Crafting a Learner-Centered Syllabus

In self-report surveys, students indicate they consult syllabi fairly regularly (Calhoon & Becker, 2008)1.  Yet professors’ exasperated refrain “It’s on the syllabus!” has become so clichéd, it has been turned into a whole host of memes and paraphernalia.

Why do students say they routinely consult the syllabus but faculty find they cannot recall basic information?  Could it be because our syllabi discourage close reading?

Crafting a Learner-Centered SyllabusIn my experience, first as a student, then as a faculty member, and now as an instructional technologist, syllabi tend to not be very engaging or welcoming documents.

They’re text-heavy, written in small, unattractive typeface, and their tone makes students feel like they’re misbehaving children who must be either intimidated or guilt-tripped into compliance.

What student would want to read our syllabi?

“These days syllabi are looking more and more like those Terms of Service that pop up when we use software. You know, the long documents in fine print with a scrollbar that we click through so we can move on” (Fister, 2011).

Why does it matter if our syllabi are aesthetically-pleasing and friendly?  Well, the syllabus is the first point of interaction between you and your students.  Syllabi not only inform students about the course and their role in it, but also about the personality and teaching style of the instructor and, therefore, can create powerful first impressions.  And first impressions matter.  They set the tone.

A significant body of research suggests clear, friendly, student-centered syllabi facilitate teaching and learning.  Unfortunately, syllabi tend to be anything but student-centered.  Many of us distribute authoritarian syllabi, which can result in negative consequences.

Authoritarian Syllabi
Authoritarian syllabi communicate to students that the professor is the sole authority and they are simply passive recipients of the professor’s knowledge.  They typically make students feel powerless and voiceless.  These types of syllabi, through content, form, and tone, focus primarily on preventing problems and challenges to professor authority.  They concentrate on what not to do rather than what to do, and in a tone that is dictatorial, demeaning, or infantilizing.  Some examples taken from real syllabi (but posted anonymously):

“I really take offense to students reading during class. Just leave the classroom — be sure to gather up all your things since you won’t be coming back.”

“Loud students will be warned and then asked to leave the room and will be marked absent.”

“Please ensure you go to the bathroom before class begins.”

To me, it seems that authoritarian syllabi reflect a breakdown in trust between students and instructors.  If only I had a nickle for every time I’ve heard professors complain about “lazy, spoiled, unmotivated, unprofessional Millennials.”  We seem to distrust our students’ ability and desire to learn.  Our syllabi communicate that.

Crafting a Learner-Centered Syllabus

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We need more empirical research on this topic, but the studies we do have indicate that these types of syllabi tend to contribute to negative outcomes.  Students who read authoritarian syllabi are more likely to drop the class, are less likely to approach the instructor for assistance, and are more likely to believe the instructor doesn’t care about their success.2

Learner-Centered Syllabi
In contrast, a learner-centered syllabus requires faculty to release a bit of control and place more emphasis on what will help student intellectual development.  This does not mean we are catering to students, spoon-feeding them, or holding their hands.  It simply means designing a document, and by extension a class, that sets students up for success.

Learner-centered syllabi make it clear that students will not be treated as passive receptacles for information.  Instead, they will be treated as active, contributing participants.

One of the simplest ways to make students feel like active contributors is to use more inclusive pronouns.  Rather than “the instructor will” and “students should,” use “we,” “us,” and “our.”  For example:

“Throughout this course we’ll spend considerable time laying a foundation conducive to respectful but challenging discussions through which we all can grow. I hope we will grapple with complicated, emotional, and thought-provoking topics as a community, and to understand that learning and teaching come from shared experiences and self-reflection.” — Dr. David Jull-Patterson, Palliative Care, UC San Francisco

Also, do you provide space for your students to contribute to the design of the course? Students could contribute to the creation of course policies, assignments, or class schedule.  For example, I leave a few class periods open in the schedule and my students decide together what topics will be covered.  We also spend the first day of class creating a list of expectations — students’ expectations of each other, my expectations of them, and their expectations of me.  This becomes our course contract.

Secondly, to use a colleague’s phrase, instructors should not play “find the cookie” with their syllabi.  In this metaphor, the cookie equals the steps to success.  This means we shouldn’t be vague, confusing, or equivocal.  It shouldn’t be a mystery how students will achieve the learning objectives and how they will be evaluated.  Instead, we should “disclose as much insider knowledge as possible to promote the success of all students” (Collins, 1997)3.  Students shouldn’t have to search for the cookie. The cookie should be easy to find.

Finally, learner-centered syllabi outline what students can expect from instructors.  This communicates that the course is a joint effort and it gives the impression that the faculty member is invested and cares.  I started including a section in my syllabi that explicitly states what students can expect from me, such as being punctual, providing thorough feedback, and communicating clearly.

Although, once again, we need more empirical research, the existing studies demonstrate that learner-centered syllabi contribute to positive outcomes, such as:

  • Students are more likely to remember the information (Littlefield, 1999).
  • They are more likely to perceive an instructor as warm, approachable, and motivated to teach the course (Harnish & Bridges, 2011).
  • And they are more likely to seek support from an instructor (Perrine, Lisle, & Tucker, 1995).4

Your Turn
Now that you understand the differences between authoritarian and learner-centered approaches, think about your own syllabi.  What are you signaling to students about your class, your discipline, and you as a professor?

This rubric ( may help as you begin to critically examine your syllabi.  Try to see through the eyes of your students and challenge yourself to make one learner-centered change.

1.  Calhoon, S., & Becker, A. (2008). How students use the course syllabus. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2, 1-12.

2.  Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching, 53, 159-164.

3. Collins, T. (1997). For openers . . . An inclusive course syllabus. In W. Campbell and K. Smith (Eds.), New Paradigms for College Teaching (pp. 79-102). Edina, MN: Interaction Books.

4. Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology Education, 14, 319-330.

About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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1 Response to Crafting a Learner-Centered Syllabus

  1. Pingback: Is Your First Day of Class “Syllabus Day”? | Past Prof

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