of the most effective ways to create a course environment that privileges active and engaged learning. By carefully considering what our syllabi are for, what they should include, and — most essentially — what they really communicate to our students, we can create a document that does a significant amount of heavy lifting for us. That document articulates a set of promises about what the course can do for students when they accept our invitation and take ownership of their learning in this collective enterprise.

Moreover, the “promise” of this model extends to us as well. We have the opportunity to rethink the way we approach syllabi, to abandon the idea that they’re simply a routine document to be distributed and immediately forgotten, and instead utilize them to help create the type of learning environment we want to see.

If we mean what we say about higher education being transformational, as opposed to merely transactional, then our syllabi — the very gateway to our courses and what they offer to students — should unabashedly proclaim that belief.

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