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The Journal of General Education 50.1 (2001) 56-74

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The Syllabus as a Tool for Student-Centered Learning

Mary B. Eberly, Sarah E. Newton, and Robert A. Wiggins


Colleges and universities need to be continually concerned with issues of curriculum assessment and reform. Curriculum reform, however, is often based solely on information regarding course content. We agree that course content is essential to redesigning curriculum, yet focusing on content alone overlooks the importance of issues related to communication and goal setting that occur at the course level. The syllabus is often the initial communication tool that students receive as well as being the most formal mechanism for sharing information with students regarding any course. Despite their importance, the structures and formats of written syllabi tend to be handed down from one generation to the next, rarely considered as part of curriculum redesign. This lack of consideration may be especially true for courses in general education curricula. Often, general education courses are given lower priority by individual departments, because such courses tend to be governed through shared ownership that crosses disciplines. Recently, as part of our university's assessment of the general education curriculum, syllabus analysis was recommended as an initial step (Ewell, 1997, personal communication). This paper describes the process and results of a descriptive study examining general education syllabi at one university. Specifically, the purpose of the present study is to examine the nature and content of general education syllabi in order to gain a better understanding of their attributes and characteristics; to identify the ways in which syllabi reflect and communicate university goals and objectives of general education; and to identify the ways in which the syllabi communicate an implicit contract. [End Page 56]

Rationale for Syllabus Analysis

The need to conduct syllabus analysis becomes evident when we recognize the multiple uses of syllabi in higher education and the changing perception of the role of syllabi in educating students. To date, these functional multiplicities of syllabi have not been examined simultaneously in the literature. What little literature does exist views syllabi from singular perspectives. Syllabi are educational tools that often have more important functions than what commonly is acknowledged by administration, faculty, or students. Taken together, the literature points to the simultaneous significance of syllabi in at least three domains of higher education: administrative, course development, and interpersonal.

Bers, Davis, and Taylor (1996) suggest that the integrity of syllabi is important for administrative purposes because (1) syllabi are explicit public descriptions of courses, (2) they can and often are used as evidence in grievance and judicial hearings, and (3) they are used routinely to determine course equivalency in transfer situations. Thus, the administrative function of syllabi occurs not only within any one particular university but also across colleges and universities. More specifically, universities can support instructors' decisions concerning grades and course policies when such issues are addressed specifically in course syllabi (Grunert, 1997). Because syllabi serve these functions, the syllabus forms a contract between the student and the university (Bers et al., 1996). Understanding the elements of syllabi is essential in order to facilitate administrative policies and procedures.

Course development is a second domain in which syllabi have significant influence. Ecker (1994) suggests that the periodic review and categorization of syllabi can be a means to evaluate curriculum and program development over time. One reason the syllabus has such an impact on curriculum revision is that the syllabus serves an organizational role in course development. At a global level, the syllabus, like a contract, makes explicit the responsibilities of the instructor and of the students (Grunert, 1997; McKeachie, 1999). "The syllabus as contract can serve as the document by which the classroom practices, expectations, and norms are discussed and codified. Any later ambiguities of meanings can [End Page 57] be resolved by examining the contract that exists between the parties" (Danielson, 1995, p. 8). For the instructor, developing the syllabus or course outline forces careful consideration of what topics will be covered, when assignments will be...


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