Student Syllabus

I thought of a question the other day, why don’t students have their own syllabus? Not necessarily a syllabus in terms of deadlines, but a student’s goals for the semester. Perhaps evaluating at the beginning of the semester what they expect to learn and other academic goals (ideas about what other goals?). This would make students actually take a look at the syllabus and encourage professors to explicate their own personal goals for the course outside the basic clichéd lines students see on every professor’s syllabus. This has the possibility of taking students from passive learners who attempt to fit into a mold of a class to active learners who grab a hold of the learning inside the classroom. And if Jeff McClurken’s Digital History class is any indication, students will often set the bar higher for themselves than a professor would expect.

I think this question stems from my frustration over finding relevancy in the classroom. As Jerome Bruner states in his book The Process of Education:

“The first object of any act of learning, over and beyond the pleasure it may give, is that it should serve us in the future. Learning should not only take us somewhere; it should allow us later to go further more easily.”

One of the most common complaints I hear from students (and myself) is the lack of relevancy of what is learned in the classroom. This does not necessarily mean what is being taught is not relevant, but more likely students are unable to see it. This attitude is especially prevalent in gen-ed classes where students are often in courses that they have little interest in. Now I’m not asking professors to make their class pop-culture relevant, although props to you if you can throw in a Simpsons reference, there is pretty much relevancy in everything if you know what you are looking for. Let me throw another Bruner quote at you:

“Grasping the structure of a subject is understanding it in a way that permits many other things to be related to it meaningfully. To learn structure, in short, is to learn how things are related.”

Often I find myself losing sight of this structure or I am unsure of what it even is, so the class becomes “simply the mastery of facts and techniques”. At this stage of the game obviously I have come to learn structure of several disciplines, but I am honestly not sure I could tell you what exactly those structures are. I still need the help from professors, the experts in the classroom, to guide me. All too often people assume that students, both good and bad, have mastery or understanding of the basic underlying structure of a subject.

I think students (and maybe even professors) are afraid to admit this late in the game that they are unsure of the answers to some of these seemingly basic questions. Maybe if we just put embarrassment and pride aside we could talk about these glaring issues with honesty and maybe even reach some answers. And almost as equally important as finding the answers is iterating it again, and again, and again, and again.


11 Responses to “Student Syllabus”

  1. 1 Mary-Kathryn June 25, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    I think the reason I wouldn’t do it is because I wouldn’t know what I would want from a course, I would look to the more seasoned professional, the instructor to tell me what to look for. For instance, I’m going into Brit lit to 1800 in The Fall and I will be looking to Dr mathur for guidance and support the whole because I am definitely a fish out of water on this one!

    So I think it may be that studnets may be fumbling around in the dark too much to set goals because they simply don’t know enough about the subject matter to set any goals for themselves. So, like me, they NEED to lean heavily on their professors and like me, they afraid of the “hands-off” professor attituses I see slipping in these days. I see professors who are more and more saying “figure it all out by yourself! I need professors who aren’t afraid to teach the “old fashioned way.” and yes by that I mean step up front and ~gasp~ LECTURE because I sure as heck can’t surive if I don’t know the material. Nothing and I mean nothing irritates me more than to go into a class at UMW, spend my money, and have a professor do nothing more than prop up on his desk and say “get in a group and discuss” I dropped out of a class just like this after 3 weeks. I learned zero from this proffessor.

    Oh gee, Shannon, delete this if you want, I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to hijack your great post or get this off-track. It really my juices flowing, my apololgies! Deletes this if you want to! its OK if its not right for your subject! Really!

  2. 2 Mary-Kathryn June 25, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Ummm I really really can’t spell tonight worth a darn either

  3. 3 sehauser June 25, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    @Mary-Kathryn – I agree with you on many points. I don’t think professors should be disengaged, in fact they should be part of helping students form their goals and helping them understand the aims of the class. All too often I feel like professors syllabuses say the same thing, eg “Learn critical thinking skills, blah blah” but it is never explicated any further and that general statement really helps no one. You may not know a lot about Brit Lit in the 1800s but you do know certain things about analyzing literature and are able to ask questions specific to your disciplines focus. I think this structure is important to acknowledge.

    I’m asking for students and professors to come together on this one and really think about the structure of the subject at hand to give students a flexible framework in which to work.

  4. 4 Mary-Kathryn June 26, 2008 at 6:41 am


    I am a rambling idiot.

    I should never be on the net when I am recuperating and on heavy medication. What I wrote above sounds like a ranting pompous tirade and I apologize. You wrote a very thought-provoking blog and here I go drunkenly rambling in the middle of it. I was a bit er…high..on medication


    But, geez did it make me mighty honest in some respects (giggling like a cheeky school girl)

    My backside hurts from those shots though….

  5. 5 bill June 26, 2008 at 11:15 am

    I think that it is extraordinarily difficult for most humanities instructors in academic environments to make their subjects relevant to the external world in any demonstratable fashion. Sciences instructors have a slightly easier row to hoe in that regard, but it’s still a bit of a stretch for them. Its been a long time since I’ve been in a classroom; perhaps those attitudes have changed.

    From the student perspective, though, I’d be very surprised if most are able to voice their goals, let alone chart a course to acheive them. This is not a slam against students — I simply doubt that most even know what they *want*, other than a good job when they get out. How can they? They’ve not seen the ‘real world’ yet — which is an argument for a gap year, before or during college.

    Do schools ever go back and do ‘customer surveys’ with their graduates? I’d bet, damn few.

  6. 6 Gene Roche June 26, 2008 at 7:51 pm


    Very thoughtful piece, as usual. I think one of the most valuable tools for helping students become more involved in shaping their own goals is the learning contract. I’ve never taught in the humanities, but I’ve been using contracts as a tool for years now in the social sciences. A good summary of contracts is at:

    Many students don’t like the contract process much at first, since learning to use them effectively requires learning new skills in defining goals, clarifying objectives, choosing the right mix of activities, and the like. Developing those skills is hard work, involving different kinds of honest conversations among faculty and students.

    Their biggest complaint is that we’re taking too much time working on the the process–time that should be spent in “covering the material”. My own philosophy is that “learning how to learn” is the most important goal of education–and it’s the best investment we can make in preparing for the future. (How Bruner.)

  7. 7 sehauser June 26, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    @Mary-Kathryn – No worries, I appreciate the feedback. I certainly don’t thinking is perfect so people pointing out possible flaws is very helpful.

    @Bill – I think relevancy is there if understand the subject enough, this is where professors come in. It may not necessarily be a one to one connection or even easy, but if what is being taught has no purpose or relevancy (again not current events relevancy, but learning and life relevancy) then we shouldn’t be teaching it. Students can’t do this on their own, but just because it might be difficult to do such a thing doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

    @Gene – Thanks for the link to contracts. I think you hit the nail on the head, in fact I exclaimed, “Gene you are awesome!” to which my brother responded, “Who is Gene?” haha. “Learning how to learn” is not necessarily easy and I’ll admit to wanting to take the easy road on many occasions, but it is something that needs to be addressed. Covering material without an idea of structure or how to actually learn it means nothing because more than likely the average student will forget it.

  8. 8 Gene Roche June 27, 2008 at 7:53 am

    … to which my brother responded, “Who is Gene?”…

    Believe me, I get that question a lot; actually, I ask that question a lot.

  9. 9 Gardner June 27, 2008 at 9:39 am

    I have way too much to say in response to this post, so I’ll summarize:

    1. If students’ goals for their education are all about rule-based facts-and-techniques drills, they don’t have very high aspirations. Unfortunately, it’s so easy to standardize, scale, and automate education along the lines of rule-based facts-and-techniques drills that most schools, especially K-12, have decided that’s how they’ll structure the curriculum, the learning, the learning spaces, and the whole kit and kaboodle. So any student desiring more will have her work cut out for her, in several ways.

    2. Mindless “get in a group” stuff, all the rage with “de-centered” and “student-centered” and “un-hierarchicalized” and zub zub zub pedagogical “thinking,” is just as bad. Students must cooperate actively in the scaffold-building, but if they could magically do it all themselves, why would they need a teacher at all? (On the other hand, to be honest, I’m not always sure everyone needs as many teachers as we thrown at them.) It’s important to have an expert with authority helping the students understand the structure of a discipline, a set of questions, a domain of knowledge. That structure is always changing and contested, sure, but then so is language–and we use that every day.

    3. I am sick of the sage-on-the-stage / guide-at-the-side dichotomy. You didn’t mention it specifically, but I wanted to on the record with my dismay because I think the dichotomy reflects considerable confusion about education and its many varieties. Just an interjection on my part. I suppose I feel a little better now. 🙂

    4. I am delighted you’re reading Bruner’s book and hope you will find your continued reading of him as rewarding as I have. I don’t think I’ll get close to exhausting his insights in the rest of the life I have available to me. It doesn’t do us any good busily to solve upper-level problems or ask easy questions and provide easy answers if we’re hopelessly muddled about the basics. Bruner is very clear about the basics, and the basics are where the real depths are, in my view.

    5. Thank you for a most stimulating post.

  10. 10 Gardner June 27, 2008 at 11:12 am

    And what I really want to say is that you are an amazing human being.

  11. 11 Mary-Kathryn June 27, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    “Sage-on-the stage/ guide-on-the-side’?

    can someone help me out with the definition here?

    I’m a bit confused

    But hey! I’m not heavily medicated today guys so no jokes!

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