Personalizing learning for students is a hallmark of effective teaching (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012). At a basic level, it means adapting instruction, assessments, and learning environments in response to students’ needs or preferences. The need to continue to develop ways of engaging students in their own learning remains significant in higher education (Quaye & Harper, 2013). Students in some college/university courses do not see the relevance of taking required courses (Gump, 2007; Vander Schee, 2011). By making students a part of the planning process, they show increased motivation, performance, and ownership in course structure and content (Blinne, 2013; Haynes, 2001; Hudd, 2003). Reflective practitioners are in a constant state of inquiry reflecting upon and working to improve their own teaching practices.
One way to personalize learning is through the co-creation of a course syllabus. In this method, the instructor obtains preferences for course structure, policies, and content and using these, plans the course with students instead of for students. As a part of this procedure, oftentimes students are able to share how they would like instruction delivered (lecture, discussion, case studies, etc.) and may even be able to contribute to class policies (late work policies, grading rubrics, meeting formats such as hybrid, face-to-face, or online). They may have a say in what content is covered (focusing more in depth on one area and not discussing a different area the students are already familiar with or through the use of textbooks or research articles) and how they would like to be assessed (essays, multiple choice tests, presentations, etc.).
This case study makes explicit the connection of personalizing learning and co-creating course syllabi with Universal Design for Learning. It presents the study process and results of my research involving co-creating syllabi with my undergraduate students. The case study reviews one example of how to co-create course syllabi, and describes benefits and potential barriers for instructors and students . Finally, the case study provides links to additional information about personalizing learning, the benefits of this model, implications for teaching and learning.
Upon completing the case study, participants will be able to:
- List examples of potential benefits of personalizing learning.
- Determine potential barriers to personalizing learning and explore ways to overcome those barriers.
- Explain how personalizing learning aligns withUniversal Design for Learning.
- Describe multiple methods of co-creating course syllabi with students.
- Identify and discuss components of a typical syllabus that can be developed with the help of students.
- Co-create a course syllabus that will increase student engagement and academic performance.
Multiple Means of Representation
Co-creating syllabi aligns with providing multiple means of representation through learner centered decision-making and collaboration. It includes decision-making for multiple areas of the course including: course content, assignments, class policies, and delivery of instruction. This means that students have a say in how they would like to see course information represented and assessed. Through the use of student centered decision-making, the learning experience is tailored to individual student needs.
Multiple Means of Action and Expression
Students who participate in co-creating syllabi are guided by the professor in appropriate goal-setting, course construction, and methods for monitoring progress and learning. By having a say in the methods instructors use to assess understanding, students can help the instructor to ensure that unnecessary barriers do not get in the way of student learning and meaningful assessment. Students also have structured opportunities to evaluate their learning, instructor's teaching, and course materials.
Multiple Means of Engagement
Co-creating syllabi aligns with multiple means of engagement in several ways. First, it optimizes choice and autonomy as students get to weigh their strengths and interests with options of assignments and course readings. Second, it leads students to a deeper understanding of the course expectations and outcomes by adding value, relevance, and authenticity to the course. Finally, co-creating syllabi fosters a collaborative sense of community.
My Case Study
During my time at UWSP, I was asked to join the UWSP Teaching Partners Program where I collaborated with other faculty members for one year. We observed one another and each planned a “pedagogy project” where we implemented a research-based instructional strategy, collected data, and then presented it to the UWSP College Cabinet. The pedagogy project I conceptualized and carried out was a co-created course syllabus case study.
I co-created my course syllabus with undergraduate students in my Career, Vocational and Community Education for Youth with Disabilities class. The course examines procedures and methods in assessing needs, adapting curriculum, and providing instruction in career and vocational education, community skills, personal and interpersonal skills, and transition to adult environments. Students majoring in special education are required to take this course. The course is in the second of four special education blocks. Because most students are interested in teaching in elementary special education settings, they do not feel that transition planning is relevant to them.
Through this research, I sought to answer the question, How do students perceive the process of co-creating a course syllabus with their instructor? I used survey data collected at the beginning (after co-creating the syllabus) and end of the semester through convenience sampling. A total of 49 students enrolled in the UWSP course Education 368: Career, Vocational, and Community Education for Youth with Disabilities participated in the study across two semesters (25 students/24 students). In order to co-create the syllabus, I shared with the students the course objectives and gave them options for assignments, schedule of topics, and due dates, after which, I asked the students to vote anonymously on which of several options they preferred. This all occurred on the first day of class, which met once per week. Between the first and second class, I created a syllabus around the preferences the majority of students had.
I asked students to complete two surveys during the semester. During the data analysis phase of the study, I analyzed the survey results by identifying themes within each semester and across the two semesters. I used first cycle descriptive coding (assigning topics to data) and second cycle pattern coding (identifying trends, patterns, and relationships and then assigning labels-themes). The outcomes showed positive student reactions regarding being involved in the co-creation process. The results to the six questions I asked students are as follows.
Overall, I found that the students:
- liked having input for course structure/scheduling
- did not care about not having a final course syllabus until the second class
- think co-creating the course syllabus will help their performance (tailored to their learning)
- think the instructor should co-create the course syllabus with future students (felt included in planning and gave input)
- did not have additional suggestions of co-creation options
Ultimately, I will do this again, but to make it more manageable for me I will probably give assignment options for students to independently choose (quiz vs. written reading response; topics for journal article reviews). During these two semesters, I let students provide input for parts of the syllabus (assignments and structure of topics) and I look forward to personalizing additional parts of the course with my students.
How to Co-Create Course Syllabi
An instructor has the opportunity to work with his class in whatever way he sees fit to create the syllabus together. When he tries to create the syllabus with his class for the first time, he may only feel comfortable soliciting their input on the course schedule. He may ask students the order in which the class should cover the content. The next semester, he may refine the process in which he collaborated with students on the syllabus and allow students to also choose from a menu of topics they would like addressed during the semester. While most instructors work with students during the first several classes to alter syllabus parts they feel should be personalized with the students, the literature gives insight regarding how to co-create a course syllabus and what components to alter.
Hudd (2003) offered a “skeleton syllabus” during her syllabus construction exercise. The “skeleton syllabus” included readings and some course structure but allowed learners to participate in the creation of classroom assignments and the assessment of their work. Fassett and Warren (2007) used three class sessions to create an entire graduate course syllabus with students. Another option is for the instructor to set up course structure and policies, but for the students to determine grading procedure. Danielewicz and Elbow (2009) did this by allowing students to create grading contracts for the course. Students could have the opportunity to determine if drafts of papers are collected and graded or if content knowledge is assessed in other ways. Shor (1996) took the opposite approach and maintained control over grading procedures. Shor invited students to co-construct class structure and policies within the framework of a syllabus he provided to the students.
These scholars asked students to collaborate to co-create different parts of their course syllabi. While some instructors may feel that students should not be able to give input of grading procedures, Danielewicz and Elbow (2009) did. Other instructors may feel students should not be able to co-create an entire course syllabus with the instructor, rather students should be able to provide input in the course topics. Complete the table below as an exercise in reflecting upon which courses or content areas you feel are appropriate or not appropriate for co-creating a syllabus and which course/syllabus components should be altered or not be altered.
Appropriate Courses/ Content Areas for Co-Creating Course Syllabi
|Inappropriate Courses/ Content Areas for Co-Creating Course Syllabi||Course/ Syllabus Components that Should be Altered||
Course/ Syllabus Components that Should Not be Altered
Here is my rationale for how I determined in which course I would co-create the syllabus and which components I would open up for student input.
Note: At the time, I taught two courses. One was an Introduction to Special Education class attended by Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors majoring in all areas of education. The other course was a Special Education Methods class attended by Juniors and Seniors who major or minor in special education.
Appropriate Courses/ Content Areas for Co-Creating Course Syllabi
Truly, I believe all courses can be co-created to some extent.
I decided to co-create the syllabus with my Special Education Methods course because I already taught those students in the Introduction to Special Education course so I felt safer and more comfortable taking the risk to try this new course development method with them.
The Special Education Methods course students are also a more similar group than the Introduction to Special Education course students because they all have the same minor and/or major. Students in the Special Education Methods course are required to enroll concurrently with other Special Education Methods courses (this is not the case with the Introduction to Special Education course). This meant that many of the students would have the same schedules and timelines for assignments due in other courses and would have a greater likelihood of choosing (and being satisfied with) the same option (eg: frontloading readings or spreading them out throughout the semester).
Inappropriate Courses/ Content Areas for Co-Creating Course Syllabi
I decided against co-creating the syllabus with my Introduction to Special Education course because the students have different majors and minors and are at wider ends of the spectrum developmentally in their understanding of the course topics.
I chose to not involve my students in the creation of the Introduction to Special Education course syllabus because I only wanted to co-create my syllabus with one class as a trial. I was more secure with my syllabus, assignments, and activities for the Introduction to Special Education class and felt that as an instructor I could benefit from more student input in the Special Education Methods course and my students would receive a much improved course as a result of their involvement in creating the syllabus.
Course/ Syllabus Components that Should be Altered
I felt comfortable allowing my students to choose when to address course topics, but I was not comfortable with allowing them to choose course topics even with guidance from me (this way my first and second year teaching this course).
I allowed students to vote on having a guest speaker about Assistive Technology or attending an Assistive Technology Open House. As a group, this gave them an option for the format of the assignment.
Course/ Syllabus Components that Should Not be Altered
I did not allow students input in the course grading procedures or late work policy because, as a new instructor, I was still developing these.
I did not allow students input for assignment points because I will still developing how I felt assignments should be weighted. I was also unsure how I would present this to the students and help them make an informed decision if they were to help determine assignment weights.
The course objectives were determined by the Special Education Program Area instructors and chosen to meet the Department of Public Instruction licensure requirements so I did not allow students to co-create these.
Benefits of Co-Creating Course Syllabi
Hudd (2003) noted that providing students with the “skeleton syllabus” and allowing them to participate in creating the course increased their participation overall. Similarly, Fassett and Warren (2007) found that by allowing students to work collaboratively in groups to create the entire syllabus, the students felt accountable for their learning. When allowed to voice their preferences about grading, students were more open to change and focused more energy on writing instead of grades and the instructor spent more time on activities he found more valuable, such as meeting with students, instead of grading (Danielewicz & Elbow, 2009). Other benefits to this activity of personalizing learning through co-creating course syllabi include the students feeling validated and encouraged to participate in the democratic process (Shor, 1996). Shor also noted that the students felt passionate about the topics they included in the syllabus. As noted above, I found similar results. My students felt a greater sense of ownership in the course. They felt validated and liked being able to give input to tailor the class to meet their needs. I also felt that I was able to make the course more responsive to students’ preferences and level of background knowledge.
Instructors can personalize learning in many ways when co-creating course syllabi. A variety of course elements can be designated as personalized learning opportunities. For example, basic course elements such as office hours, course format (online/hybrid or hybrid/face to face), and physical class location/classroom are often adjustable. Learners can also be invited to collaborate on more specific course elements such as: activities based on learner interest, course topics, technology requirements, due dates, pacing, assignment and assessment formats, and instructional delivery methods (lecture, discussion, hands-on).
Learners in the personalized learning environment not only benefit from collaboration, but from the ability to have a voice in their learning. Students who are put in charge of their own learning gain self-regulating skills, and are more invested in the content and evaluation of their performance. Finally, students who have a say in their course content are not apt to design the course for an easy “A,” but to maximize meaning of the course content (Gibson, 2012).
Problems and Solutions
While research suggests that co-creating course syllabi is a beneficial process for both students and instructors, this process does not come without barriers. The literature investigating co-creating syllabi primarily focuses on individual instructors’ experiences with doing so. (Obstacles to personalizing learning are addressed in the Learn More section of this module.) Based on my experiences co-creating course syllabi, lack ofstudent buy-in, an increased workload, and anxiety over a failed syllabus could be potential barriers.
As you can see from some of the survey results above, some students did not buy into the process of co-creating a syllabus. Some students are going to be focused on doing well and completing course learning activities and assignments regardless of their input in the creation of the course. While this does not necessarily constitute a barrier, it may not yield the same level of student participation or motivation. In order to work around this possible barrier, the instructor should be sure to let students know what he hopes students gain from this experience. He could guide the class discussion by asking students to select components of the syllabus to which they would like to give input, describe elements of syllabi they have received in other courses that were, or present students with a pre-created syllabus to use as a foundation for discussion and adjustments. For example, perhaps students would like to take the midterm before spring break as opposed to after spring break.
It is important to be up-front about the time demand this places on the instructor. Instead of using the same syllabus from semester-to-semester (usually with small changes), the instructor is presented with the task of re-creating the course each semester. The instructor will be able to use many of the same activities, assignments, and readings, however, the more the instructor allows students to collaborate on the creation of the syllabus, the greater the likelihood that the instructor will have to change some elements of the course each semester. For this reason, I have limited the input I allow students to have. You can determine the amount of collaboration you seek from students (possibly giving them choices between already created assignments, readings, or activities) each semester or be cognizant of which components you co-create with students. Soliciting their preferences on the late work policy and grading procedures typically will not create much additional work for the instructor. Don’t be afraid to start small as you learn the types of flexibility that might make a big difference to students, while impacting the instructor minimally. Also, resources developed to help a course be more responsive to learner variability may take time up-front that saves time later in the semester (or in future semesters).
A final possible barrier is anxiety over a potential failed experience. A syllabus is a major part of a course. It communicates and instructor’s expectations, learning objectives, standards the course, and usually the course schedule. If any part, especially expectations (grading, late work, etc.) or the course schedule, is ambiguous students will struggle to know what they have to complete, by when they have to complete it, and what the consequences are for not completing it by the due date or at all. The syllabus is a critical document if there is any ever disagreement between student and instructor about course requirements. Instructors may fear that, without a clear syllabus, they may receive low student evaluations, or the students may walk away with a negative learning experience. Remember, co-creating a syllabus does not mean an instructor walks into the first day of class without giving any prior thought to the course or the development of a strong course plan (and syllabus). It simply means they solicit student input in such a way that enables students to describe up-front the circumstances under which they learn best. To lessen anxiety about a failed syllabus co-creation experience, instructors should have a timeline for completing the syllabus, options to guide the students to make informative decisions (a menu of readings and assignments, or past late work policies), and an opportunity for the instructor and students to review the finished syllabus before finalizing it. It is at this time that the instructor can go through the syllabus to check again to verify that all necessary components are included and that syllabus is clear. If needed, start with one small piece of the syllabus, adjust, and take on additional sections collaboratively with students in future semesters.
I allowed my students to participate in creating the course syllabus in a limited way. Specifically, I collaborated with them on the arrangement of course content and due dates for assignments. When needed, I gave them options that were within my range of comfort for adjusting the course. There are an unlimited number of ways to engage in this activity with students and an unlimited number of ways to change a course syllabus. Instructors can allow students input for grading procedures, class policies, instructor office hours, assignment formats, and so on. Let your students help you know how they learn best. They may walk away feeling embowered and connected with the course in new ways, and you may leave with lots of new great ideas!
The co-creation of a course syllabus is one step in personalizing learning for students. Personalized learning can range from something that is more controlled (described here) to something that is very flexible for individual learners. That said, personalized learning is not a “free-for-all” where students do whatever they want. It exists in within a framework of academic standards and learning objectives. According to Gray and Madison (2007), it is possible to empower students and meet academic standards at the same time. Explore the links and references below to engage more with the idea of personalized learning and co-creating syllabi with students.
Personalized learning is a learner-centered approach to instruction that is increasingly being used in institutes of higher education to meet individual learner needs. Teachers who use personalized learning create guidelines of course components that are non-negotiable, and then have a conversation with students about how their learning will take place and be measured for the course (Gibson, 2011). Learners direct their own outcomes through a collaborative decision-making process. Personalized learning empowers students to be active participants in the learning process, become more invested in their learning, and self-regulate learning (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012; Gibson, 2011, Hudd 2003).
Personalized learning works in conjunction with course objectives and standards to create opportunities for personalization. This personalization gives learners meaningful and rich interaction with the curriculum (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2012; Gibson, 2011). Using a framework or guide provided by the instructor, students draw from a variety of resources, taking into account their learning styles and preferred assessment strategies to create a learning experience that goes beyond the textbook or campus. This shift from teacher-focused to learner-focused flips the dynamic between instructor and student.
Students who are used to the instructor telling them what they will learn in the course, now have a conversation with the instructor and peers about what will be covered in the course and make decisions about how they will learn it. This dynamic is not always appropriate for all learners. Some learners are not able to manage their learning without built in supports. Instructors need to be aware of their students abilities and make sure they are using a concept driven focus of study over a topic driven focus. Using a concept driven focus will allow students of different abilities and diverse backgrounds to access the the curriculum from where they are and give meaning to the curriculum (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2012).
Personalized learning requires collaboration with peers. Traditionally, learners depend on peers for support and to facilitate learning. Personalized learning allows students to create learning communities where they can construct their own knowledge by building peer support networks and sharing resources (Martindale & Dowdy, 2010). Throughout the course, students will increasingly collaborate and depend upon peers and outside resources to gain information (ELI, 2009).
Finally, personalized learning requires reflection. Learners reflect upon the course, their choices, and the instructor as they go through the personalized learning experience. Learners who actively reflect on their learning will experience a deeper engagement with the content and increase their learning (ELI, 2009). Feedback is shared amongst learners as well as the instructor. The learning environment is rich and ripe for learners to grow and construct their own knowledge based on their choices, experience, and the feedback they receive (Martindale & Dowdy, 2010; Gibson, 2012).
Benefits of Personalized Learning
Personalized learning leads to many benefits that stem from the collaborative nature, student-centered approach, and use of technology. Research on collaborative instructional method found that using collaborative instructional methods transformed student passivity into active engagement, increase student effort; and led to higher levels of academic persistence (Baker, 1999; Rinehart, 1999). Students in a collaborative instructional model created stronger interpersonal relationships and experienced higher levels of student satisfaction (Rau & Heyl, 1990).
Personalizing learning often uses technology, more specifically, social media as a means to collaborate and gain information. Using social media fosters self-motivation, and autonomous and informal learning (McGloughlin & Lee, 2010; Smith, Salaway, & Caruso, 2009; Solomon & Schrum, 2007). The emphasis on relationships over the historical model of individual research allows for students to use social media to collaborate, share resources and experience authentic learning through peer and expert feedback. Students are put in charge of the learning process and can choose the tools and resources that help them learn best (ELI, 2009).
Obstacles to Personalized Learning
There are some obstacles to personalized learning. Since it is a model that requires learners to engage in ongoing decision-making, students need to be self-aware. They need to be able to use social media and other technologies appropriately. Learners also need to be able to collaborate with peers and be reflective about their own learning. Finally, students need to be able to vet information from outside resources and identify when a resource is from an authority, and not just an opinion (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012; Gibson, 2012; ELI, 2009).
Implications for Teaching and Learning
There are several implications for teaching and learning. To begin with, personalized learning moves away from the “teacher as information disseminator” model to a more collaborative constructivist model. Students need the skill set to support this new model, that requires them to collect, organize, assess, construct, and share new knowledge. Students are also expected to be able to reflect and make decisions based on their learning and the course objectives (ELI, 2009).
Finally, instructors need to be comfortable with this shift in power. Instructors are used to being the sole owner of the course content and assessment activities. With personalized learning, instructors bring a framework of concept-based course outcomes and evaluation criteria and allow learners to mold and create the activities and assessments that will match their individual needs (Gibson, 2012; Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2012; ELI, 2009).
Additional Ways to Personalize Learning
Instructors can personalize learning in many ways when co-creating course syllabi. A variety of course elements can be designated as personalized learning opportunities. This can include some of the basic elements such as office hours, course format (online/hybrid or hybrid/face to face), and physical class location/classroom. Learners can also be invited to collaborate on more specific course elements such as: activities based on learner interest, course topics, technology requirements, due dates, pacing, assignment and assessment formats, and instructional delivery methods (lecture, discussion, hands-on).
References & Resources
Blinne, K. C. (2013). Start with the syllabus: Helping learners learn through class content collaboration. College Teaching, 61(2), 41-43.
Dabbagh, N., & Kitsantas, A. (2012). Personal learning environments, social media, and self-regulated learning: A natural formula for connecting formal and informal learning. The Internet and higher education, 15(1), 3-8.
Danielewicz, J. & P. Elbow. 2009. "A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching." CCC 61 (2):244–67.
EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI). The seven things you should know about personalized learning environments. Available from https://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7049.pdf
Fassett, D. L. & J. T. Warren. 2007. Critical Communication Pedagogy. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Gibson, L. (2011). Student-directed learning: An exercise in student engagement. College Teaching, 59(3), 95-101, DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2010.550957
Gump, S. E. (2007). Classroom research in a general education course: Exploring implications through an investigation of the sophomore slump. The Journal of General Education, 56(2), 105-125.
Haynes, A. (2001). Student empowerment: Student-designed syllabus: A group exercise. Sociology through active learning: Student Exercises, 215-220.
Hudd, Suzanne S. 2003. “The Syllabus under Construction: Involving Students in the Creation of Class Assignments.” Teaching Sociology 31(2):195–202.
Martindale, T., & Dowdy, M. (2010). Personal learning environments. Emerging technologies in distance education, 177-193.
Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2012). Planning for personalization. Educational Leadership, 69(5), 52-55.
Quaye, S. J., & Harper, S. R. (2014). Student engagement in higher education: Theoretical perspectives and practical approaches for diverse populations. Routledge.
Shor, I. 1996. When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Vander Schee, B. A. (2011). Changing General Education Perceptions through. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 23(3), 382-387.