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Case Study #1: Course Syllabi in Higher Education

Ariel Ropp

Loyola University Chicago


Case Study #1: Course Syllabi in Higher Education

As an undergraduate student at Goshen College, I took two womens studies courses that

had a profound impact on my awareness, passion, and engagement with issues surrounding

feminism and social justice. For this reason, I decided to analyze and reflect upon course syllabi

from the field of womens studies for my first case study. I intentionally chose syllabi from

colleges and universities that represent different geographic regions, enrollment sizes, and

institutional types: Barnard College, Loyola University Chicago, Northern Arizona University,

Portland State University, and the University of Pittsburgh. The following case study will

summarize these five course syllabi, identify trends and divergences, and integrate key concepts

from Bransford (1999), Fink (2003), and Nilson (2010) related to curriculum development.

Descriptive Analysis

To start, I reviewed several course syllabi from introductory womens studies courses

similar to the one I took in college. At Loyola University Chicago, Dr. Lombardi-Diops WSGS

101 Introduction to Womens Studies and Gender Studies course introduces students to key

concepts and theories in the fields of womens studies and gender studies, exploring the

manifestation of gender and sex in social, economic, and political contexts. This course is

divided into three units, with each week covering a topic related to its overarching unit. Dr.

Lombardi-Diops course appears to be largely discussion-based, with multiple opportunities for

students to lead class discussions in small groups. Course assignments include three take-home

essays, a midterm exam on course texts and discussions, and a final group presentation on a

contemporary issue or case study of the groups choice. Both the group discussion leadership

assignment and the final group project provide opportunities for students to develop their
teamwork and leadership capacities, illustrating Finks (2003) human dimension of significant

learning.

I similarly analyzed an introductory womens studies course offered at Portland State

University. Dr. Reitenauers section of WS 101 Introduction to Womens Studies at PSU centers

on inclusive dialogue, which is reflected in the relatively high percentage of points (33%)

dedicated to attendance and participation. At the beginning of the course, Dr. Reitenauer asks

each student to create an individual course plan that articulates their goals for the course, states

the steps they will take to achieve those goals, and identifies which optional assignments they

will complete in the course. Students must select three out of six possible assignments, with

choices ranging from interviewing a self-described feminist, to creating a visual mind map of a

key course concept. These sorts of experiential and creative assignments invite students to

connect new knowledge to existing knowledge and help students learn content by engaging with

it multiple times through different mediums (Nilson, 2010). In addition, students are asked to

choose a book from an approved list, participate in a small reading group led by a student

mentor, and present on the books themes in front of the class. The course ends with students

sharing individual final projects in one of several forms: an academic paper, a creative project, or

an extended form of activism accompanied with a reflection paper. Thus, this syllabus offers

multiple opportunities for students to actively engage in reflective, experiential learning.

Beyond introductory courses, I also analyzed three syllabi from 200- and 300-level

womens studies courses at various U.S. institutions of higher education. The first of these is Dr.

Crosbys GSWS 0200 Sex, Race, and Popular Culture course at the University of Pittsburgh.

This course focuses on the intersection of gender and race in pop culture, and as such, includes

regular class dialogues on assigned texts, videos, and songs. Students are expected to prepare for
daily class discussions by creating a thought card that includes a takeaway from the assigned

readings as well as a question or comment to stimulate discussion. Besides dialogue, in-class

exercises sometimes involve self-reflection time and group activities. The course also includes

midterm and final exams covering key concepts and a critical media analysis project that

students must present in front of their peers. Finally, students are required to attend an event

hosted by the womens studies program and write a thoughtful reflection on the events themes.

This assignment in particular encourages student to connect what they are learning in class with

community events outside the classroom, which can promote significant learning (Fink, 2003).

At Barnard College, Dr. Campts WST V3311 Colloquium in Feminist Theory: Race,

Gender, Bodies course explores how feminists theorize human bodies. The course is divided into

two units: Critical Frameworks, which teaches key terms and tools of inquiry, and Sites of

Interpretation, which focuses on utilizing critical tools to analyze various texts. These units

reflect two types of significant learning identified by Fink (2003): foundational knowledge and

application, respectively. During the first half of the course, students create biweekly blog posts

about key concepts (e.g., race, identity), then collaboratively revise and elaborate upon their blog

posts to create a midterm glossary of terms. In the second unit, groups of students lead 50-

minute dialogues by developing discussion questions and writing blog prompts to which the rest

of the class responds. The course ends with a final paper that requires students to apply their

foundational knowledge by analyzing two readings conceptualization of the human body.

The final discussion-based feminist theory course in my case study is WGS 300w

Feminist Theories at Northern Arizona University. Taught by Dr. Hackstaff, this writing-

intensive seminar course is divided into two units, each with its own learning objectives, weekly

topics, and guiding questions. To encourage thoughtful discussions, the course requires students
to write short, weekly reflection papers that address the assigned readings and include questions

for discussion. Students must also create a large research paper, due in smaller, more

manageable chunks throughout the semester: topic and outline, bibliography, first draft, and final

paper. This large paper gives students the chance to learn how to manage a complex project,

which is a form of applicative learning (Fink, 2003). Between the first draft and final paper, Dr.

Hackstaff provides feedback and has a mini-conference with each student to ensure they succeed

on the final project. Offering opportunities for students to hear critical feedback and revise their

work reflects an assessment-centered approach to teaching, in which professors monitor student

progress over time (Bransford, 1999).

Comparative Analysis

As I read through these five course syllabi, several trends emerged across the courses. To

start, all but one syllabus Barnard College include explicit learning outcomes or objectives.

The remaining four syllabi largely feature learning outcomes that Fink (2003) would classify as

foundational knowledge, or a basic understanding and remembering of course content.

Examples of foundational knowledge include the ability to identify and explain key concepts,

theories, and themes in womens studies and gender studies (Loyola) and understanding of

feminist theories their assumptions, applications, insights, and oversights (Northern Arizona).

Given that the academy has historically privileged knowledge acquisition over other forms of

learning, it is perhaps unsurprising that foundational knowledge is the most common kind of

learning in these syllabi. According to Fink (2003), foundational knowledge is a necessary but

insufficient component of student learning in course design.

Another type of learning prevalent in these syllabi is application, or using knowledge in

practice (Fink, 2003). While several courses include learning outcomes about developing critical
thinking skills, few of these syllabi focus on other forms of thinking, such as practical or creative

thinking. Here, application usually takes the form of critically analyzing gender in society, e.g.,

Use readings in feminist and critical race theory to systematically analyze popular culture

around you (University of Pittsburgh). Beyond foundational knowledge and application,

elements of Finks human dimension of learning are also visible in most of the syllabi I

examined. The human dimension, which focuses on learning about self and other, is reflected in

such outcomes as Understanding womens experiences across nations and in global systems

(Northern Arizona). Although most of the syllabi include outcomes related to learning about

others, I was surprised there were not more learning outcomes about personal identity growth,

self-awareness, ethics, or teamwork. Only one of the five syllabi Portland State University

contained explicit human dimension learning outcomes that reflect Bransfords (1999)

community-centered approach to teaching: Create and maintain a collaborative and inclusive

environment, and reflect on our successes and failures as a collaborative, inclusive learning

community (Portland State). Finks other forms of significant learning (e.g., integration, caring,

and learning how to learn) appear infrequently or not at all in these five syllabi. It seems to me

that caring and learning how to learn may be regarded by some professors as a peripheral goal or

as an unstated by-product of their courses.

Next, I examined course activities and assignments to assess how well each of these five

syllabi structures achieves its stated learning objectives. I immediately noticed that all five

courses feature regular class dialogues on assigned texts, with four requiring pre-dialogue self-

reflection. Research suggests that students do not learn well if they are in a passive state for a

long period of time (e.g., listening to a lecture), and dialogues can be an excellent way to keep

students minds engaged through active participation (Nilson, 2010). In particular, class
discussions offer students the opportunity to develop critical thinking through questioning the

readings as well as the reflections of others in the course (Northern Arizona). Fink (2003)

classifies critical thinking as a form of applicative learning in which students learn to analyze

and evaluate the quality of interpretations and explanations. In the five courses I reviewed, each

syllabus takes a slightly different approach to fostering critical reflection and dialogue. For

example, students may be expected to prepare for classroom discussions by identifying and

reflecting upon a meaningful quote from the assigned readings (Portland State), writing a short

reflection on the readings and generating questions for discussion (Northern Arizona),

responding to texts with a blog post (Barnard), or preparing a note card with a central take-away

from the reading (Pittsburgh). By combining reflection and discussion, these courses help

students to first recognize their own thoughts and reactions to course material, and then expand

their understandings through peer interaction.

Beyond teacher-led dialogues, I noticed that a few courses offered opportunities for

students to have an even greater influence over their own learning. For example, in both the

Loyola and Barnard syllabi, students are expected to guide one or more class discussions in small

groups as a significant portion (20 percent) of their total class grade. At Barnard, the students

must create a list of thought-provoking questions, write a blog post for the class to view, and lead

a 50-minute dialogue. This approach shifts the role of teacher by empowering students to take

control of their learning and co-construct knowledge as a group (Bransford, 1999). Another form

of active learning that I identified in my case study is Dr. Reitenauers use of individual course

plans at Portland State. This assignment fosters students metacognition and agency by asking

them to name their goals at the beginning of the course, create a plan for assessing their progress,

decide which assignments would be most meaningful for their learning, and reflect on their
learning at the end of the semester. Curriculum design that promotes metacognition has been

shown to increase the likelihood that students will successfully transfer their learning to other

settings (Bransford, 1999), yet the Portland State syllabus was the only course in my case

analysis to blatantly include a metacognitive goal plan. This suggests that some professors have

yet to embrace curriculum that centers metacognition and co-construction of knowledge.

Conclusion

The five syllabi in my case study incorporate several key concepts identified by

Bransford (1999), Fink (2003), and Nilson (2010), though some of them fail to address all of the

best practices noted in this weeks readings. Most of my five syllabi reflect elements of a

knowledge-centered approach by offering many opportunities for students to make sense of

course content and apply critical thinking skills through reflection and dialogue (Bransford,

1999). The syllabi also incorporate some aspects of community-centered learning through their

use of regular discussions, though most failed to articulate how class dialogues would foster

student learning outcomes. Finally, learner-centered and assessment-centered environments were

generally not emphasized in the majority of these syllabi, with the notable exception of Portland

State. On the whole, the Portland State syllabus stood out for including a variety of high-impact

teaching and learning practices highlighted in the literature: metacognitive reflections, small-

group learning, service-learning opportunities, formative and summative assessments, and co-

constructed assignments. Although all of the syllabi generally avoided common curricular

blunders (e.g., an over-emphasis on lectures and rote memorization), it was helpful to see how a

syllabus could take learning to the next level by including multiple experiential components.

References
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.) (1999). How People Learn: Brain,
Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to


developing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors.
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (Ch. 1).

Barnard College: https://womensstudies.barnard.edu/sites/default/files/2feministtheory-


s13_0.pdf

Loyola University Chicago:


https://sakai.luc.edu/access/lessonbuilder/item/4824499/group/d6b1dc36-9c53-4293-9939-
1931f112d486/Women_s%20Studies%20_%20Gender%20Studies/WSGS%20101%20-%20Fall
%202013%20-%20Lombardi.pdf

Northern Arizona University


Website: http://nau.edu/sbs/wgs/degrees-programs/syllabi/
Word document (download): http://nau.edu/uploadedFiles/Academic/SBS/WGS/Forms/WGS
%20300w%20Hackstaff.docx

Portland State University: https://www.pdx.edu/sites/www.pdx.edu.ws/files/vicki%20WS


%20101.pdf

University of Pittsburgh
Website: http://www.wstudies.pitt.edu/resources/curriculum-resources
Word document (download): http://www.wstudies.pitt.edu/sites/default/files/Crosby_GSWS
%200200.docx