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Active Learning: The Student Generated Syllabus

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I had been hearing the term “student generated course content” off and on for about a year when last fall rolled around. The idea had intrigued me but I was having some trouble wrapping my brain around just exactly how it would work, let alone how students would respond to it. It was fortuitous then, that I had to take on an additional course, and one that I hadn’t taught before just a few days before classes started for the semester. I took the master syllabus list of course objectives and added all of my contact information to it and walked into class with that one page handout and a copy of the textbook.

This was going to be interesting.

I started them off introducing themselves. Business and Professional Speaking is a course that is taken by a wide demographic of student, many of whom are non-traditional and currently working or have been working in industry at some point. Much like the community component of our theatre, the variety of ages and experiences would benefit everyone in the class. After introductions I explained to them that we were going to write the syllabus together. [blank stares] I wrote down the list of objectives from the master syllabus on the board. In a different color I added a couple of items that I felt were very important but were not on the master syllabus. I picked up a third color and moved to a new panel on the board and then turned to the class.

What do you want to learn about?

They stared.

I stared.

A hand went up. I told the student that she didn’t have to raise her hand as long as no one was already talking.

“I want to learn how to interview people.”

Then, from the other side of the room.

“I want to know what to do when someone at work isn’t doing their job.”

“I want to find out how to fire people.”

“I want to learn to not be so freaked out when I talk to people.”

And the list rolled. They were excited and the room was energized.

We took the list and broke it down into categories. Which items could be combined?

Was there a logical order that they followed? Yes!

Did certain areas seem to correspond with chapters in the book? Yes!

Would we need additional reading materials? Yes!

I moved to the third panel and wrote “Delivery/Assessment Method” at the top.

Below that I wrote a series of assessment options and then talked about the next component that would enable me to determine how well they had processed and come to understand the new information. We began pairing up assessment methods with learning modules.

The class as a whole, unanimously chose more labor and thought intensive assignments in lieu of standard exams, even as I went out of my way to explain how much more work would be involved. They wanted to do things rather than talk about them. Create things rather than regurgitate them.

There was aggressiveness to their attitude about learning that I hadn’t experienced before in a non-major course.

I took a photo of the white board, and posted it and a draft of the syllabus on ANGEL later that day. I asked the students to review it before the next class and to return with feedback and suggestions.

Michelle Stephens is a Professor of Theatre and Communication.

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Storyteller, Teacher, Fabulator at Planet Earth

Michelle Stephens is a teacher an author, a theatre director, a storyteller, and a basketcase. She is treating the classroom like the laboratory it was always meant to be and returning all good and bad findings here. She writes frequently about art, impact, technology, theatre, education, social issues, and any combination of the above. There are no rules here. No "best practices," or "strategic plans." Her opinions are her own but she'll try to make them yours. Just watch her.


  1. Fridyqin says:

    I an a student from China.

  2. Bob Johnson says:

    I tried to look for a post on a follow-up to this so forgive me if I missed it. I am curious how the rest of the semester went for you? It sounds like it was a great start with the students accepting some ownership of their learning expectations.

    I had encountered a ‘similar’ presentation at last year’s SLATE conference in Chicago. This was simply allowing the students to determine the policy for personal technology in the classroom.

    Anyhow, I am currently facilitating a couple of weeks in a graduate course we offer our faculty at WCC on integrating technology. A discussion surfaced on the topic of students and allowing them to determine aspects of their learning for a course. I would like to provide some real world details if you have anything to share as a follow-up. Thanks!

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