Chris Friend, Saint Leo University
How can we involve our students in syllabus planning?
My students are often smarter than I realize at first, and I love when they find novel opportunities to demonstrate what they know. I want to be surprised by their insightfulness as often as possible. But I never expected to get that kind of surprise regarding course planning. The design and preparation of a course is typically something done with an absolute absence of student intervention—the process is completed before the instructor ever meets the students who will be expected to adhere to the plan. How, then, can we create courses that are appropriate to the students’ abilities, sensitive to the students’ needs, and responsive to the students’ learning styles?
I worked as a composition-teaching Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) at a very large research institution, where we had adopted a very specific curriculum for the content we wanted our students to learn. The content was challenging, and the department worked hard to adequately train its instructors and graduate students to sufficiently master the content before they taught it. All GTAs took a course that was essentially Composition 101, condensed, with Teaching 101 layered on top. By the end of the course, grad students created a syllabus and collection of assignments, ready for use in their upcoming courses.
It turns out that instructors at this university took one of two approaches to the content of Composition 101. That content was essentially divided into three major units, namely, the writing process, discourse communities, and the rhetorical situation. Roughly half of the instructors taught their Composition 101 courses in that order (process, discourse, rhetoric), and they often said this was in order of increasing complexity. The other half of the instructors used the opposite order (rhetoric, discourse, process), saying that understanding rhetorical situations allowed students to better understand the discourse and process units. When I asked for a bit of history, I usually found that whichever order an instructor used was the same order in which they had learned the material. In other words, the way an instructor/GTA was trained in the content was the method that made inherent sense to that person as a model for instruction.
I happen to be a process-discourse-rhetoric person, generally believing that welcoming an eighteen-year-old to my institution and my discipline with a hearty “hello” in the form of Keith Grant-Davie’s “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents” might cause more than a few minds to explode. I opt for the progressive approach, and I plan my courses appropriately. We start with easier material, ask students to write about themselves, and then work to build context and have them re-evaluate what they thought they understood as the course began. It made sense to me, and I had a solid, trusted approach to the material.
But that’s the problem: It made sense to me. What if I had students in class who would make more sense of the material if it were presented in the opposite order? The entire semester followed myplan, rather than the one that my students needed.
This problem came to my attention last spring, when a class settled in to discuss the Grant-Davie article. Students shared their thoughts on how well they could have handled the material early in the semester, and they agreed that it would have been a bit much for them. A couple of students said they would have liked to have the overall picture of the material in their minds as they went through the rest. They wanted to see the picture on the box of the Composition 101 jigsaw puzzle that we spent 16 weeks assembling. After a bit of discussion, I took a show-of-hands survey, asking which order students thought made more sense for the course. With a bit of dissent, the large majority indicated that the approach we took was the right one. I was relieved, but still curious, given the number of students who said it would have helped to go backward.
That class left the room, and the next one entered. This class discussed the same article and had similar observations about its difficulty. So I posed the same question about the order of units. Students who preferred the reverse order from my plan provided more reasons with more determination. I called for the same show-of-hands survey. This time, the large majority fell in favor of reversing the order of the units. I was stuck. I told them that my first class said one thing, and they said the other. “How can I know how to arrange the units of the course if each class is different?”
A student: “Well, you could ask us.”
I blinked, trying to understand how to ask students about a course before I plan it.
The student continued. “I mean, we know how we learn by now, so we could tell you which way makes the most sense for us.”
We decided that the course content was set, and the units of study were pretty much set, too. The students understood that the school wanted them to learn certain things, and that the teacher helped arrange, explain, and connect that information in ways that made sense. But they also saw the flexibility of the unit arrangement and saw no reason why that should be dictated by anyone other than students. They suggested that I bring a plan to class on Day One, complete with the details of the three units, but without specifying the order in which they’d be studied. I pitch the units to them, explain the detail-to-big-picture versus overview-to-detail approaches, and entrust them with the decision.
That discussion surprised me with how insightful and practical my students were. They understood the course-planning process, and they showed me where they could have more authority to direct their own learning. I committed myself to empowering students more to shape their semesters. I had, in effect, been committing teaching fails every semester before I even met my students. I was robbing them of an opportunity to take ownership of a process that was inherently theirs, and I was imposing an order of instruction on them simply because it was the order that I thought made sense. In the end, though, it needs to be the order that makes sense to my students. Day One for me is now a day to build my course calendar with my students and to rely on how smart and insightful they are to ensure we do it right.
About the Author
Chris Friend is Assistant Professor of English at Saint Leo University. His research work explores the interactions among teaching, learning, and course delivery in first-year writing courses, and he is particularly interested in how technologies of connection and communication influence pedagogy. Chris is also Managing Editor of Hybrid Pedagogy, a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology. He earned his Ph.D. in Texts & Technology from the University of Central Florida.