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Five Tips for Faculty to Make Syllabi More Student-Centered

August 16, 2021

This week our subject matter expert is Dane Stickney, a senior instructor and doctoral candidate in the School of Education and Human Development. As we prepare for the fall semester, he’s here to share a few things to think about while developing your courses and syllabi. 

At the end of the 2020 school year, some colleagues and I attended online townhall meetings with high school seniors from an area school district. The meetings were meant to seek student opinions around how to do the typical senior stuff—including prom and graduation—during the forced online learning caused by the global pandemic. While the students appreciated having the venue to speak, several of them wondered why they were being consulted so late in the year. As one student said in the town hall meeting, “It would have been nice if our voices were heard at the beginning of all this” (Hipolito-Delgado, et al., 2021, p. 6).

As we enter our third school year impacted by the pandemic—yes, third—I firmly believe that we as educators need to fundamentally center our students’ voice, lived experience, and expertise when designing courses and writing syllabi. Below are some ideas on how to do that.

1. Occupy the learner’s point of view.

Good teachers, according to famed psychologist Carl Rogers (1989), view the learning experience not from their own point of view but from inside the learner. In other words, the syllabus shouldn’t just get you, as the educator, excited; its aim should instead be to engage the students. As you craft the syllabus, pretend to be one of your students.

  • Is it clear why this course is important to the students?
  • Is the amount of reading reasonable for the student’s context?
  • Are the authors we spotlight reflective of student demographics?
  • What implicit messages may students receive from the course/syllabus (intentional or otherwise)?
  • What information is not included in this course and how might that impact students?

2. Get out of your echo chamber.

As I am crafting the syllabus for the curriculum theories course I’m teaching this fall, I wanted to make some changes. But, in the spirit of my first point, I didn’t want to remake the class for me; I wanted to remake it for the students. So I wrangled together a makeshift focus group of former students who had taken different iterations of the course. Together, they helped uncover what the most enduring understandings have been, which provides invaluable guidance as I revise the course.

3. Invite students to annotate the syllabus.

CU-Denver’s own Remi Kalir beats this drum hard and for good reason, as allowing students early access to the syllabus to ask questions, provide feedback, and gain clarity about the course can better engage them in the material and prepare them to hit the ground running. This can be done in several ways, but I share my syllabus via Google a week before the course starts. I send a link to the students enrolled in the course and ask them to look at it and stick in any questions or thoughts via the comment function. Again, this allows students to have a voice in the course and gain a level of comfort. As an instructor, it helps spotlight areas where I might need to rethink approaches or add clarity before the course officially starts. 

4. Craft a stance.

The way you create and present the syllabus can send important messages. For example, some of my colleagues in the School of Ed create syllabi that look like works of art—one-pagers with lots of graphics, layouts that resemble a comic strip, versions that incorporate video or audio. Similarly, the tone and language of the syllabus can be important. Be clear about the message you want to send and then work to ensure the actual syllabus is aligned to that vision.

5. Consider grading vs. feedback.

Too often, teachers conflate grading and feedback. In my early years teaching, I worried about accountability and, as a result, my courses featured lots of little assignments with tedious amounts of points attached to each. I quickly realized those points are mostly worthless to students. Feedback, instead, is what they crave and relish. As you design your course, consider ways to minimize tasky activities built for accountability and instead center student products that allow you as the educator to offer robust feedback. Instead of a drab threaded discussion, for example, perhaps students could create mind maps to make their thinking visible. As an instructor, those freer and dynamic assignments allow me to offer more useful feedback.