The Negotiated Syllabus: Involving Students in Course Design

Presented by: Dr. Colleen S. Harris-Keith

We are all familiar with having more material we want to cover than we can possibly fit into a 16-week (or less) syllabus. According to constructivist learning theory, involving students in developing their own learning environments contributes to greater information retention. Most educational research and practice focuses on developing constructivist applications for particular projects and assignments within a course, allowing students to control the products of their learning. This session, however, focuses on applying constructivist learning theory as faculty develop a syllabus for a course, and how faculty can involve their students in the course design through the option of discussing and choosing readings and assignments from the many options appropriate for a course. After briefly situating the practice in constructivist learning theory, this session explores the experience of applying theory to actual course development, focusing on one example of an upper-division interdisciplinary general education course. Throughout the session, attendees will be asked to contribute their own ideas, examples, and concerns as we explore the opportunities and challenges of engaging students with a negotiated syllabus.



The structure of the session will be as a presentation that solicits audience feedback regularly. The general outline for the session is:

  • Short review of constructivist learning principles (5 min)

  • Q/A: Where are attendees already using these principles? (5 min)

  • The Idea of the Negotiated Syllabus – What Does It Look Like (5-7 min)

  • Audience Reaction (3-5)

  • The Negotiated Syllabus in Practice (Freedom & Justice Studies 340 GenEd Class) (10 min) / Opportunities and Pitfalls (5-7 min)

  • Audience Reflection

  • Q&A Session (10 min)


Outcomes/Takeaways:  Attendees will:

  1. Learn what constructivist principles for course design are, and learn ways to use them in designing their own course syllabus and assignments

  2. Learn how to prime their existing courses for student participation in syllabus-negotiation on the first day of class

  3. Explore their own existing syllabi and assignments for increased opportunities to involve students in course design.



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