Hacking the Syllabus – Getting to Relevance

Instructional Design
One of my memorable teaching moments occurred in a most unlikely place – at a faculty meeting. With all the angst and frustration that my 23-year-old self could muster, I complained about the challenges of teaching world literature to students who had not studied world history in four years, if they ever had.

“They don’t even know when Christopher Columbus sailed,” I exclaimed.

“Why do they need to?” asked Sister June, the administrative force of the school.

I still don’t have an answer.  I sometimes wrestle with the lingering sense that “educated people” should know certain things. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve not gotten word from St. Vincent Academy in the last eight years that any of those students failed to become employable, contributing adults because they didn’t know about Christopher Columbus. And in an age when anyone can find out about Christopher Columbus from a mobile device, that sort of knowledge isn’t a good barometer of the “educated” anymore.

“Why” is the single most valuable question in teaching and learning because it tests for relevance.

Now in my role as an instructional designer, I get to ask why a lot, albeit without the gravitas that Sister June possesses. But it is nevertheless an important question, an attempt to get subject matter experts to differentiate “why I love this discipline and dedicate my life to its study” from “why does my discipline matters in the world.” I ask why to shift the emphasis from knowing to doing, to distinguish core learning objectives from nice-to-knows, to ensure assessments align with the objectives. I ask why because I want to collaborate on courses that are highly relevant and that develop skills that apply outside of the classroom.

It is in pursuit of relevance that I “hack” the syllabus, in response to Hacking Pedagogy.

How to Hack Your Syllabus 101

Course Description: The course isn’t about the content, it’s about the learning process. Sure, you may be passionate about your content, but just because you love 18th century poetry doesn’t mean that every student that comes through the door is going to. But every student can learn to read a passage more closely, analyze meaning, make connections to historical and cultural contexts, and differentiate and use primary and secondary sources effectively.  So describe your course as an opportunity to nurture the required skills of the discipline, the skills necessary for the 21st century, in order gain some insight into the field and into oneself.

Course Goal: To develop the relevant, applicable skills that your discipline requires through project-based learning.

What do you want students to be able to do after your course? What impact do you want to have on students 5 years down the road? Better yet, what do students come back and tell you they remember 5 years later? This is the potential impact of the course, everything else is superfluous. 

By the end of this hack, you will be inspired to:

  • use great action verbs like collaborate, experiment, assess, create, compose, differentiate, infer, prioritize, critique, judge, decide
  • abolish objectives pertaining to memorization like recall, define, describe, name, paraphrase
  • ask “Why?” If you don’t have a great answer, it’s not an objective.

Required Readings: None.

What?!?! Yes, none. Instead, students will have access to an extensive annotated bibliography of texts, films, websites, and other resources from which they determine what is required reading to meet their project goals. Imagine if students elect to read and research to meet the course objectives instead of being forced to read to pass a multiple choice quiz. How would their engagement with the material be different?

Assessments: Make something BIG! Use project-based and collaborative learning strategies to develop a course project. No, it will not be as easy as a multiple choice test to assess, but there are defined steps to making something BIG. Your assessments will include:

  • Brainstorming
  • Project planning
  • Design and development
  • Project evaluation and peer assessment

Students can be assessed on the following criteria:

  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Creativity and risk-taking
  • Collaboration and communication skills

So the question now is … why not try something different?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s