Iowa State University • Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching •
Iowa State University

Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

Learning-Centered Syllabi Workshop

April 22 & April 29, 1998
Material prepared by Lee Haugen


Thoughtful Preparation
Responsibility For Learning
Critical Thinking
Setting Objectives

Constructing The Learning-Centered Syllabus
Concluding Thoughts

Also see

Syllabus Disabilities Statements


Faculty Senate Recommendations for Syllabus Inclusion


Creating and using a learner-centered syllabus is integral to the process of creating learning communities. The concept is simple but its implications are far-reaching: students and their ability to learn are at the center of what we do. This means that we focus on the process of learning rather than the content, that the content and the teacher adapt to the students rather than expecting the students to adapt to the content, that responsibility is placed on students to learn rather than on professors to teach. The object is to facilitate student learning rather than to act as "gatekeepers" of knowledge, doling it out in small doses. The "bad" news is that many teachers will need to change how they think about the teaching/learning equation with resulting changes in what they do in the classroom. The "good" news is that teaching will become much more interesting and effective as professors give up the burden of being the "world's greatest authority" and embark on a collaborative exploration of knowledge, sharing in the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of using new skills and ideas.

Which does not mean that the changes will all be easy. "Accepting responsibility for their own learning can be difficult for students who have been educated as passive listeners. This change in role may be particularly difficult for some international students who come from cultures in which asking questions of the professor is openly discouraged and perceived as unacceptable student behavior" (Diamond, p. ix). But the world is changing (and has already changed drastically). The explosion in information technology, access to information, and the sheer amount of information now available are necessitating changes in how we think about learning and applying new knowledge. "Students will need to recognize when information is required, how to locate and retrieve information, and how to analyze and [critique] that information so that it becomes useful" (Grunert, 1997, p. 1).


Thoughtful Preparation

A necessary first step in creating a learning-centered syllabus, according to most sources, is to spend some time thinking about the "big questions" related to why, what, who and how we teach. Learning-centered teaching has great implications for teachers. We need to have thoughtful discussions with ourselves and our colleagues about our teaching philosophy and what it means to be an educated person in our discipline. We also need to address the following questions for our students, at least at the introductory "101" level courses, but probably more often, in order to orient them to our disciplines.

How do we think in this discipline? How do we organize knowledge, add to the knowledge base, recognize and test new knowledge? What is our philosophical base? How do we approach questions of ethics? With what theoretical questions are we most concerned?

How do we use knowledge in the discipline? How do we apply what we know? How do we recognize unmet needs? How does this discipline make the world a better place? With what other disciplines do we interact?

What stimulates our enthusiasm? How do people in our discipline rejuvenate our interest or intellectual involvement? What are our greatest accomplishments and loftiest goals? What makes the discipline a worthwhile field of study?


Responsibility For Learning

We also need to think about how we encourage responsibility for learning in our students. As they work toward becoming lifelong learners, they take increasing responsibility for their own learning. For traditional-age students, this is also consistent with their cognitive development. Freshmen (ca. 18 years) still need direction and rely on authority regarding what they need to know, how well they need to know it, and how to use what they know. By the time they're seniors (ca. 25 years), students should be able to critique different sources of information, synthesize and/or reconfigure information from several sources, find and assess multiple information sources, etc.

So, ideally, students should progress from a primarily instructor-led approach to a primarily student-initiated approach to learning. This progression is reflected in the degree to which students:

  • participate in planning the course content and activities;
  • clarify their own goals and objectives for the course;
  • monitor and assess their own progress; and
  • establish criteria for judging their own performance within the goals that they have set for themselves, certification or licensing requirements, time constraints, etc.


Critical Thinking

Another aim of learning-centered teaching is to promote critical thinking skills. Kurfiss (1988) has devised eight principles for designing a course that supports the development of critical thinking.

  1. Critical thinking is a learned skill. The instructor, fellow students, and possibly others are resources.

  2. Problems, questions, issues, values, beliefs are the point of entry to a subject and source of motivation for sustained inquiry.

  3. Successful courses balance the challenge of critical thinking with the supportive foundation of core principles, theories, etc., tailored to students' developmental needs.

  4. Courses are focused on assignments using processes that apply content rather than on lectures and simply acquiring content.

  5. Students are required to express ideas in a non-judgmental environment which encourages synthesis and creative applications.

  6. Students collaborate to learn and stretch their thinking.

  7. Problem-solving exercises nurture students' metacognitive abilities.

  8. The development needs of students are acknowledged and used in designing courses. Standards are made explicit and students are helped to learn how to achieve them.

The syllabus is a good opportunity to further explain the process of critical thinking. Ullman and Bach (1993) included the following statement in a syllabus for an Eastern European History course.

I want to take a moment to clarify how I hope you will approach the readings. The first rule is: Don't take the readings as gospel. Just because something is printed does not make it Absolute Truth. Be critical of what you are reading, drawing upon your own experiences and other knowledge. I have chosen many readings precisely because they are provocative. If you find yourself strongly disagreeing with a particular reading, that's fine; indeed, I encourage strong disagreement. However, if you disagree, you must clarify in your mind the reasons and evidence upon which you are basing your disagreement. At the same time, keep an open mind. Listen to what the readings have to say. Think about what other experiences you have had and readings you have done that might corroborate the course readings. Give yourself time to reflect on the information, insights, and perspectives offered in the readings. (pp. 43 - 44)


Setting Objectives

McKeachie (1994) recommends that preparations for a course begin three months before the first class day by writing objectives for what you want to accomplish. Some sources strongly advocate writing only objectives that can be described in specific behavioral terms. Some courses lend themselves more to behavioral objectives than others and in any case, the terminology should not become a roadblock. The point of writing objectives this long before the course starts is that you need to be clear about your objectives in order to make decisions about choice of text book, kinds of assignments, teaching methods, and everything else. The objectives should facilitate the rest of your planning and set the ground work for what you will include in the syllabus so that your students understand the objectives for the course.

Your first objective is to facilitate learning, not cover a certain block of material. "In most courses, we are concerned about helping our students in a lifelong learning process; that is, we want to develop interest in further learning and provide a base of concepts and skills that will facilitate further learning and thinking" (McKeachie, p. 10).

Acknowledge your beliefs, values, biases, and be explicit about them. "Hiding behind a cloak of objectivity simply prevents honest discussion of vital issues" (McKeachie, p. 11). Keep in mind goals that transcend specific subject matter, such as being willing to explore ideas contrary to one's own beliefs and knowing when information or data are relevant to an issue and how to find relevant information" (McKeachie, p. 11). You also need to consider how the course fits the curriculum and the nature of the student body.

Johnson (1990) has compiled a list of components for course objectives that may be useful. The caveat is that the objectives should accurately reflect the course, the instructor, and the needs of students. According to Johnson, "course objectives should consist of explicit statements about the ways in which students are expected to change as a result of your teaching and the course activities. These should include changes in thinking skills, feelings, and actions" (p. 3).

Specificity. Start with the four to six broad concepts, principles, or themes for the semester, then write specific objectives for each. These will be useful for planning the course, evaluating student outcomes, and in developing tools for evaluation.

Behavior. Johnson advocates behavioral objectives but research findings show non-significant impact except that they may help some students focus attention or organize material (Duchastel and Merrill, 1973). It is important, however, to think about the levels of performance that are appropriate for the course (memorization, application, analysis, synthesis, and problem-solving) and then explain to your students what you expect from them. Hester (1998) builds some time for explanation into each class time and has named the process. "I call the activity a 'meta-cognitive moment' and explain to students that it is important to constantly assess their present knowledge in order to connect new information to what they already know" (p. 2, emphasis added).

Clarity of Terminology. Don't use words that are open to many interpretations and which are difficult to measure. Make sure that all students understand the same interpretation.

Domain. There are three primary domains of development for students in a course. Think about what you want to work toward and the kinds of activities that can promote development in each domain. The Cognitive Domain is associated with knowledge and intellectual skills. The Affective Domain is associated with changes in interests, attitudes, values, applications, and adjustments. And the Psychomotor Domain is associated with manipulative and motor skills.


Constructing the Learning-Centered Syllabus

We are not here to cover the whole topic of learning-centered education but, rather, to concentrate on one aspect of that concept: The Learning-Centered Syllabus. "A learning-centered syllabus requires that you shift from what you, the instructor, are going to cover in your course to a concern for what information and tools you can provide for your students to promote learning and intellectual development" (Diamond, p. xi).

An effective learning-centered syllabus should accomplish certain basic goals (Diamond, p. ix):

  • define students' responsibilities;
  • define instructor's role and responsibility to students;
  • provide a clear statement of intended goals and student outcomes;
  • establish standards and procedures for evaluation;
  • acquaint students with course logistics;
  • establish a pattern of communication between instructor and students; and
  • include difficult-to-obtain materials such as readings, complex charts, and graphs.

The following outline is based primarily on Tools for Teaching by B. G. Davis (1993).

General Strategies

  1. Look over the syllabi of other faculty in your department. If the department does not use a standardized format, use a colleague's syllabus as a rough model. Consider putting your syllabus on line as well as handing out hard copies.

  2. Anticipate the general questions that will be in the minds of students including the number and kinds of tests and assignments; grading system; text and readings; policies regarding attendance, late work, and make-up work; purpose of the course; nature of class sessions; level of preparation or prerequisites; and why they should take this course.

  3. Keep the syllabus flexible. It reflects the degree of rigidity in the course and whether digressions are discouraged, allowed, or encouraged. If appropriate, leave room to roam or revise.

Creating a Syllabus

  1. Include more rather than less. Specificity and detail are valuable learning tools and reduce initial anxiety.

  2. Provide basic information such as the name of the university, year, semester, course title and number, credits, time and location of meetings, any field trips or meetings other than normal meeting times, and your personal data (name, office number, phone number, e-mail address, office hours, whether appointments are needed for office hours, home phone and restrictions if appropriate), and similar information for TAs.

  3. Describe prerequisites to the course. Help students to realistically assess their readiness by listing knowledge, skills, and experience expected. Give them suggestions about how to refresh their skills. Do whatever you can to help overcome the tendency of students to "dump" what they have learned at the end of the semester by showing how concepts, skills, and specific knowledge are built on previous courses and lead to future courses.

  4. Give an overview of the course's purpose. Discuss subject matter and how the course fits into the curriculum and why the course is useful. This is also where you can orient the students to the discipline (see above).

  5. State the general learning goals or objectives. List three to five major objectives toward which you expect all students to strive. What will they know or be able to do? What skills or competencies do you want students to develop? If appropriate, be clear about what the course does not address.

  6. Clarify the conceptual structure used to organize the course. Students need to know why topics are arranged in a given order and the logic of the themes and concepts as they relate to the course structure. Does the course involve mostly inductive or deductive reasoning? Is it oriented to problem-solving or theory building? Is it mostly analytical or applied? In answering these questions, acknowledge that they reflect predominant modes in most cases rather than either/or dichotomies.

  7. Describe the format or activities of the course. Will there be field work, research projects, lectures, discussions, etc., and what is required versus recommended.

  8. Specify textbooks and readings by author and editions. When possible, explain connections to the course objectives and how the text and readings address them. Explain whether you expect students to have completed readings before class sessions and the degree of understanding that you expect (e.g., pop quizzes, able to discuss, or apply to problem-solving scenarios). If readings are placed on reserve in the library, discuss library policy.

  9. Identify additional equipment or materials needed and sources.

  10. List assignments, papers, and exams. Be as specific as possible about dates, expectations for performance, and types of exams, quizzes, exercises, papers, etc.

  11. Explain how students will be evaluated and grades assigned. Include components of the final grade, weights assigned to each component, grading on a curve or scale. Can extra credit improve a grade and can a quiz grade be dropped?

  12. Explain other requirements such as group assignments, individualized consultation, etc.

  13. Discuss your policies clearly regarding attendance, late assignments, make-ups, extra credit, deadline extensions, reporting illness, cheating and plagiarism, unacceptable behavior in class such as eating, and students' responsibilities in the learning process.

  14. Invite students with special needs to talk to you during office hours or before or after class.Following are three suggested statements that you may wish to include in your syllabus regarding students with disabilities. They were compiled by the Disability Resources office in the Office of the Dean of Students. (Also see Sample Syllabus Statements Regarding Disabilities for Statement on Discrimination and Harassment – Approved by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance, university legal counsel, and the EVPP.)
    • "Iowa State University complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Any student who may require an accommodation under such provisions should contact the instructor as soon as possible and no later than the end of the first week of classes or as soon as you become aware. No retroactive accommodations will be provided in this class."
    • "If you have a documented disability and anticipate needing accommodations in this course, please make arrangements to meet with me soon. Please request that the a Disability Resources staff send a SAAR form verifying your disability and specifying the accommodation you will need."
    • "Any student who feels s/he may need an accommodation based on the impact of a disability should contact me privately to discuss your specific needs. Please contact the Disability Resources Office at 515-294-6624 or TTY 515-294-6635 in Room 1076 of the Student Services Building to submit your documentation and coordinate necessary and reasonable accommodation."
  15. Provide a course calendar. Stick to it and, if necessary to revise it, try to had out a written revision.

  16. Schedule time for feedback from students. This can be done at mid-term or more often. Students will take more ownership of course responsibilities if they are able to have input into making the course more effective.

  17. List important dates such as last drop date, registration dates for the next semester, etc.

  18. Estimate student work load. Give students a sense of how much preparation and work the course requires. But be realistic; they don't believe either scare tactics or soft pedaling. And remember that yours is not the only class that they're taking.

  19. Include supplementary information that will help students succeed, such as:
    • glossary of terms and jargon;
    • hints about how to study or take notes;
    • information about campus resources such as tutoring, study skills help, or computer labs;
    • a reference list of more in-depth readings, advanced topics, or remedial refreshers; and
    • copies of past exams if possible.

  20. If there is a service learning component, explain what is expected and how students will be evaluated. If it is not a requirement of the course but there are opportunities available, provide information about who to contact. In either case, explain some of the benefits of service learning activities.

Using the Syllabus

  1. Annotate and revise. Keep a copy on disk or hard drive so you can easily make changes or additions.

  2. Distribute the syllabus on the first day of class. Model the behavior you expect from your students by meeting your "assignment" on time, not a week into the term. Review the essential points, answer questions, and tell the students how important the syllabus is.

  3. Make and bring extra copies for the first two or three weeks to replace lost copies or for students joining the class late.


Concluding Thoughts

As you plan your courses and write your syllabi, you may want to look into some related sources of information. While this workshop concentrates on learning-centered syllabi and closely related issues, it's not really possible to separate the construction of a syllabus from other issues of teaching and learning.

Use a variety of methods. Lecture is the least learning-centered method of teaching but sometimes you just have to cover so much territory with a large numbers of students. So break the lecture up into logical parts, preview and review the content, and try to stay animated and interested yourself.

Active learning helps students to apply and retain what they're learning. It adds relevance and experience to the content.

Group discussion promotes intellectual involvement so that students make connections to what they already know and begin to creatively use new information.

Problem-solving helps students to learn how to learn, use resources, and often to work collaboratively in teams. It also helps build feelings of competence and resourcefulness.

Get to know your students. It's difficult to focus on learning if you don't know much about learners. Take some time to talk with your students individually to get to know them. If it's possible, include a field trip as a way to spend some less-structured time with your students. And do some reading in the area of student development theories (especially cognitive development) so that you have a better idea about how traditional-age college students make sense of what they are learning.

Be an advocate. If your department does not have a standard syllabus format, offer to work with a group to develop one. If it does have a standard format, offer to help improve it. Standardization helps students know how to read and interpret syllabi for a department, provides a guide/reference for new faculty, should improve the overall quality of syllabi in the department, and help to raise awareness of issues such as course transference, measurable objectives and course evaluations, teaching methods that are appropriate for content, and learning-centered teaching.



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