Collaborative Syllabus Design – Students at the Center

Update March 19, 2019: This post is now part of the Open Pedagogy Notebook.

Together We Create!
“My Life Through A Lens”

“Democratically co-creating learning outcomes with students, based on their goals for the class, situates them at the center of your pedagogy.” – Christina Katapodis

I have been meaning to write about collaborative syllabus design for ages. This week’s workshop on learner-centered syllabi in GEDI / Grad 5114 combined with a very cool article by Christina Katopodis on Writing Learning Outcomes with Your Students finally got me going. (Thanks to Meg Mulrooney for sending Christina’s article across the Twitterverse a couple days ago.)

We are used to thinking about the syllabus as a kind of “contract” that explains what the course is about, specifies what the requirements are, lists what kind of assessments will be used, and sets out a schedule of activities, lectures and assignments. While these documents serve a purpose, they are often formidable and make for dry reading. And they can marginalize students from courses they should be co-creating rather than taking.

In keeping with a broader shift that I made several years ago to build more collaboration and interaction into the classes I teach, I now think about syllabi as “invitations” to join a learning community. I use the first person plural to indicate that we are all in this together. I set “priorities” for the semester but indicate that the group will have a say in determining how we achieve those goals and that we may identify other topics or issues that warrant exploration along the way.

I decided to take this approach one step further for a course I taught on Contemporary Russia a while back, by asking the students to help develop the learning objectives and identify the skills and dispositions they needed to succeed. I did this in part because I was interested in how students would respond to the invitation to help map out the course. I knew what I wanted them to learn, but I wanted to know what their goals were as well. And because the course focused on Contemporary Russia, which  by virtue of its youth is still an emerging topic of historical inquiry, I thought there might be some synergy between the evolving subject of the course and a dynamic course design process. This was a small class (about 20 students).

On the first day, I distributed a “preliminary sylllabus”, and told the class we would work on “finishing it” over the next couple of weeks:

Russia After Communism syllabus screenshot

Course Description (This stayed the same through all three iterations of the syllabus)

“When the meteor hit Cheliabinsk, it blazed across the sky, spewed out its shards, and then sank quietly into a lake. That’s what many hoped the breakup of the Soviet Union would be like. It would end with a compliant Russia as benign as the rock that is now sitting in Cheliabinsk’s museum. That has not occurred. The shards continue to resurface, and their ripples are felt far and wide.”

Anne Garrels (2016)

Twenty-five years after the demise of the Soviet Union, the legacy of the Soviet project remains palpable in the Russian heartland and across the post-Soviet space, even as new political, economic, technological and environmental challenges shape the societies of our globalizing world. In this course we will explore contemporary Russia from a historical perspective, seeking insight on the present by better understanding the past on which it is built. In particular we will examine how efforts to reform the Soviet Union ended in its dissolution. We will consider how the Soviet legacy informed the efforts to transform the social, political and economic structures of Russia and the former Soviet Republics. And we will develop a deeper understanding of the historical context and current salience of contemporary issues and challenges in what Anne Garrels calls “Putin Country.”

Next came the Learning Community Invitation, which gave students a sense of what I had in mind and how I imagined our relationship evolving. (Note that the Athenaeum is the name of a digital humanities classroom that was just being finished when this class was offered.):

This syllabus is labeled “preliminary” because it needs your input. I have designated some objectives for the course (see below), and invite you to help me articulate how the group would like to achieve them over the first few class sessions. The tentative class schedule lays out a road map for topics and standard readings (from the required texts), and I have identified some “tangibles” for everyone who completes the course (see Course Requirements). I also have assembled a suite of digital tools and resources to help us leverage our collective efforts and take advantage of the Athenaeum’s affordances (some of which will be arriving or coming on line in the next few weeks). I invite you to help me finalize the particulars in accordance with the interests, aptitudes and preferences of the group. There is a portion of the material that will serve as a common core for everyone. In addition, each learner will develop expertise on a particular issue or event that interests them. Once the group has agreed on all of this – and I have approved it – we will “finalize” the syllabus.

Then I set out my objectives for the course:

  1. Cultivate an intellectually robust, collaborative and networked learning community focused on understanding contemporary Russia.
  2. Develop your skills in historical analysis
  3. Develop your skills in identifying, using and citing historical sources
  4. Develop your understanding of the key issues, developments and dynamics of Russian history in the post-Soviet era

The course requirements:

  • Interest in the historical context of Contemporary Russia and a commitment to learning more about it
  • Reading, thinking, writing about Russia
  • Developing your knowledge and sharing it with others.
  • Willingness to explore collaborative networked learning by completing the required web work and participating in F2F class sessions
  • Completing two annotated chronologies: one on the Collapse of the Soviet Union and the other on the shift from Yeltsin to the Putin regime.
  • Developing interest and expertise in a particular topic – your “news beat” as it were.
  • Completing a web-based project on your chosen topic

And my perspective on grading and framework for evaluation:

I find that conventional assessment schemes interface poorly with the kinds of learning and habits of mind this course is designed to cultivate. We will talk in person about the kinds of feedback and evaluation that are best suited to our needs this term, and you will have a voice in defining those mechanisms. As a starting point, this is how I see the assessed components of the course breaking down:

  • leading discussion, contributing to discussion, responding to other learners’ work and ideas 25%
  • two annotated chronologies 30%
  • demonstrating proficiency with digital tools and working in networked environments and / or participatory cultures 20%
  • Developing Issue / Topic expertise and final Project 25%

Next Steps and Logistics:
Running the idea of “collaborative syllabus writing” by the class generated a fair amount of buzz. “What is she up to?” and “This might be fun….or not….” their faces seemed to say. But when I picked the conversation back up on the second class meeting, I was impressed with how readily the group leaned in. We had done some reading on the collapse of the Soviet Union (which they, of course, do not remember!) and that discussion easily segued into a pretty vigorous conversation about why people were taking this course and what they wanted to get out of it. So, we did some group work on a google doc where they could respond to the prompt: What do you want to learn in this course? Then we massaged that document into a list of “Class-Generated Learning Objectives” that addressed my fourth LO: “Develop your understanding of the key issues, developments and dynamics of Russian history in the post-Soviet era.” Once everyone agreed with this list, we added it to the syllabus:Class-Generated Objectives

    1. Place Russia in current / contemporary context
    2. Better understand relations between Russia and West
    3. Better understand the role and significance of Vladimir Putin; perceptions of him in the USA vs. popularity in Russia; Role in upcoming presidential elections; Putin’s long-term goals for Russia; What might post-Putin Russia look like.
    4. Better understand the complexity of the Russian government
    5. Better understand Russia and post-soviet space (former Republics and Eastern European “Satellites”)

Generating these LO’s helped me understand several things: what students were interested in; what they thought was important; and how limited their sense of “Russia” was. They were very concerned about international relations, and perceptions of Russia in the United States. They had little sense of the society, culture, or even key events and personalities beyond Vladimir Putin. And geographically they conflated the Russian Federation with all of what had been “Soviet” space, including most of Eastern Europe. But identifying these issues helped me know where and how to start. Discussing why they cared about these things piqued their interest about other issues, and it laid a good foundation for my first LO: “Cultivate an intellectually robust, collaborative and networked learning community focused on understanding contemporary Russia.”

We were off to a good start. But I quickly realized that  this would take a fair amount of time to do properly. I wanted us to discuss and agree on expectations for grading, appreciation of the kinds of skills people would need to develop to succeed in the class, and our expectations for everyone’s contribution to the learning community. I initially thought we would finalize the syllabus after the fourth class session, but that just wasn’t practical. The class met twice a week for 75 minutes, and I decided to devote 20 minutes / week to the syllabus. I wanted writing the syllabus to energize the class but not hijack it, because we had a lot of content work to do.  On the 20 minute / week plan we finalized the syllabus at the end of the week 4. (I did generate a stage 2 document at the end of week 3.)

The Final Version of our Collaborative Syllabus is here. (It should be accessible for screen readers, but please forgive the formatting issues, which derive from a current spat between Acrobat and MS Office that I don’t have time to mediate today.)

You’ll see that we put a lot of emphasis on our expectations for each other. There is a section on “Class-Developed Expectations for “A” work in participation (leading and contributing to discussion, responding to others’ work and ideas). This was worth 25% of the final grade and ended up being fairly detailed. I started working on this section by asking everyone to think about and write down what they would consider “A” work in this area, and then we formatted (with color and emphasis) the items that had the most salience in the individual responses. I loved everything about what we came up with here, but the overwhelming commitment to cultivating conversations that were informed and respectful is definitely my favorite part.

Thinking through the kinds of tools and skills needed to do historical research for the course also generated some important reference points, both in terms of raising awareness around how the research process works (asking students to reflect on how they learn and explaining my own process to them) and the relationship between developing content knowledge  and proficiency with affordances that give us access to and help us order information and materials.  Having these discussions early in the term and building them into the final version of the syllabus helped articulate the connections between critical thinking skills (evaluating a source, recognizing bias, understanding context) and the ability to generate high level research questions. It also helped the students see how tools like Zotero or could help them be better researchers and thinkers, and how collaborating on a project could leverage everyone’s strengths.

Since we spent so much time talking about what students expected of themselves and each other, it seemed reasonable to spell out some instructions for the instructor as well. I had the group do this without me present so they would feel less constrained by what I might think of their individual preferences. They came up with  great list, that kept me motivated all semester:What We Expect from the instructor

Because the discussions of expectations kept expanding, I ended up including sections devoted to student goals for content expertise (what they would know about Russia at the end of the term) and learning preferences (which helped us acknowledge that everyone has preferred learning modalities, class formats, assignment preferences, etc.). I also included a list of “Concerns we have / Challenges to Acknowledge and Overcome” in the final document because these items were important and served as a reminder of the student perspective.

I’ve written SO many syllabi over the years, but this one is definitely my favorite. It might not be as polished or sophisticated as some, but it did help put students and their goals and concerns at the center of my pedagogy. It was produced by and belongs to that particular learning community, and it helped frame a wonderful semester devoted to Contemporary Russia.

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