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Building a Syllabus, Building a Culture

How an effective syllabus can signal — and create — a distinctive class culture

September 17, 2015
Building a Syllabus, Building a Culture

This post is republished (in slightly edited form) from Into Practice, a biweekly communication sent from Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning to active Harvard instructors during the academic year. Into Practice offers evidence-based teaching advice, highlighting pedagogical practices of faculty from across Harvard. It grew out of a successful 2012 grant project led by HGSE’s Nonie Lesaux and Matthew Miller that aimed to create a new model for engaging and supporting doctoral students in their professional development as educators.

Karen Brennan, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, designs the syllabus for her innovative course T550: Designing for Learning by Creating not only to communicate the plan for the course, but to introduce students to the distinctive course culture she wants to create.

The benefits 

Brennan’s use of quotations, images, and color appeals to the various ways that we engage with text, and gives students (many of them future instructors themselves) a glimpse of their upcoming course experience. Drawing on other forms of expression expands the possibilities for communicating the aspirations and intentions for the course.

The challenges 

 Students understand and contribute to course culture through their experiences, not through my explanations or expectations.As Brennan states, “students understand and contribute to course culture through their experiences, not through my explanations or expectations.” The syllabus is only a starting place for the important culture and community building that takes place in a course.

Takeaways and best practices

Brennan sees the syllabus as a critical initial artifact; students read it in preparation for the first class. The first hour of the first class is dedicated to students discussing the syllabus in small groups, surfacing questions that are subsequently discussed as a whole group.

  • She recommends collecting feedback regularly from students about their experiences. The T550 facilitation team uses email, social media, and in-person feedback, as well as student reflection cards collected at the end of each session, to inform upcoming sessions and future course offerings.
  • She also shares course happenings via the course Twitter handle so that others beyond HGSE can engage. This sharing benefits her students: “Powerful learning is connected to the world; it’s not just happening in this one classroom.”

Bottom line

Syllabus design reflects, to a certain extent, the teaching philosophy. But the syllabus should be considered only the starting point for cultivating course culture with students. Balancing instructor “must haves” with student feedback requires practice and depends upon the course learning objectives ad student expectations.

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