Getting Started, Part 3: The Syllabus

[Cross-posted from HASTAC]

Part One: How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom Part I

Part Two: It’s All About You

Part Three: The Syllabus

Part Four: Students

Part Five: Collectively Writing a Constitution

Part Six: Contract Grading and Peer Review


It takes a lot of confidence to trust your students. In this third entry in the series on how to get started with student-centered learning, I will discuss both how to use the syllabus as a persuasive and protective instrument and how to think about getting your students involved from the very beginning in constructing a syllabus for their class.

First, confidence and courage:  As with any deviation from the status quo, student-centered learning is profoundly disruptive and that takes courage, flexibility, and strength.  It just does.  It’s also deeply satisfying.  If you watched any of the videos or read any of the brief essays at the end of my previous post, you saw that there are decades of research in support of student-centered learning, at every level, in all fields.  Credential-centered learning is inherently successful if all you want is a credential; if you want is learning, if you want is a more confident life, if you want is a better and more equitable society, then, hands’ down, progressive student-centered learning is an incomparably better model, not only for the student but for the teacher too. What’s not to love about engaged, progressive, student-centered pedagogy? 

BUT  . . .   and this is a really big caveat.  Even after you convince yourself, you will still have everyone else to convince.

That means convincing:  your students (who have spent twelve years learning how to thrive in a passive, credential-centered formal education system), their parents (who pay good money to have you teach their kids), your administrators (who hire you to teach not to be a “co-learner”), and everyone else who has survived formal education (“Hey, school didn’t kill me. Why should you be any different?”).

That is what the syllabus is for.

I find that a syllabus is a great tool for arming myself against the skeptical.

Not everyone agrees with me.  Some progressivists dispense with the syllabus entirely.  My method is to be very explicit in the syllabus about what I am doing and why.  I include some theory, some resources, and a lot of the most basic information.  And then I proceed with the most open, radical, student-centered approach I can think of.

I emphasize this because, in my last blog, I warned that the biggest obstacle to transforming to a student-centered learning environment is the professor.  We come up with all kinds of reasons why it won’t work and the one I hear most frequently is that it’s “dangerous” or “risky.”  I personally believe that taking strategic risks for things that matter to you is the only way to survive–in this profession, in any profession, in life.  At the same, time, I believe in being smart, so I go with the ultra-responsible syllabus model.  It works for me and it helps my students who, after all, have succeeded at twelve years of traditional education.  The syllabus is a kind of half-way house between traditional education and progressive learning.

[One professor I know, who is in a more precarious professional space than I am, uses his syllabus in an exceptionally interesting way.  It grows and grows every year until now it is practically the size of a book.  The first few pages are the actual assignments for the course and the rest are “Prof X’’s Toolkit for College Success” and include an annotated bibliography of resources (many of them created by past classes of students), some essays on aspects of progressive education (some of these also written by past students), and other useful materials.   If anyone questions him about his innovative student-centered methods, he hands them this tome/syllabus and says most of their questions will be addressed here (I believe it even has a formal Table of Contents, maybe even an FAQ), but he is delighted to entertain other questions.  His integrity, seriousness, concern for his students, and his hard work are unquestionable when someone sees this remarkable compendium of pedagogical materials. No one accuses him of not doing his job.]

This is important:  the single most frequent critique leveled against anyone using student-centered learning techniques is that we’re “not doing our job,” that we’re “getting out of work,” that we’re “having our students do what we’re paid to do.”  You can calm a lot of nerves simply by beginning with a carefully crafted, responsible, thoughtful syllabus that addresses a number of the key questions of progressive education, that includes a bibliography of the most important thinkers (almost everyone has heard of Montessori and Dewey, for example–and Plato, of course).

Although I often do not specify the actual assignments–I often have my students construct the reading list, for example–I almost always have a syllabus that begins by looking very conventional.  I like experimenting radically, and find that, if the basics are taking care of, it makes experimentation easier.

So the first page of my syllabus typically has The Basics.  

THE BASICS  (examples):  

–Course name, course number, credit hours, meeting times, location, interdisciplinary cross listings, time, room number, office hours, contact information for me, contact information for anyone working with me (I often work with a team of assistant teachers or student mentors or teaching assistants or postdocs who are learning these student-centered methods)

–Scheduled official university/college deadlines:  midterm, final.

–Course policies:  attendance, make-up exams, disability compliance

–Plagiarism, cheating, honor policies  [NB:  I sometimes have students decide these with a –Class Constitution [if applicable:   to be discussed in a future post]

–Grading policy and philosophy  [NB:  I sometimes use contract and peer grading to be discussed in a future post]

–Any other business [holidays, classes that need to be scheduled, required office hours, etc]

–Any other relevant business that can cause anxiety


I find it is most effective to teach in public.  I typically use a Word Press site or I create a Group on HASTAC.  It’s free.  In either, you can make things either private to the group or public to the world.


“Surprise Endings:  Literature and Social Science”  Team-Taught, Cathy N. Davidson and Dan Ariely, Spring 2013, Duke University, ISIS/English 390-S   32 students

For the rest of this post, I’m going to focus on the syllabus for a course I team taught in Spring 2013 called “Surprise Endings:  Literature and Social Science”  with behavioral economist Dan Ariely at Duke University.  Dan had never before taught a student-designed course before; I had never team-taught with another faculty member before.  We had a blast.  We were joined by four MFA students who were both working as TA’s and getting credit toward their own degrees in Experimental Documentary Arts–teaching and learning as part of the course.

Our syllabus is here:    

You will see the course begins with “The Basics,” including an explanation of why we are doing what we are doing, what the learning theory behind student-centered learning is, and so forth.

However, the rest of this syllabus was pretty much blank.

It was all created by the students.

In  future blog posts, I will describe how we did this.

However, to give you a taste of the scope of student-centered learning, I will quickly summarize in a very specific way, what we did and what the students did.

Dan and I chose seven topic areas we wanted to cover, and we built the (very clunky) Word Press site to host the course.   The seven topics we chose were:

Self Control

Relativity and Defaults

Obedience, Evil & Resistance

Race, Prejudice & Political Correctness

Social Proof

Gender & Success

Honesty & Dishonesty

These were areas in which he and I had each done research and where there were ample bodies of both social science empirical research and extensively literary texts—movies, poems, plays, tv shows, films, and videos.

Here is what the students did in our class:  (I’ll blog about each of these in this series)

  • chose the specific social science papers and literary texts and movies we read and viewed
  • organized themselves into teams by topics and assigned readings and orchestrated online discussion groups and kept track of who did or did not participate in each discussion
  • interviewed Dan and me in class and led the in-class discussions
  • turned the video interviews, their external experiments, into a public course module on the topic (in lieu of a final paper)
  • designed and signed contracts for the amount and nature of the team project work they would do
  • wrote their own “job descriptions” for their project responsibilities, and evaluated their own and one another’s contributions to the project
  • turned the entire course into what they called a SPOC (Self-Paced Online Course):It is still available and it is gorgeous:    “DUKE SURPRISE:  STUDENT-LED, FUTURE DRIVEN.”   You can still take it today!

Here is what Dan and I did on the first day of class to get this started:

  • We put up 7 giant Post-It Notes around the room, each with one of those seven topics.
  • We also had projected on a screen a Google Doc that also included one section for each topic.
  • We got things started by describing each concept and then giving about 5-7 minutes for an “idea sprint” in which students worked on laptops (some shared, some we provided, some they had with them) to fill in as many movies, poems, novels, plays, or other literary works as they could think of for the topic.  Then we moved to the next topic.  (The long list you see on the syllabus is what we “crowdsourced” in the first hour or so of the first day of class: ) A “sprint” is an energetic and informative way–adapted from open source coding and applicable in any field in any discipline– of building a sense of class contribution and participation, it’s fun, and it gives students the confidence to know that they have ideas and already, collectively, possess a remarkable store of knowledge).
  • We then took a brief break and let students get to know one another informally.  
  • When we came back, Dan and I made a startling announcement (and I’ll write more about this tactic later:  I use it a lot):  We said that we would be leaving the students alone for half an hour.
    • Dan, me, and the four MFA students all left.  When we returned, we said we would expect that the 32 students would each have chosen a topic team. They would have each chosen a role on the team–such as Project Leader, Research Leader, Technology Leader, Communications Leader, etc–and written a brief job description, taken a photograph of the Post-It, and uploaded it to our website.

This is student-centered centered learning:  when the instructors were out of the room, these students created the syllabus for the course, down to the roles assigned to each and every student.

I will be writing more about each of the points later but the point is you must leave the room or it does not work.  It’s like parents leaving so the kids can work out the disagreements.  As long as the prof is present, it simply won’t get worked out (it was a 16 year old math prodigy who kicked me out of a classroom that wasn’t organizing itself well; he said, “Prof D we’ll never get this right if you are here–you have to leave.  Now.”  He was right.)


Mentors, Teaching Assistants, Assistant Teachers:
One very cool aspect of this particular course is that the undergraduates were working with our very first cohort of Duke’s first ever MFA program, in Experimental Documentary Arts.  The MFA students were also getting credit for working with the undergraduates in turning a course into a beautiful, meaningful “public interactive” (in theorist Anne Balsamo’s term).  Yet in many cases, the  interactions went both directions:  the MFA students were professional-level designers and photographers and video and digital artists and some of the undergraduates were serious about going to graduate school to pursue careers as  social scientists and already had published articles using experimental methodologies. So the whole course was about students learning from and teaching other students.



How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom

Read Part 1; Part 2

The series is being posted on a Google Doc for editing, comments, suggestions, revisions, additions:…