Switching it up

Involving students in course design

This year I started my class differently than I ever have before. We did the same goofy opening day exercises and name game that I always do, but I didn't hand out a syllabus. Instead I told my Financial Math students that we'd get to it the next day. This was an experiment of sorts- since it was my first time teaching the course and I only had one section of the class, I thought that we would try something different based on what I'd learned in my graduate courses about giving students a more active role in their learning (e.g. Basu, Barton, Clairmont, & Locke, 2009; Seiler & Gonsalves, 2010). 

The following day I still didn't hand out a syllabus. Instead we started a conversation as a class about what we wanted to get out of the class. We talked about potential topics and skills that students were interested in (generally being able to manage their finances and make educated financial decisions in the real world). Once the broad goals of the course had been decided, we turned to how we were going to structure the course and began outlining a syllabus as a group.

Over the next few days we talked about what would constitute evidence of learning and how I could best quantify their performance (given that I am required to enter a numerical grade for each student every 5 weeks, this is inescapable). Together we came up with a list of how I could assess their learning: homework, weekly quizzes, end of chapter tests, occasional projects, and class participation. Then we decided on how much each category should be weighted. This was an insightful moment for me- the discussion about what matters more and what is "easier" to get was fascinating. The students tended to weight tests more than I would have otherwise, and wanted less emphasis on class participation than I would have assigned working on my own. I kept my mouth shut for the most part during this portion of the discussion and we ended up with a weighting that we could all agree on. 

The students also recognized that homework was necessary to practice their skills, but they didn't want it to be due every day. I agreed to this instantly and their jaws dropped; I don't think they expected that pitch to be successful! We decided on homework due twice a week - Wednesdays and Fridays- and no homework due right after a weekend. Also, as with previous courses, I make homework solutions available so that students can check their work and make sure they're on the right track rather than just become frustrated about their inability to solve a problem. I could share more details about the discussions we had, but this should be sufficient for now.

In effect we spend 2+ class periods ironing out the syllabus and how we wanted the class to look. After we finished our discussions, I went away and typed up my notes into a draft syllabus, which we reviewed as a class and then made final adjustments. This whole process felt a bit strange coming from other courses where I am perpetually pinched for time, but at this point in the year I can honestly say that it was some of the most productive time I have ever spent with students. Not only did it send a strong message to the students that they were going to be actively involved in the execution of the course, but it also set the tone for the entire year. And on the rare occasion when students complain about the course policies, they are met by their peers who call them out on not chiming in when they had the chance to craft them firsthand. Or, for students who entered the class late (more than 25% of the class joined more than 10 weeks into the year, but that's a story for another time), the message is quite different from what a syllabus conveys in a more conventional course. For example, in the past I might have handed a new student the syllabus and said something about it containing my expectations for the course. This year the students are told "this syllabus explains the way we decided to do things in this class." It's a subtle change, but a powerful one.

I'm far from the only teacher to do this, even in my school. Another teacher who has multiple sections of the same course goes through a similar process with each section. That sounds complicated to me, but I can clearly see the value in it. I don't think I can ever go back to handing out a syllabus I wrote on the first day or school- it's become clear to me this year that such an action runs counter to the goals of my teaching. It took a leap of faith for me to see this though, and I hope that by hearing about my experiences you might be emboldened to take such a leap for yourself.



Basu, S. J., Barton, A. C., Clairmont, N., & Locke, D. (2009). Developing a framework for critical science agency through case study in a conceptual physics context. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 4(2), 345–371.

Seiler, G., & Gonsalves, A. J. (2010). Student-Powered Science: Science Education for and by African American Students. Equity & Excellence in Education, 43(1), 88–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/10665680903489361

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