Blog Archives

Learner-Centered Syllabi


At its most basic level, the syllabus is used to communicate information about the course, the instructor, learning objectives, assignments, grading policies, due dates, the university’s academic integrity statement, and, in some cases, an increasingly long list of strongly worded admonitions on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in the college classroom.

For some faculty, the syllabus is a contract between them and their students, complete with a dotted line where students sign their name indicating they consent to the terms of the agreement. Lolita Paff, an associate professor at Penn State Berks, is a reformed syllabus-as-a-contract believer.

“I will confess, as a former business professional, I did view the syllabus as a contract,” said Paff. “But when you really think about a contract, and you have someone sign a contract, that, by nature, sets up an adversarial relationship. The implied message is, ‘I don’t expect that you’re going to live up to this unless I have it in writing.’ That used to be the tone in my classroom—it’s not the tone anymore. That approach doesn’t foster a good learning environment.”

What is a learner-centered syllabus?
Today, Paff takes a more learner-centered approach to her syllabi. A learner-centered syllabus can take many forms, but it often includes one or more of these features:

A rationale for course objectives and assignments. A syllabus can be used to set the stage and the context for the course and where it sits within the discipline. Paff encourages faculty to be intentional about what is and isn’t included in the course, and then share that with students. Why are these assignments a part of the course? Why are we studying this particular topic?

Shared decision making. In some cases, a learner-centered syllabus means allowing students to have some say in course policies and procedures. Depending on the course and the students, Paff allows some flexibility in decision making for assignment weights and options. While first-year students typically won’t have the maturity to make these types of decisions, juniors and seniors can often thrive when given some choice in how they will demonstrate their learning.

Warnings of potential pitfalls. There are often certain components of a course that students find more difficult than others. Giving students a heads-up of what to look out for or behaviors that could impede success (e.g., “You really want to look out for X, and here’s a strategy so that it doesn’t happen.”) can go a long way. “That advice is going to be well received by students,” said Paff. “It sets the stage that the teacher really cares about them, not just what’s going to be covered and what’s expected of them, but that you’re in this together.”

An opportunity for students to set teacher expectations. On the first day of class, as Paff goes over the syllabus and outlines her expectations for students, she asks what they expect of her. The students break into groups to discuss past learning experiences and offer up one or two policies that they think will help them learn, which Paff types into a document during the exercise. Throughout the semester, the class revisits the students’ recommendations. “I might say, ‘See, you asked me to provide review sessions, so I’m extending my office hours before the next exam,’” Paff explained. “It’s another opportunity to talk about what we are learning, where we are in the course, what our expectations were for the class, and how are we progressing.”

Recommendations for staying on track. Every syllabus includes a course calendar, but a learner-centered syllabus could also provide guidance on how to tackle specific projects—from how much time something will take to strategies for gathering the necessary resources, Paff said. In addition, students might also need help in evaluating and monitoring their progress throughout the course.

“When it comes to a learner-centered syllabus vs. a traditional syllabus, it’s not really a difference so much in content as it is in tone,” said Paff. “There’s a shift in emphasis from ‘What are we going to cover?’ to ‘How can the course promote learning and intellectual development in students?’ So it’s going to contain roughly the same information, but the language used to convey the policies, procedures, and content is different in order to foster  a more engaging and shared learning environment.”

How long should a syllabus be?
One of the big questions faculty have regarding their syllabi centers on length. While there is no hard-and-fast rule about the optimal length of a syllabus, there is often a tendency for policy creep to push the page count higher than necessary as faculty try to anticipate every possible scenario that could occur throughout the semester.

“My syllabi started off at two to three pages, and then as I tried to close every loophole that would develop, it grew, and grew, and grew to the point where I had an entire page on nothing but classroom policies and procedures for missed exams and absences, and how I wanted homework submitted, and it grew to this five-page detailed tome,” said Paff. “Now there’s nothing wrong with a four or five page syllabus, if it serves your purpose and it’s the kind of document that you revisit with students, and it’s one that sets a framework for learning.”

Rather than worry about syllabus length, Paff encourages faculty to think about the tone of the syllabus and the order of the content they’re presenting.

For example, consider the following course description she used in a syllabus years ago:

Econ102 is an introduction to microeconomic analyses and policies. Microeconomic deals with the behavior of individuals and firms and how the behavior is influenced by government policy. The principal objective of the course is to enable students to analyze major microeconomic issues, clearly and critically.

Now compare that to the description she uses now:

Why should you want to study microeconomics? Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of people in the ordinary business of life. Every choice you make, from what time to get up … whether or not to go to class … how long to study, or work, or how much to eat, or where to go on Thursday nights … ALL of it incorporates microeconomic principles. Microeconomics helps us to understand how people and firms make choices, how markets are organized, why and how markets behave differently, and the effects government interventions have in market outcomes. I LOVE this course, and I am hoping that by the end of the semester you will develop a deep appreciation for the subject.

“A lot of times I feel that students think that a course happens at them and they’re not truly engaged and a part of the learning experience,” Paff said. “If the syllabus is structured in a way and the content is delivered in a way that they’re an active part of what happens in the class, and they have some control over how they learn and what they learn, then the random arbitrariness of learning is minimized.”

With a new school year about to begin, take some time to reflect on how you would characterize the tone of your syllabus and what you could do to make it more learner-centered.

Reprint of Mary Bart article summarizing my Faculty Focus podcast, July 29, 2015. Photo credit: Alan Levine.


Groundhog Day

Do you ever feel like you’re teaching in the movie Groundhog Day? Where the same thing happens every semester? I’m feeling a bit of that right now.

It’s first-exam Groundhog Day in accounting. We worked through the foundational material and students completed the first test last week. Each term I try different strategies to make content clearer, improve access to resources, provide more practice, and enhance opportunities to learn. In addition to the usual strategies and resources, I assigned practice questions as homework prior to the test. Solutions were provided. Office hours were increased and shifted to before the test.

I gave the exam… graded them… and good morning Groundhog Day! I find myself scratching my head after one of my students revealed the following:

I sat down with someone that took your class previously

and they showed me where everything is….

I now found all the helpful stuff…

Even though you went over this stuff in class I didn’t follow…

Past variations of this include “I didn’t know what would be on the test” and “I thought I understood the material.” Every term there are students who ignore advice, skip the learning resources, underestimate the challenges, overestimate understanding, and study insufficiently. Every first accounting exam triggers Groundhog Day, where students (this time about 12%) have fallen into (some might say they dug) a hole that’ll required extra effort to escape.

Recently, Maryellen Weimer blogged about Five Ways to Improve Exam Review Sessions. She provided several before-the-exam strategies. It’s a helpful piece. Before the first test I used a number of the practices she describes.

What about after the exam?

What post-exam strategies reduce the chances students dig a hole at the beginning of their courses in the future?

Offer Help. I write a personal note to each student who did poorly (received a D or F). I ask them to stop by during office hours or see me during the break to make an appointment. I promise no blaming or shaming.  It’s water under the bridge. The point is to talk about how they prepared to discern what will work better next time. Sometimes it’s about working smarter, not harder. I also make a point of reminding students they can recover from this misstep by stressing one important truth: for the outcome to change, behavior must change.

 Debrief. “Let’s go over the exam.” [Insert YAWN here] For students who did well, this is a complete waste of time. For the students who didn’t perform well, a straight review of the answers won’t advance learning much. But exam debrief can be about much more than the answers. Here’s where I reinforce the message that behavior must change for the outcome to improve next time. Examples of behavior changing information: absences and homework completion v. test scores. I let the data speak for itself. I limit post-exam debrief to conceptual issues and grading philosophy. Since I want students to visit me, I don’t review each item in class.

Peer Advice. Sometimes I’ll ask students who did very well on the test to privately (on a notecard or in an email) share their best practices. These strategies are provided to the class before the next test. Students tend to take advice more willingly from peers than the teacher.

Exam Wrappers. After the first exam is a good time to provide an exam wrapper. Essentially, it’s a form wrapped around the test. Wrappers convey the message that exams are more than just an assessment of content learning; they are also a means of teaching students how to learn. If you’re unfamiliar with them, search “exam wrapper” and Google will provide over 1000 hits linking to valuable resources provided by teaching and learning centers. I like the explanations, examples and resources at Carnegie Mellon;  Purdue and Duquesne.  My favorite wrapper question asks students to assign percentages to the amount of time they spent on different kinds of exam preparation behaviors: preparing notecards, rereading the chapter, practicing problems, reviewing notes, etc. I find this diagnostic to be particularly insightful when helping students “learn to learn” in accounting.

Allow a Resubmit. Sometimes I allow students to earn some of the points they missed by resubmitting part of the exam, though this is generally more appropriate in economics than accounting. Some might disagree with this, and it’s probably not appropriate in all settings. But because my economics exams are take home essays, if a large number of students miss points, that means the class didn’t learn the material and/or I asked unclear questions. In those cases, my priority is learning, not assigning grades. The possibility of earning a portion of missed points motivates students to go back and rethink their answers to improve understanding.

Grade-Estimator. Usually after the first exam I post a spreadsheet I developed that helps students predict their course grade. Many LMS track grades, but I am unaware of any that allow students to conduct “what-if” analysis. The spreadsheet is set up to reflect course grade percentages. Students enter current or predicted grades for the various components and then see what their grade will be. Here’s a snapshot:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 7.38.19 PM

Some students use the estimator to answer the age-old question: How badly can I mess up the final and still get ____?  I use the estimator as a diagnostic tool during office visits. I ask the student about their grades. Some cannot report them. Meaning, they are unsure how consistently they have completed homework, have forgotten exam scores, etc. This suggests they may not feel responsible or “own” their learning. When a student admits “I didn’t realize I missed so many assignments,” they are taking an important step toward self-directed learning. Improvement hinges on knowing where you stand.

Sometimes students consider dropping the course when the situation doesn’t warrant it. Other times they should consider dropping the course, and the estimator provides objective information to help them make an informed decision.

Most of my students are in their first- or second-year of college. That probably means first-exam Groundhog Day is part of the territory. But after our time together, these post-exam strategies should advance their understanding of themselves as learners. They may never record another debit or credit again, but if they learned about learning and use that insight going forward, that would be a wonderful Groundhog Day for them to repeat.

If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, Marie K. Norman, Richard E. Mayer. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Photo credit: Janet Morse Church, Your Shot;

Stuff they should already know

In May 2015, Anya Kamenetz wrote an NPR Online piece titled “Nonacademic Skills Are Key To Success. But What Should We Call Them?” She suggests the following terms and phrases are often used imprecisely and interchangeably:

  • 21st Century Skills
  • Character Education
  • Grit
  • Growth Mindset
  • Non-cognitive Traits & Habits
  • Social & Emotional Skills
  • Soft Skills

The article discusses the pros and cons of alternative definitions, interrelationships, and overlaps. The terms and phrases lack clarity making it difficult to teach, research, and assess these skills. Inconsistent usage and intent also promote disagreement about what is most important for students.


Photo credit: LA Johnson, NPR

Additional terms and phrases were suggested in the comments: life skills; coping skills; emotional intelligence; social-emotional learning; Achievement Behavioral Skills; educating the whole person. “Life skills” was widely endorsed and generally preferred over the seven phrases discussed in the article.

A number of respondents (primarily elementary and high school teachers) questioned when and where life skills should be learned. Many suggested these skills are “stuff your parents should have taught you,” implying teachers shouldn’t bear this responsibility.

How does this connect to teaching and learning in higher ed?

I am currently researching informal communication in accounting. Research shows many faculty believe students should already possess these skills. It’s also common to blame students; data suggests accounting programs attract students who are weaker communicators than those in other majors. Students are also blamed for failing to understand the importance of good communication skills. Another popular rationalization is that skills education is vocational and doesn’t belong in higher education. In sum, elementary teachers blame parents. High schools say “life skills,” like interpersonal skills, should have been learned in primary school or taught at home and the academy denies responsibility or blames everyone else.

The buck must stop here. We can lament the circumstances and wish things were different. But since most of us are teaching in places where students possess these skills to limited degrees, it’s time for teachers to ask themselves some hard questions.

If I teach technical content and students develop mastery but they lack “skills” like the ability to communicate informally, have I met my professional responsibility?

Likewise, program leaders should ask:

What barriers inhibit students’ skills development in our courses and programs?

What are the ramifications of teaching skills outside the discipline? For example, what are the implications of teaching writing or speaking in a communications or writing course v. teaching them within technical courses?

It’s also time for institutions to ask: What does an offer of admission imply?

Have you been following the “drowned bunnies” story at Mount Saint Mary’s? Their president suggested the school’s 6-year graduation rate could be strategically improved if high-risk students are “weeded out” during the first few weeks. He is quoted as saying: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

Essentially, newly admitted students (not knowing the purpose of the questionnaire) would be asked to respond to questions designed  to identify those at high-risk. They would be encouraged to leave. Those who disagreed with the program publicly, have been relieved of duty (the provost) and fired (two faculty). You can follow the ugly story here and here.

If we don’t think a student can be successful, we should not offer admission. We must also acknowledge that higher education isn’t responsible or able to fill all the skills gaps students have when they arrive. But if we admit them, we have an obligation to provide opportunities to learn content and develop skills. The academy has focused a lot on content, particularly in technical fields. It’s time we do more.