Never 'See' a Syllabus the Same Way Again: Alternative Approaches to Reflective Practice

Concurrent Session 9
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Alternatives to traditional syllabus development can be difficult with the teach-rinse-repeat cycle so ever-present and tempting. Hear from faculty about a novel process to enliven reflection on how to distil course essences. Try the exercises together or in part to re-define what the syllabus can say about a course.


Cindy Jennings is Director of Learning Technologies and Cp-PI of a Department of Education Title III Strengthening Institutions Grant (Awarded 2014) at the University of South Carolina Upstate. Under her leadership, this department serves to support digital pedagogy and learning with technology in a variety of engagement modes including face-to-face or fully online environments; blended, hybrid or flipped modes. Further, the department provides instructional design support and guidance for individuals and groups to enhance student engagement; guide in thoughtful technology selection from a critical pedagogical perspective. The department offers instructional design support for individuals and groups and a year-round program of formal and informal development opportunities. Follow the Department of Learning Technologies at USC Upstate hashtags: #DLTUpstate, and #su2sup for the active learning initiative. Cindy's work life in higher education began over 35 years ago with a first teaching position in nursing as a new graduate school grad. Cindy taught at that first institution long enough to earn tenure and be promoted for the first time; then relocated to the beautiful foothills of the Appalachians where she has been with her family ever since. Cindy has had the good fortune to work at her current institution for the past 31 years where she has continued to teach, and has had wonderful opportunities to branch out into MANY other things from support for continuing her education (towards an entirely new direction - where the current teaching with technology focus comes from), to helping create a whole new major/degree program in informatics. Cindy has participated in faculty governance and has served in university administration. Cindy holds a Master's Degree in Education with an Educational Technology emphasis; a Master of Science Degree in Nursing with and Education emphasis, A Post-Master's Certificate in Nursing Informatics; A Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing, and an Associate in Arts Degree in Nursing. Cindy writes and shares aspects of her work on her blog at:

Extended Abstract

A course syllabus is often thought of as a list - in varying amounts of detail - of the essential ingredients of a course. The process by which syllabus writing becomes enculturated can be a matter of oral tradition and handed down habits. Breaking such established practices can be challenging.

In this session we will consider an alternative syllabus (and course) development process that includes embedded critical reflection touch points. We will introduce each step through short video vignettes from faculty members who have engaged with each component to reflect upon and redesign their own syllabus. These overarching questions frame each step:

  1. Why teach this course?
  2. What is it important for students to learn and why?
  3. Did you take this course as an undergraduate? What was it like then?
  4. What are the most essential elements that you include in your course?
  5. How do you know that students have learned what you intended for them to?
  6. What have you learned in this step?
  7. What will you change now?

The steps in the guided critical reflection are as follows:

  1. Homework: The first step in thinking differently about a course and how it is taught is writing a story/narrative called The Story of Your Course. The narrative assignment is given prior to a week of development with instructions to write a 900 - 1200 word story that includes key elements and attention to the framing questions. Faculty come to the development week with this task complete. This serves as the spring board for subsequent steps.
  2. Text analysis exercise: The next step is a comparative word-cloud text analysis comparing the traditional syllabus against the story. We use Voyant Tools for this exercise.
  3. Infographic: At this step, faculty are asked to take what they have discovered so far to create an infographic of essential elements of their course. We do suggest possible free online tools for this step and offer suggestions for how to complete this step using something as commonplace as power point.
  4. Syllabus Blackout Poetry exercise: This rather atypical creative activity is another step towards gaining new insights into course essences. A blackout poem is created by using a text and redacting words to create an entirely new visual message. The 'new' text can be further arranged and manipulated by the creator into interesting patterns using color and form as embellishments. The creative acti invites faculty to consider the corpus of their syllabus text in another new way using either physical or digital manipulatives.
  5. Story Board: From this point on, faculty are guided to use what they have learned to create a 2-minute trailer for their course. The storyboard exercies is an important connecting point between the previous syllabus/course version and the new emerging one.
  6. Course trailer: Faculty choose their own preferred tool and media to make design decisions for what to include.

Essential elements of this process:

  1. The intent is to guide critical self reflection as an embedded feature of each step. A debrief of each step is included.
  2. The guiding questions frame each step.
  3. The process is at least as important as he outcome of each exercise

Through the introductory vignettes, we will hear faculty share their impressions, insights and practice after reconsidering their syllabi in this way.

Session participants will be able to share ideas and explore possible adaptations of this process for their own contexts and practices through a collaboratively edited Google doc. The session will close with a review of audience contributions. The document will be pre-populated with session-resources and tool suggestions for each step.