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Thursday, May 19, 2016

What I've Learned: Three Steps to Designing Powerful Syllabi

Many grad students are daunted by the challenge of writing a syllabus for the first time. In my Graduate Proseminar in Studies in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard, I teach a three-step approach to creating powerful and effective syllabi.

1. Ask Two Questions

Teachers can design great syllabi by beginning with two key questions:

Who are my students?

And what do I want them to learn?

The first question requires a professor to think honestly about the students who exist--the real students who are most likely to show up in class, human and messy, with strengths and challenges, areas of knowledge and ignorance, skills and clumsiness, questions and ideas. Real people. Not the ones who "should" exist, not the half-remembered fantasies of how students "used" to be.

The second question pointedly revises the one that too many teachers start with: What do I want to teach? Some teachers leap to decisions about what books they want to assign or what topics they want to cover. This approach is backwards: it sweeps aside the needs of the real students in favor of attending to the teacher's needs and interests. The better question--What do I want my students to learn?--forces the teacher to identify real students' pedagogical needs and the ways in which this specific course can advance some of those needs

This second question also helps teachers to think about multiple forms of learning that can occur in a classroom. A teacher may want students to gain knowledge and skills, of course, but she may also want students to learn habits of mind or patterns of behavior. In my graduate proseminar, for example, I want my students to learn how to work at a constant, intensely challenging pace--but without rushing. I therefore require significant written assignments almost every week, and the course has no final paper or project. The course’s structure precludes an end-of-semester frenzy and instead requires students to work at a steady, constant rhythm--and that rhythm is itself exactly what I want the students to learn. Which leads me to the second rule of powerful syllabi:

2. Design "Making" Assignments to Achieve Pedagogical Goals

Anchor your pedagogical goals in assignments in which students make something specific and defined--such as a piece of writing, an oral presentation, a performance, a website--or, in the case of my grad students, a syllabus! These assignments' structure should be geared to advance the learning goals you have already identified.

"Making" assignments are the most important aspect of the course, because they are the primary machinery by which your students will learn what you want them to learn. Whenever possible, every pedagogical goal should be anchored in "making" assignments, and every "making" assignment should connect to your pedagogical goals in ways that are legible to the students. No secret agendas!

3. Organize Everything Else in the Syllabus around Your Pedagogical Goals

After you've designed your "making" assignments, the next step is to assign "taking in" tasks such as reading (or viewing a play or film, or listening to music, or whatever else is appropriate to the course). "Taking in" is not separate from "making," of course--powerful syllabi integrate all aspects of students' work. Reading should connect logically with writing, and everything should align visibly with the course's core pedagogical goals.

It's obvious to most teachers that reading assignments should reflect pedagogical goals. What's less obvious is that course policies should also do so. When my graduate proseminar students created syllabi this semester, they excelled in identifying pedagogical goals and integrating them with "making" and "taking in" assignments. But I noticed something surprising that recurred across many of the syllabi: harsh penalties for late papers or unexcused absences. For example, some docked a paper a full letter grade for each day overdue, or lowered the semester grade by a half or even full letter for every unexcused absence.

I responded by inviting my students to examine the relationship between those penalties and the course's pedagogical goals. If a serious pedagogical goal is to train students in punctuality, community-building, responsibility, or professionalism, then such penalties make sense. Sometimes one of the most important things a teacher can teach is the importance of showing up and being prepared. But if that's not a central pedagogical goal, what is the reason behind harsh penalties for lateness or unexcused absence?

I wondered what feelings lie beneath these penalties. Sometimes teachers are strict because they feel insecure, defensive, or threatened. These feelings are normal. The problem is that the more a teacher builds them into the structure of a syllabus, the more the syllabus is teacher-focused rather than student-focused. In other words, when professors include something in the syllabus to attend primarily to our needs, we draw energy away from students' needs. Sometimes that's appropriate: for example, it's a poor idea for professors to assign more written assignments than they can reasonably read or grade. It may be in the students' best interests to write five short papers over the course of a semester, but if the reality is that you cannot grade that much student writing, then you should not set that many assignments. So the tension between students' pedagogical needs and teachers' human needs is always present, and it's not a bad thing. But it becomes a bad thing if a professor's needs surface in an un-examined way in a syllabus.

So I'm not saying professors should never impose strict or even harsh penalties for late papers or excessive absence (there can be good reasons for doing so: as my friend Elizabeth Freeman points out to me, if you are teaching large lecture courses on a quarter system, every late paper snarls the pedagogical flow and overburdens the Teaching Assistants). Rather, I suggest that professors should be honest with ourselves about why we're doing so--and whether that choice furthers a course's pedagogical goals or attempts to manage an emotional need.

The bottom line: your syllabi will be most powerful when you lead with the questions, "Who are my students? And what do I want them to learn?"--and then structure your "making" assignments around those goals, and then do the same with all other aspects of the syllabus, from the reading assignments to the policies on lateness. Your needs, including your emotional needs, are important. And they should figure in your syllabi in a thoughtful, self-conscious way--all the while putting real students first.


  1. This is really welcome and necessary. Thank you Robin!

  2. I'm recommending this to everyone. I love this thinking.

  3. This is wonderful! I'm sharing this with my fellow newly-minted PhDs. We often discuss the ins and outs of syllabi, but I have never run across something as concise and student-focused as this.

    1. Thanks, Barry! I hope it's useful to them!