Pa. university professor ditches syllabus

By Kara Newhouse, Associated Press | Posted - Jun. 25, 2014 at 9:50 a.m.

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MILLERSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — Millersville University education professor Scott Richardson thinks of himself more as a tour guide than an instructor.

He points out the landmarks and offers insights as requested, but ultimately, his students determine the direction of class.

That's why he uses an "open syllabus." Instead of starting the semester with a pre-planned list of readings, writing assignments and test dates, he offers an invitation: the class can create the syllabus themselves.

The open syllabus is an innovative tool for building what Richardson calls a democratic classroom. Since he first experimented with it six years ago, professors in Philadelphia and Delaware also have picked up the practice.

"With a closed syllabus, the instructor makes all major decisions about what to learn, the requirements/assignments, class policies, grading policies and so on," Richardson's invitation to students says.

"With an open syllabus, you and your colleagues will discuss, decide and define these with my facilitation and help."

Kaitlyn Robins, a post-baccalaureate student taking one of Richardson's graduate courses this summer, said the model initially overwhelmed her.

"I was very intimidated at first, like 'How am I going to do this? How will I know what's going on?' ... but I actually prefer it to other classes. ... I feel like I've learned more than if I'd had deadlines here, here and here."

Richardson has taught about twenty courses using an open syllabus. The students have included undergraduates, master's students and doctoral candidates.

He does provide some reading suggestions so students don't feel lost, but he said each class approaches it differently.

"I've had classes ... (that) talked about every decision in the world. They debated and voted. And the social studies people, they want to divide it up — if two thirds majority, we'll go in this direction, and so on."

Robins and her classmates managed the open syllabus less rigidly.

"We mostly just slid into it. We didn't discuss too heavily what we wanted to do. We just started talking, and continued talking from there," she said.

They weren't all talk, though. Students said they gave themselves a heavy workload for the course on education and U.S. society.

Participation in the process motivated them to complete that work.

"It was, OK, we recommended that we do this reading, this reading and this reading for tomorrow, maybe we should actually do (them). ... The onus is on us," said Ryan Macomber.

The class often skipped around to multiple topics during discussions.

"Like yesterday we were talking about law, and we hit body image, we hit gender issues, we hit responsibility of the school, how the Amish community has been part of school," said Robins in the last week of class.

Dana Beth Wile said that didn't mean conversation was random — it was authentic.

"(The topics) all connected, so it did have a logic, but maybe not a logic that professor would normally put out," she explained.

Students agreed that learning in an open syllabus setting inspired them to apply some of the same democratic ideals when they become teachers.

But without knowing at which schools they'll end up working, they weren't certain what that might look like.

Because they'd also learned — by sharing their own learning styles as the class developed — that what works for one student might not for another.

"You can't just say 'Here's going to be my approach to teaching,' because you have to base it on your students," said Rebecca King.

Added Connie Yost, "I think you need to be able to have a dialogue with your students about their own learning process."




Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era ,

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Kara Newhouse


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