Learning Technology Coach Podcast

S1E3. Developing Learner-centred Syllabus

July 20, 2022 Dr. Gavan Watson Season 1 Episode 3
Learning Technology Coach Podcast
S1E3. Developing Learner-centred Syllabus
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Featuring Dr. Gavan Watson - Associate Vice-President (Teaching and Learning), Director of CITL and adjunct professor in the Faculty of Education, Memorial University

Papers referenced:

 Cullen, R., & Harris, M. (2009). Assessing learner-centredness through course syllabi. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(1), 115–125. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602930801956018

Gurung, R. A. R., & Galardi, N. R. (2021). Syllabus Tone, More Than Mental Health Statements, Influence Intentions to Seek Help. Teaching of Psychology, 009862832199463. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628321994632

The Learning Technology Coach Podcast is a CITL production.

Javad (00:08):

Hello everyone. My name is Javad.

Timilehin (00:10):

And my name is Timilehin.

Javad (00:11):

Welcome to the Learning Technology Coach podcast, where we talk to educators about adapting to the new normal.

Timilehin (00:21):

Here we talk to instructors about how Covid 19 affected their teaching style, the challenges they had to overcome, the technologies they used

Javad (00:28):

Plus a whole lot more. Hello, Timilehin. How are you doing?

Timilehin (00:33):

I'm doing great. How are you?

Javad (00:35):

I'm great. It's been a wonderful summer so far.

Timilehin (00:38):

Nice. Yes, it has been. So for me too,

Javad (00:40):

Today I was all thinking about first impression and how crucial it can be. How much does it matter? Do you, do you think

Timilehin (00:47):

First impression matters as much as the last impression?

Javad (00:51):

That's so true. How long do we know each other?

Timilehin (00:53):

I think it's been two years.

Javad (00:55):

Well, two great years, I guess. Yeah. Do you remember your first impression of me?

Timilehin (01:00):

Yeah. I think it's that cool photograph of yours that was used on the C I T L website,

Javad (01:06):

Right, right. That was nice memory. Well, I guess if I want to answer the same questionmy first impression of you was definitely the Banana bread

Timilehin (01:17):


Javad (01:17):

I know, right? Speaking of the first impression, what do you think is the first impression of a prof to Students,

Timilehin (01:25):

I think it's gonna be their introductory class. Whatever they say in that class. Maybe the outline, the syllabus, you know,

Javad (01:33):

Which one, which one is more important. Outline syllabus.

Timilehin (01:36):

I think they almost mean the same thing, you know.

Javad (01:39):

Well, speaking of syllabus it's very important document that you mentioned, and it contains like key elements about the course. By reading the syllabus, students will get a chance to get to know the prof and also get a sense of the course. Last week, we had this opportunity to sit down and have a friendly conversation with Dr. Gavan Watson, the Associate Vice President of Memorial University, and the director of C I T L, the Center of Innovation in Teaching and learning about developing learner-centered syllabus. So if you're interested in having a great first impression on your students, settle in, buckle up and get ready for this exciting interview.

Javad (02:28):

Welcome back to the Studio. In Learner Centered syllabus, students have great chance and increased responsibility to identify their own learning needs and to incorporate resources to build something based on their needs and interest. We have a very interesting guest today in the studio. Timilehin, would you please introduce our guest to our listeners?

Timilehin (02:47):

I'll gladly do that. In the building today, we have Dr. Gavan Watson, who is the associate Vice President teaching and Learning at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. He Is also the director of the C I T L, the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, and also an adjunct professor in the faculty of education at Memorial University. He joined Memorial University in 2018 from the Western University, where he served as associate director in learning in the Center for Teaching and Learning. And he was also an adjunct research professor in the Center for Research and Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Faculty of Education of the Western University. Prior to working at Western, he was an educational developer in open learning and educational support at the University of Guelph and the special graduate instructor of the theory and practice of university teaching. Ah, quite a unique biography, I would say.

Javad (03:48):


Gavan (03:48):

Good morning.

Javad (03:50):

So for the very first question, did we miss something?

Gavan (03:53):

In my bio? Yeah. I love learning. I don't think it's there, but maybe it's implicit. Nothat's what I've done so far. Yeah.

Javad (04:03):

For the very first question I'd like to ask what is learner based Syllabus?

Gavan (04:08):

What is a learner based syllabus? Yes. Well, it's a great question. I guess maybe we need to take a step back and say, what's a syllabus? And I think if we think about that. What's a course outline or a syllabus? It's a document that often details the details of a course. So that would, butwhen you have a look at itit often functions in a bunch of different ways. Of course, outline our syllabus, and it's kind of interesting. Most people think of it as a place to keep track of, like I said, details of the course. So, you know, when the class meets what the required reading is, right, what the assignments are going to be, what the due date is, and also what are the policies that a student needs to be aware of that could change from institution to institution.

Gavan (05:04):

But quite often it's things like what happens, well, a statement around academic integrity, perhaps, where a student can go to seek assistance if they need writing support. And so quite often when people talk about syllabus, syllabuses, they think that they're about sharing information and certainly a learner-centered syllabus has all of those details in it. But they're focused, the learner-centered syllabuses are a little bit different because they focus on the, using the document, the syllabus, as a way of setting tone as far as the course is concerned. And encouraging students to see themselves as learners from the very beginning in the learning experience that the course is going to, that the instructor, the, or the FAC faculty member is going to lead. And then also encourages them to return to that course outline throughout the semester to continue using it as a learning object.

Gavan (06:16):

So course syllabi often are handed out in the first day of class. Maybe they get a quick like scan or an overview of what's in there but and then it's left to the student to go back to it as they need. Whereas a learner-centered syllabus is used also differently. More time is spent. They're typically longer than typical course outlines and to provide all kinds of information, and we can go into more detail about what they might provide. But ultimately they are a way for students to see into the how the course was put together, what the relevance of the course is to them, and their learning and the instructor to communicate their approaches in the classroom. So it's slightly different.

Javad (07:14):

So to me syllabus is like a first impression of a prof Yeah. For students. Yeah. So when we're talking about learner based syllabus and all the freedom that we give to students, what if someone wants to omit the whole chapter? Like, how much freedom do you give to students?

Gavan (07:30):

Well I don't think a learner centered syllabus necessarily has to give freedom to students. I think one of the things that it, there are components of it that an instructor can make a decision about, and that includesperhaps you want to co-construct a certain element of the course. So you don't get the freedom to the studentespecially, you know, you have to understand who your students are and what level of education they are. First year students, you might not give them as much latitude. Fourth year graduate students, you might give them more latitude, but you wouldn't necessarily give them the opportunity to choose what chapters they're reading. But you might actually give them the opportunity to see And so this, you would include this in the course outline that, you know, week 10 and 11, there's no topic set for that week. And what's gonna happen in weeks eight is we're gonna select that topic together, choose the readings together, and then we're going to focus on that. So it allows learners to have a little bit of choice in and express their agency in the course and that would be an example of how you would shift course design and a syllabus more towards being learner-centered by providing students with choice.

Timilehin (08:55):

Right, right. That's interesting. Now from the administrative perspective, doesMUN as an institution have like a guiding policy

Gavan (09:08):

Around the course outline? Right, yeah. I mean, course outlinesall that, I mean, the policy that drives course outlines lives, and you have to, you've gotta ask your question, is it an undergraduate course or a graduate course, but let's just, let's focus on undergraduate right now. Right. That policy would live in the course calendar, the undergraduate course calendar, and it details all of the rules around what a course outline needs to includeand when that course outline needs to be provided to students. And we won't get into the minutiae of that, but there are guidelines around elements that need to be included, as well as how changes can be made to that course outline after the start of classes. And that's important because that ensures that both faculty instructors and students understand what's expected of them and that can't be sort of changed unilaterally which would be unfair either to students or instructors.

Timilehin (10:16):

Absolutely. So you would, we would all agree now that to develop in learner focused syllabus it requires some sort of effort from the instructor.

Gavan (10:27):

Oh, yeah. And what I would say is developing any kind of course outline requires effort, a learner-centered syllabus, perhaps if it's the first time that you're considering this, there's ways of including elements in there. Maybe it'd be helpful to take a quick step back. There's a relatively large body of literature around learner-centered, course outlines, learner-centered syllabuses. And I think the thing that's most helpful is a framework that talks about three factors that an instructor would focus on if they were updating their course outline and syllabus to take a learner centered approach. The first is focusing on community. So using the course outline as a way of describing what the learning community will look like, how the instructor will be available, what collaboration might look like in the classroom.

Gavan (11:34):

The second factor is power and control. So that's, you know, what the teacher or instructor's role will be, what the student's role will be. The focus of the syllabus, whether it's on rules and regulations, or whether it's on communicating what the learning expectations are likethe tone that the instructor takes in the syllabus. I can talk about this a little bit later, but there's an interesting piece of research that came out in 2021 about the significance of the tone that is taken in how an instructor writes about the course and what that means for learning. And then the last factor is around evaluation or assessment. So how students get feedback, what kind of feedback they can what they can expect to get; all of that particular framework is, so it's community power and control and evaluation and assessment is out of a 2009 paper. And I'll be happy to share all the references with you later so that you can add them to the show notes, I'm sure. Great.

Javad (12:51):

Yeah. When we are talking about evaluation and feedback, to me, the course syllabus is the most important tools that in a course to minimize the confusion between the students. Yes. It happens to me like most times that when I ask my friends to go out, for example, I tell them this freedom to choose where to go, I say like, where do you wanna go? Like, this weekend, we are all free. When I give them like chances, like it usually, like, we never go anywhere because like, you know, everyone is like very indecisive to pick. I wonder like, as a prof who has experience in both center based syllabus and the traditional one, like when you do the center based syllabus in a course, like, and that giving that freedom to students, does it make them more confused?

Gavan (13:39):

Well, I guess it could, butI think you've got to consider a concept called scaffolding here. And that is building the structures facilitating the structure so that students can be successful. So I don't think it would be appropriate to give students full freedom of choice right away, because probably it's a step too far for them. And like you articulated, you might end up students might quote and unquote be paralyzed with choice with all the options that are, that are available. So there are some design elements that you can take if you want to incorporate student choice into your course design. And then that gets reflected in the syllabus where for an assignment, for example, instead of saying you will write an essay or say that the essay is there worth 50% you could consider as the instructor, okay this is what I wanna achieve in this course.

Gavan (14:44):

This is what I want students to be able to do. An essay is one way to get there, but you know, the baby step for an instructor would be, but I'm also open to other assignment types. So you can write in your course outline that I'd be open, you know, to consider other kinds of assessments types. If a written essay isn't what you're interested in producing, come and talk to me and we can discuss another approach. Or if you want to be more specific, you can say, here's our final assignment is going to be worth 30%. You can choose to write an essay, you can choose to create a podcast for the wine of a better word. Or you could create a creative piece, for example or engage in, I mean, the sky's the limit, but you're providing three choices that students would then choose from. And as long as they all allow the student to demonstrate similar kinds of course elements so that you, as the instructor can say, yep, they've got grasp of this concept, then you're introducing student choice not overwhelming studentsandstill providing some building engagement and flexibility into the course design.

Javad (16:16):

If I want to get back to analogy I use is like, when I tell my friends, we can go to Topsail Beach, we can go to St. Albert, Or we can go to Cape Spear. You pick one.

Gavan (16:24):

Yeah, exactly. That's right. Yeah. But it's really important, though, to bring it back to the course outline, it would be really important to talk about one of the elements of a learner centered syllabus is a section where the instructor talks about their approach to teaching the course or their teaching philosophy. Now, it may not be their full teaching philosophy, but it could be their approach to the course. So if you are an instructor who wants to incorporate flexibility into the assessment design, I would argue that you should have a section in that course outline that talks about why you are giving students choice in that final of 30% assessment and what that means to you as the instructor and what it also means to students in their own learning. Right? So yeah that sort of like increases the learner centeredness of that course outline, because you are not only providing that flexibility, that's a course design element, but you're communicating in that course outline why it is that you're taking that approach.

Timilehin (17:26):

Right. So thanks for that beautiful response. We all know that Covid 19 has changed the world order. Yes. And syllabus is not a different thing right now. So how would you say, or how would you explain the impact of Covid 19 pandemic on developing learner based syllabus?

Gavan (17:54):

Yeah, so I think that when we've had initial conversations about what Covid 19 has meant for the learning experience one thing that I hear from students and instructors is the impact of externalities to the classroom on the classroom. So it goes without saying that covid led to increased stress. It required students and instructors in the classroom to, you know, use different coping strategies in order to address that stress that were outside the control of any instructor or student. Right. But it had implications for the classroom. So this is a good sequel, tosome research that was published in 2021 that suggests that the tone that you take in the core syllabus has an impact on the kind of actions that students will takes outside in the class and outside of class.

Gavan (19:07):

So the particular piece is that the pandemic had a real impact on mental health students, mental health instructors, mental health, broadly speaking. And this paper published in the teaching of psychology in 2021,looked at including boilerplate language around how students can seek help if they're in a mental health crisis. So, when I mean, boilerplate, I mean, it's kind of reads like it's legalese. It's like, if you're in a crisis, here are the resources that you can find. And then it includes bullet points. And that was one that was in, that was information that was included in one course outline and another course outline. They the instructors wrote the syllabus to take a warm tone. And so a warm tone really means that instead of being informational and transactional, the course outline is written more in a conversational tone.

Gavan (20:12):

It's more personable. It might use like I statements rather than sort of like in the sort of broad, like you will statements. Yeah. So it, it includes the instructor in the document, even though it's not there. And what they found is that with that warm tone syllabus and then addressing mental health and stress, saying that it's real, that it's something that you should take you should be aware of and consider, they actually found that students were more likely to seek out help when they were encountering stress or mental health crisis because of the tone of the warm tone of the syllabus and how it was presented than simply providing the information in a course outline. And so, I think that that's a fairly significant piece to me.

Gavan (21:12):

Often, you know, back to the original question, we see course outlines as like informational and contractual, right? Right. They provide information about the course, they tell you what you need to know or what will happen to you if you don't follow the rules. And a learner-centered syllabus or syllabi more broadly can be so much more. They can be warm and inviting. They can invite students into the classroom, they can help set the tone, they can help students when they need help in elements that aren't related to the course curriculum, but are, that are largely associated with wellbeing of students and ourselves. And so I think what the pandemic's made really clear is that community matters in the classroom. And the more that we can do to support one another inside the class, even with factors that are external to the classroom, the more success that we'll have supporting learners. And as a learning community.

Javad (22:15):

That was a great one, especially after Covid when we removed the face-to-face interaction between profs and students. Yeah. The tone is

Gavan (22:23):

Yeah, and I would say, you know it would be really important to incorporate elements, you know, if and as this kind of remote instruction continues where you have you might have a course that's taught through WebEx or Zoom, it'd be really important to include elements in that course outline about expectations around communication, and include information about how you want students to engage with one another. One interesting thing in that I've seen where learner in a more learner centered syllabus is the details in that syllabus about that the class together are going to have a conversation and create norms and rules around behavior. And so you could, as an instructor include that kind of element in that course outline, say that this is something that we're gonna do. And then facilitate that conversation via the web conferencing tool, specifically focused on, how you want to engage with one another. Even though it's often through Zoom and WebEx, it feels a little dehumanizing. It's not the same kind of environment. And if students can agree to those kinds of behaviors, then as the instructor, you can ensure that you're facilitating that kind of learning experience and also hold students accountable and yourself accountable when there's deviations from that.

Javad (24:00):

I have a question here. Many of, or maybe not many, but we have so many listeners that are profs that they haven't tried this. And you mentioned that for the very first time when Prof wants to move into learner based syllabus, there are some points that he or she needs to take care of. Is it like really hard to move into learner based syllabus?

Gavan (24:21):

No, there's lots of resources available that detail approaches that you can take. There's rubrics that detail elements, common elements through papers that talk about what learner centered course outlines or syllabus look like. Some baby steps that I think are really easy to implement are including a section on your approach to how you're gonna teach the class, why it is that you're gonna take that approach. Another thing that I've done in my own courses is organized the eight and a half by 11 sheet of paper so that all of the course content is on, or the course outline material is on the left hand, two thirds of the paper, and I leave a column in the right hand, third of the paper empty and that column runs the entire length of the course outline.

Gavan (25:30):

And one of the first things that I do in that first class is we spend that class going through the course outline together and articulating it. And one of the things that I encourage students to do is use that empty space as a place to keep notes, take note of things, make references or note questions that they have for me. And so then after they review that course outline, they do it in groups. We come back together and have that kind of conversation. So I use the syllabus as a learning tool in that first classand then design the syllabus as a way to help facilitate that kind of learning experience. So I think there's probably little elements that every instructor can consider around incorporating different kinds of elements or tone into the, into the course outline. And that can be a way of making the, the syllabus more learner centered

Javad (26:34):

As an expert who has done courses in both teams. Which, like, I'm gonna ask my question like this. Let's say we have like two competitors in like phone companies. We have Samsung, we have iPhones, some people like Samsung, some people like iPhones, and there is a meriter, like which one's better than the other? But also on the other side, like we can say, let's say in Samsung company, like, we have this operating system after two or three days, we have a better operating system. When we are talking about learner based syllabus, is it an upgraded version? I mean, in the future, are we moving to learner based syllabus or like this is just an alternative way to the traditional way?

Gavan (27:16):

Well, aspirationally, I'd love to see all course outlines be more personalized based on the instructor that's teaching the courses. So I would l you know, I would love to see fewer informational type course outlines that simply include dates and details. Because I think it's a really a relatively straightforward change to add a little more context about who you are as an instructor and why it is that you're making the decisions that you're making. It's instead of simply listing the weeks of the course outline and the topics to consider, you might alsoinclude information on how students can prepare for conversations that week or information on big ideas to consider as they're make, doing the readings for the course. Those seem like items that as an instructor you want students to consider before they came to the classroom that you might flag the week before in a face-to-face class, you know, oh, and next week this is what we're gonna do.

Gavan (28:33):

I want you to consider X, Y, and Z as you're doing your reading. It's all off the top of your head. But if you can include that in the course outline, then you're making your life a little bit easier and also building student success. So I would love to, a course outline will never get rid of the it has importantinf information to share, and I don't think you'd ever get rid of that. Ubecause as you suggested earlier, that allows everybody to understand what the expectations of the learning environment are. I think there are ways to tweak how we create those course outlines so that they are more inviting and build classroom community. And broadly speaking, student engagement from the very beginning. They're often one of the very first experiences that students have in the class. Maybe if they get a course syllabus or a course outline from last year they are the very first experience that they have about, about a class. And so it's a bit of an idiom that, you know, first impressions matter, but if that's,our student's first impression of the course I think it makes sense to modify it so that they have a good first impression.

Timilehin (29:51):

Right. That's awesome. So this will be the final question because we wouldn't let you go without talking about the CITL.

Gavan (29:59):

Okay. Sounds good.

Timilehin (30:00):

So thinking about developing learner based syllabus, this would be my final question. Yeah. and thinking about the pandemic and thinking about the C I T L, what roles would you say the C I T L play? Or let me say, what services or is the CITL planning, you know, to have to support instructors?

Gavan (30:24):

Yeah. Well, so well, there's always the opportunity for instructors and faculty members who are interested in getting feedback on course outlines. If they're thinking about incorporating elements, learner-centered elements into a syllabus, there's always the opportunity to reach out to our educational development team and get feedback on the design of their syllabus and elements that are there. I think that's you know, that's probably the most direct support that's available. We can also advise, you know, what's underlying, what underlies the syllabus is obviously the course design, right? And so C I T L also offers opportunities for faculty members to come together and, and think about their course design to think and rethink assignments and assessments in a course design institute. So I would think that that's another element of how instructors and faculties can engage with C I T L that way.

Gavan (31:34):

And then depending on where you go, there's all kinds of interesting ways that you can useCITL services. So, you know, we talked about the fact that again, an idiom, but that first impressions matter. I've seen interesting examples of faculty members create course trailers. And so you could take advantage of our media services to help create a video, a course trailer that helps describe what the learning experience will be like and what students can take away from a course that can serve lots of different functions. But it can certainly be included in a electronic or digital course outline and can help students understand what's gonna be expected of them.

Timilehin (32:19):

Wow! That's awesome. So thank you so much Dr. Watson. We are truly grateful to draw from your wealth of knowledge and experience. Thank you so much for coming.

Gavan (32:30):

Thanks for the invitation. I could talk about course outlines all day.

Timilehin (32:34):

It was our pleasure to see you.

Gavan (32:36):


Timilehin (32:50):

Wow. Wow, wow. That was such an informative session. Javad, what do you think of it?

Javad (32:55):

That was really good. Yes, indeed. What I learned was that a well organized, comprehensive and clearly written syllabus will give a positive impression on students, right? Considering like this is, you know, it's gonna be the very first communication that the prof is gonna have with his or her students. Why not using like more effective tone to create a warm and positive learning community from the beginning. That was the main key that I learned. What about you, Timilehin?

Timilehin (33:25):

Ah, awesome. So my own key takeaway is that, you know, our listeners, you've heard from the boss himself, you can always run to the CITL for help and you'll get one for sure. So that's it for me, and that will be the end of this episode. And we just wanna say a very big thank you to all our listeners at home. We'll see you in the next episode. Till then, I'm Timilehin.

Javad (33:46):

And my name is Javad.

Timilehin (33:47):


Javad (33:49):



Episode Introduction
Guest Introduction
Definition of a learner-based syllabus
Factors to creating a learner-centred syllabus
Concept of scaffolding
Impact the pandemic had on the development of a learner-centred syllabus
Approaches to moving towards a learner-centred syllabus
Personalizing your course outline
Working with CITL
Summary - Big Learning Moment!