Student-Centered or Teacher-Centered Syllabus?

I have a confession to make: I love making syllabi. There is something exciting about planning a course from the ground up, with all its assignments, readings, and lectures to plan. What do you include or omit? What types of assignment fit well with the class? Why will Project A work better than Project B? The aspect of going on the job market that I enjoyed was the process of creating syllabi tailored to a specific department. I could–and can–imagine all these amazing classes that range from surveys to seminars. (I’m not alone, right? There are others out there who love to make syllabi, right?!?).

With my love of syllabi creation now out in the open, it is probably obvious that I spend a lot of time thinking about syllabi in general. I’ve played around with many formats to try to find the *perfect* one. At this point, I don’t believe that there is one format that can fit all classes or student needs. Nevertheless, I always enjoy experimenting with new ways to approach the syllabus (or just teaching and learning more generally). This brings me to the topic of the teacher-centered vs. the student-centered syllabus.

I’ve never particularly cared for the contract-type syllabus or having to note on any syllabus how students’ grades will be marked down if they do x, y, z. Similarly, I’ve always felt uneasy when I bold, capitalize, or underline items in my syllabus because I feel like I am yelling at students. But I have still used these types of “things” over years, in large part because they seemed so common among syllabi more generally. In other words, it seemed like the accepted, normal practice that it never really occurred to me to think more deeply about them until more recently. (OK, to be completely honest, I did remove all these things from my syllabi one semester years ago and it proved to be a “shame on me” moment when some students did take advantage of my lack of clear course policies.)

Then, about a year ago I started hearing the phrase “student-centered syllabus,” which started me on a path of transforming my syllabi. For so many years, I’d been creating teacher-centered syllabi under the (naïve?) assumption that this was just “the way.” But after reading up on the student-centered version I realized that I could create a different type of syllabus that struck a tone that reflected my approach to teaching (and my personality more generally). One reading that I particularly enjoyed was Aaron S. Richmond’s “Constructing a Learner-Centered Syllabus: One Professor’s Journey” (IDEA Paper #60, Sep. 2016) because it provided many useful examples of how you can adapt your syllabus to be more student oriented.

I spent last year transforming my syllabi to be more student centered, and I’ve enjoyed the results so far. Student responses to the syllabi are more positive, whereas before there was maybe just a lack of responses. Granted, I’ve asked students pointedly what they thought about the syllabus, so if I’d done this before maybe student reactions would have been the same. But students have commented that they appreciate how I’ve arranged my new student-centered syllabi. One student noted that it demonstrated that I respect and trust students. Another commented that it made them feel more relaxed in the classroom. Yet another liked the conversational tone, claiming it made her feel more comfortable to ask questions (yay!).

I particularly like that the learner-centered syllabus can be an easy way to create a more comfortable classroom environment. I also believe that students feel a sense of autonomy, responsibility, and power over their education (at least I hope so). It does urge us to relinquish some control to students. As someone who likes order, I actually enjoy having students participate in setting class expectations and grading standards. It might mean that components of the class are more disorganized than I’d like at some points in the semester, but it is such a wonderful process for students to experience that I don’t mind.

Creating a student-centered syllabus does take time. It’s not for everyone, which is, of course, totally fine. But if you are looking to develop stronger rapport with students, I recommend doing some research on this approach.


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