Change Your Syllabus, Change Your Life

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By Elizabeth Sherowski,
Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

What’s in your syllabus? If you’re like most law professors, it’s a mash-up of course information, schedules, learning objectives, and university-dictated policy language. You probably cobbled it together during your first few years of teaching (cribbing some parts from other professors’ syllabi), and you probably haven’t updated it, other than to change the dates on the reading assignments, in some time.

But what message is your syllabus sending to your students? The syllabus is usually the first thing that your students experience in your course — and you never get a second chance to make a first impression. By changing the focus of the syllabus from rules and policies to explanations and support, we can change our students’ (and our) view of the course.

The Rule-Focused Syllabus

Imagine if, on your first day of teaching, one of your senior colleagues handed you a list of all the ways she predicted you would make mistakes in your first year, and the penalties you would incur for making those mistakes. That’s basically what we’re handing to our students when we kick off the course with a list of all the things they’re not supposed to do (miss class, turn work in late, start emails with “Yo, what up?”) and the penalties for doing them.

Syllabi that focus on policies and rules create a transactional relationship between the learner and the teacher. “If you do these things, and don’t do these other things,” it says, “I will reward you with this grade.” Frankly, that’s a terrible way to learn. It leads the student to focus on the outcome (the grade) rather than the process and importance of what they are learning. Additionally, research on adult learners shows that they learn best when teachers are partners, rather than authority figures. Presenting the course as a collection of rules, and presenting ourselves as the arbiter of those rules, actually hinders learning.

The Learner-Focused Syllabus

Now imagine if, on your first day of teaching, that senior colleague instead handed you a list of teaching practices they had found to be effective, with explanations of why those practices worked. That’s the idea behind the learner-focused syllabus — it explains what the students will learn, why it matters, and how to be successful. Rather than focusing on what matters to the teacher or the administration, it focuses on what matters to the learner.

For example, instead of just listing course objectives (“students will be able to research and apply federal regulations”), a learner-focused syllabus explains why those objectives matter and how they will be met:

Federal regulations impact almost every part of life, from the time we’re born (Department of Health, Department of Education) until after we die (Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service). Through in-class demonstrations and client simulations, we will learn to locate these regulations in print and online and apply them to our clients’ legal issues.

A student receiving the first syllabus will know what they will learn, and no more. A student receiving the second syllabus will know what they will learn, plus how they will learn it and how it fits in with their larger goal of becoming a successful attorney.

The same is true for rules and policies. Instead of taking a punitive or dictatorial stance (“students are required to bring both books to every class session, and failure to do so will negatively affect their grade”), a learner-focused syllabus explains the reasons behind the rules and policies, and helps students know and do what’s expected:

In some courses, it may seem that the reading is optional, but that is not the case in this class. Our casebook and supplement illustrate concepts that we will be learning throughout the course, and we will refer to them often. Therefore, please bring both books to every class meeting.

Nothing has been lost in the conversion from rule-focused language to learner-focused language — the students are still required to bring their books to class. But they’re more likely to comply with the second request because it explains the reason behind the rule and shows how following the rule will help them to succeed.

Changing Your Syllabus Will Change Your Life

Two years ago, I switched from a rule-focused syllabus to a learner-focused syllabus (you can see the evolution here). I knew it would change how students interacted with the course, but I didn’t realize how much it would change my teaching (and my attitude) as well. Changing my syllabus refocused my attention on what I love about teaching: helping and encouraging students, not making and enforcing rules.

The learner-focused syllabus also forced me to explain (and subsequently re-evaluate) my course objectives, making the course more coherent and the teaching less taxing. The new syllabus helped my students focus on what really mattered, and teaching became more enjoyable with learners who were interested in learning skills that would help them achieve their long-term goals, rather than just angling for an A.

Changing my syllabus was a lot of work, but it paid off in more-motivated students, a more coherent course, and a much happier professor.

 

Elizabeth Sherowski is a Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Law. Email her at esherowski@unc.edu.

 

 

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