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ELPS 430 Course Syllabi in Higher Education

Grace Montero

Loyola University Chicago



Due to a deep interest in working within faith based institutions, the following reflection

and analysis of five course syllabi all come from religiously affiliated institutions. A common

theme among the following syllabi is that they are all related to humanities. By excluding a

variety of different formats in science, math, and engineering, I have been able to pinpoint

distinct differences and commonalities in syllabi. Analyzing curriculum structure for humanities

would also be informative since I was uninterested in high school English, but unexpectedly

majored in it during college. Through analysis of the syllabi, research-based readings on new

teaching techniques that center student learning, and my experiences within the classroom, I

found interesting trends. These include setting foundational learning outcomes, implicit and

explicit expectations, as well as assumptions made regarding resources for successful students.

These curriculum findings illustrated their best attempts to balance differentiated instruction that

challenges students accordingly, with their attempts to bring all students to the same baseline for

which to begin engaged learning.

One of the striking similarities was that most if not all syllabi have structures that fit the

taxonomy of significant learning. A summary of all these syllabi include the use of new forms of

teaching methods, such as peer review, class presentations, and other forms of community based

learning. According to Fink (2003), teachers began experimentation with role playing,

simulations, debate, and case studies. Fink stated teachers began diversifying their teaching

techniques to better assist in student learning by incorporating small-group (team-based

learning), assessment as learning, problem based learning, writing, and service learning (p. 20-

21). My own experience supports this, because all of my classes were beginning to include more

peer activities to begin provoking reflection on assignments and address lingering questions from

readings. Meanwhile, it also held onto some elements of the old paradigms of college teaching,



such as memorizing and reciting 30 lines of a monologue from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Despite still remembering the monologue, I likely retained it only because my identity as a first

generation student of color added pressure to prove to other students that I deserved to be in that

class. I refused to mess up and spent hours practicing a monologue I would never recite again.

Similarly, establishing course “objectives” and “goals” is a common theme that informs

students of what they would be working on throughout the course. The syllabus from Seattle

University, Boston College, and DePaul University listed two to five course goals for their

courses. Most syllabi described the “purpose” of the course in the description which listed

several complex questions that students would grapple with throughout the course. The stated

learning outcomes build a connection between assignment and assessment. The syllabi usually

listed assessments in the form of class presentations or a practicum. This active hands-on

learning seemed to result from the research that shows experiences are the most impactful on the

brain and assist in learning (Bransford, 2004, p. 126). My experience with high-energy class

activities has been positive throughout undergraduate and graduate studies, although I have only

recently begun to understand the huge difference it makes when a student can fully see the big

picture. I can see why stating shared learning outcomes is an important theme for syllabi, as well

as the second theme of creating expectations.

Expectations are another theme either implicitly or explicitly stated in a syllabus based

off assumptions regarding student knowledge. Explicitly, the syllabi from Fordham University

listed five “class rules” or “requirements” that are meant to create a learning-conducive

environment that minimizes distractions from cell phones or tardiness. However, only Boston

College and Seattle University set explicit expectations for academic honesty. Other institution

may assume that this expectation is implied. However, all these measures are intended to set



parameters for students to not infringe on each other as they work to learn together. I think this

could have been fused together to establish a positive learning environment for all. The

assumptions made about student common knowledge seemed to become more inclusive in my

graduate program because it included external resources.

In contrast, some religious institutions explained resources in greater detail than others,

while private and state institutions may not emphasize such resources. A syllabus listing

instructions to access an online database is more inclusive of new students. Boston College and

DePaul University explained how to access online tools to further knowledge acquisition. In my

experience, Blackboard was an online portal that was a useful tool to expand on in-class

discussions. Most of the syllabi I have seen from private or state institutions have not encouraged

students to use external resources such as their writing center. It seemed DePaul was more

inclusive of a diverse class by promoting a free service that encourages help-seeking behavior.

By posting the office hours of the writing center, it recognizes that all students may not know

about available resources that help ensure success. If instructors did this for their first-year

courses, it would teach students about available services which can even be utilized later

building a framework off of prior knowledge (Nilson, 2004, p. 6). This would have been helpful

to learn early on in my own education. More institutions could benefit from this kind of cross-

collaboration, rather than assume that this is common knowledge.

In contrast, there are fewer institutions that seem to have a consistent layout which is

meant to be inclusive of new students. A syllabus can indicate assumptions about what students

are already coming in knowing. Emmanuel College designed of a syllabus with great detail that

is learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered

(Bransford, p.145). Inclusivity can be setting clear expectations for less interpretation or



potential miscommunication with the student. The intent behind DePaul’s syllabus could be to

present students with “the big picture of the patterns” (Nilson, 2010, p.6). This syllabus provided

definitions, noted action-steps of successful students, and described how to calculate and track

approximate grades. I could not agree more when Nilson (2010) wrote, “students pass through

our discipline for only a term or two – not nearly enough time to notice a pattern and hierarchical

structure” (p.6). My experience with science courses that deliberately stated in the syllabus any

pre-requisites, are an example of how I have been encouraged to continue on a path that sets

foundational knowledge that I have to then build off of in order to see the full picture and not

forget the knowledge acquired in a previous course.

Additionally, DePaul University’s syllabus poses a sharp contrast from most of the other

syllabi because of the intentional inclusive language used. It had specific information for

students to understand how they would be graded, which seems to reflect questions the instructor

anticipates from students. This supports claims Nilson (2004) made about millennials focusing

on good grades because of helicopter parents (p.12). By stating how students can take initiative

to manage their own grades, it tries to puts ownership on students to do well academically and

self-advocate in the process. This seems to align with Marcia Baxter-Magolda (1999) concept of

self-authorship as part of student development (as cited in Fink, 2003, p.45). Specific

assignments in which students present to the class or facilitate an activity helps mold parts of a

student’s own self-identity, while having them simultaneously taking ownership of their

learning. However, no syllabus address protocol for student to enact accommodations for

learning disabilities. This could be seen as a missed opportunity to prompt students to self-

advocate and communicate to instructor any necessary accommodations. Personally, I have not

seen a reminder in any syllabus about communicating learning disabilities.



In conclusion, the analysis of these five course syllabi from various religiously affiliated

institutions have taught me that there are some shared intentional commonalities. All syllabi set

foundational learning outcomes for all classes – emphasizing the shift to being learning-centered

and student-centered as it aligned with Fink’s 4 Components of Teaching and taxonomy for

significant learning. Another common theme was in setting expectations for the class explicitly

and implicitly. However, not all syllabi demonstrated the same commitment to sharing student

resources or inclusive tools for academic success. There were syllabi that made assumptions

about the common knowledge students were coming in with, which illustrated a sharp contrast

with my own educational experience. My experience navigating a syllabus at my private liberal

arts college, left me to locate the writing center accidentally. It forced me rely heavily on

knowledge from peers, because they were accustomed to asking when they could expect their

grades, so that they could drop classes and re-enroll the following semester. My peers had

parents who contacted faculty to see if there were additional assignments that could be done.

With all the research that supports how college students learn and retain best, a growing

challenge for curriculum development will be to evolve with changing demographics. At the

same time, offer instruction that is differentiated so that students with proficient skills are not

bored while instructors modify challenges presented to struggling students. Curriculum would

need to continue its efforts to bring all students to the same benchmark, and then begin the

course with a balance between measuring student proficiency and student growth.