Thursday, January 5, 2012

Reinventing the Syllabus

The first modern syllabus
(Henry Adams, Harvard, 1876)

For the average college student, a course syllabus is a critical form of information. In fact, without one they would feel as lost as if one took away their cell phone. Well, maybe not that lost.

In Digital Civilization we follow a teaching philosophy that is somewhat at odds with the course syllabus as traditionally conceived. We use a syllabus, but we do not wish for this course, or for our students' education more generally, to be syllabus-driven.

Before the Syllabus
Let's go back in time, well before the familiar syllabus, before print and even before written texts  dominated education. In orally-based cultures, any course of study was probably not associated with a school, but with a community (as addressed in the companion course to this one in the folk knowledge unit) or with a mentor.

I'd like to point out three important traits in how studies functioned within such oral cultures. First, such studies involved teaching and learning in an interactive way. Think about it: passive learning methods came with the written or printed word. In oral settings (unless one is simply talking to oneself), there is a back-and-forth between teacher and student or fellow learners. Second, such studies were adaptive. That is to say, what was taught would be adjusted according to the learner(s) and circumstances. Third, such studies were iterative; subjects would be returned to over and over.

Think of how the modern syllabus separates us from orally based methods of learning. A syllabus is not interactive, nor adaptive, and is rarely iterative. There would be advantages to syllabi, to be sure. I merely wish to point out some things that are lost from constructive modes of oral learning once we begin to depend upon a syllabus.

Students in this course will see that our syllabus departs from traditional syllabi precisely because it accommodates being interactive, adaptive, and iterative. But first, some history of this genre.

History of the Syllabus
The use of syllabi began in the late 19th century, as I learned from a fascinating article detailing the history of the college syllabus (by Jeffrey A. Snyder from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard). A syllabus (from the Greek, "sittyba," meaning "parchment label") began merely as an index, a list of topics for mastering a given subject. Gradually, the syllabus evolved into a formal plan of study.

Within higher education, the syllabus has become not just a plan of study, but a calendar and a contract, outlining the readings, assignments, and assessments which lead to the course grade students receive. A syllabus has also become a kind of marketing tool, advertising the content, teaching methods, and assessment instruments that a teacher will be using.

More recently, and very importantly, the syllabus has begun to include explicit learning outcomes (or course objectives). Students often pass these over as a kind of formality, zeroing in on the schedule of assignments and the evaluative assessments. The syllabus has become a kind of script, organizing a student's time and studies around assigned topics in an assigned sequence.

But should one's learning be following a script? By following a syllabus, are students conditioned away from other, critical kinds of learning?

Syllabus Pros and Cons
The problem with the syllabus is that it is a better instrument for schooling than for learning. Students can become so proficient at mastering the methods of schooling that they are fooled into believing that they are learning a subject just because they are fulfilling assignments or passing assessments. When it comes to a general or liberal education, dependence upon a syllabus works against the core values of independent and life-long learning.

Let me quickly qualify my critique of the syllabus. I do not mean to suggest that a syllabus is not useful or even necessary. I have found that developing a syllabus is a marvelous exercise in figuring out a subject. And the very limits of a school semester provide focus and purpose to a plan of study. A syllabus is also useful for coordinated learning: if students are all on the same page or studying the same topic simultaneously, this creates opportunities for collaborative learning, whether in or out of class.

But a syllabus is far more valuable as a learning tool if you are creating it, rather than following it. Most students, unfortunately, will never think in terms of planning their own courses of study; too much of that has already been done for them through the curricula and majors of higher education. A syllabus, like an undergraduate education, becomes something to "get through" in order to get credentialed. It becomes an exercise in hoop-jumping.

Many students will question a syllabus in terms of grading criteria or assignment specifics; few will ever question whether the texts, assignments, activities, or assessments are truly adequate for meeting the stated learning outcomes. Fewer still will supplement assigned work with independent work to meet the learning outcomes. This is because the learning outcomes do not drive the learning; the schedule does. And that is why, if a day is left blank on the syllabus, students -- even honors students -- come running to the ones who wrote the syllabus, asking what it is they need to do. Such students are not focused on learning; they are focused on completing requirements in order to get grades.

Learners need structure, to be sure. But I suggest that students be very wary of structures that are so all-encompassing that they actually disallow or discourage personal learning. "When is the last time you read a book that was not assigned for you to read?" This is a question I love posing to my students (especially to my literature students, who become English majors often because of a prior love of independent reading). I would further add, "When have you devised your own personal course of study on a topic?"

Personal Learning Plans
Are you an autodidact, someone who can teach himself or herself? Are you a self-directed learner? Set aside considerations of degree or major requirements. Now ask yourself, "What do I really need to know?"

That is a hard question. It depends so much upon the situation and the person -- that is part of my larger point. Education -- if it is to be thought of as a crucial skill for life and not merely a credentialing mechanism or a transitory rite of passage -- will always be situational and personal. How good are you at devising personal learning plans, the sort that will not be graded, but which will get you the learning you require?

My sense is that few of my students will actually indulge in such thinking. What a luxury to fantasize books or even entire subjects that I might like to learn -- I have three midterms this week! But this is why, in this course, Dr. Zappala and I have purposefully not assigned as much reading as traditional Civ courses. We have given our students a combination of limited structure and clear learning outcomes. The students who are really interested in learning to learn will take advantage of this freedom, pursuing topics that relate to the subjects of our current unit or to class themes in general. Others, of course, will squander this opportunity to conduct self-directed learning, filling their study time for this course with other studies, or whatever else.

Maggie, a self-directed learner
Let me tell you about a student I've really enjoyed because she has learned to be a self-directed learner. In Fall 2010, when Maggie Weddle looked at the syllabus for Digital Civilization on a given week, she only found one word, rather than the usual reading assignments: "capitalism." What did Maggie do? She didn't blow it off, nor did she come begging the teachers about what to read. She basically said to herself, "I guess I need to be learning about capitalism," and went about doing her own research, documenting her efforts on her blog. I have a lot of faith in Maggie's life-long learning. For example, in another post (one that was not required, by the way), she created a personal reading list, an annotated bibliography listing the various books that had been recommended in prior courses she'd taken. I'm sure that as she created that list it developed her thinking and focused her choosing about which books she will be reading on her own.

Janelle created and adapted
her own personal learning plan
Another sharp student I've had in a Shakespeare course, Janelle McCune, responded well to my invitation for self-directed learning. In Janelle's self-directed learning plan, she thought through how she could combine her learning from two different classes, and then created her own study schedule for how to do so. As the semester progressed and she began to understand her subject better and develop a focus, she revised her plan accordingly.

Are you smart enough to

  1. find what you need to learn; 
  2. create a schedule and plan for learning it; and 
  3. adapt your plan as you move forward?

This emphasis on personal learning isn't coming out of nowhere. This is the very sort of learning we most want our undergrads to achieve, as stated in the Aims of a BYU Education:
BYU should inspire students to keep alive their curiosity and prepare them to continue learning throughout their lives.... Thus, a BYU diploma is a beginning, not an end, pointing the way to a habit of constant learning. In an era of rapid changes in technology and information, the knowledge and skills learned this year may require renewal the next. Therefore, a BYU degree should educate students in how to learn...
How are you doing with that? Or, are you depending entirely a syllabus or a set curriculum to dictate to you how to learn?

How are you planning out your learning -- either for this unit, this course, or for your whole life? Have you outsourced that planning to the professionals or the credentialers? Most do, and what a pity. It means you never truly control your educational destiny, and you let others dictate most of your thoughts and conscious attention (at least while a student). How can it be that today, when we have instant access to endless information and more ability to find content and develop personal learning plans on our own, that we succumb to the syllabus that is handed to us?

How we'd love to see the sort of independence from students that shows them taking charge of their learning and not depending on all readings, research, or activities to be prescribed to them. Within the learning outcomes and general calendar, so much can be done. What will you do?

Some Follow-up
This post is essentially a re-post of one I did for the companion course to this one, Reinventing Knowledge. One of the students from that course, Morgan Mix, made an insightful response to this topic from the student point of view.