When the Syllabus Goes Wrong

mhC7ZMoI cannot tell a lie.  My new course is a failure.

This semester, I did a complete overhaul on the English course I teach for Child Studies majors.  The earlier version of the course was a solid one.  It focused on the topic of childhood relationships in literature: parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and friendships.  We read a couple of books, wrote a couple of essays, researched famous childhood relationships and presented them to the class.  The final assignment was to write a story, fictional or non-fictional, about a childhood relationship.

It always went pretty well, but I was sick of it.  If I had to hear another presentation on the Jackson Five and their father, I was going to lose it.  And I was on a high from another course in which students chose their own readings, I course that I enjoyed teaching more than any other.  I wanted to try blogs again, and I was in love with Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, an exploration of the character qualities that lead to success.

So I had a few epiphanies and redesigned the course.  I knew I’d be flying by the seat of my pants for most of it, but, because this had worked out well for me in recent memory, I wasn’t too worried about it.

  1. Because I wanted to use Tough’s book, I called the course “A Question of Character.”  The guiding questions: What is character?  How do we define it in real life?  How do we experience it in literature?  Can reading literature influence a child’s character?
  2. I wanted each student to read a different classic work of children’s literature.  I compiled a list of books for them to choose from, all of which I was excited about reading or re-reading, and they dutifully signed up.  The plan was for each student to present his or her book, and its lessons about character, to the class.
  3. I wanted to use blogs as a way for students to exchange ideas and explore their own thoughts.  In the first few weeks we spent a lot of time setting up blogs, addressing questions about image copyright and moderating comments, and ironing out other issues.  In the first month, I fastidiously read and commented on every post, and compiled lists of the best posts of the week on my own blog.  They were to receive a grade for February, a grade for March, and one for April, with suggestions and feedback as we went along.

In the beginning, everything rolled along nicely.  I didn’t have a lot of grading to do, so reading the blogs was not stressful – in fact, I loved reading them.  Even the banal ones were interesting at first, as I got to know the students and the way they thought and wrote.  We started the term by reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone all together, and the students were mostly ecstatic about it.  They also seemed interested in the ideas in Paul Tough’s work, and wrote thoughtful first essays in which they discussed whether Harry Potter and his friends supported or contradicted Tough’s theories.  I slowly read my way through the book list, revisting old favourites and discovering new ones.

Things started to come apart around midterm.

First, I started feeling the burden of reading 80 blog posts every week.  Which is to say: I stopped reading 80 blog posts every week.  I couldn’t grade everything else and do that too.  I’d met with students individually in mid-March to discuss how they’d done on their blogs in February.  I’d planned to do that again after the March blogs were done, but there simply wasn’t time; once I’d given them all their blog grades for March (by entering them into the online gradebook with a couple of comments), April was almost over and there was really no time for them to implement the feedback.

I was also utterly bogged down in the book list.  I resented the volume of non-voluntary reading I’d assigned myself.  I found myself beginning a book and casting it aside, feeling sorry for the student who’d chosen it – The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Call of the Wild… why on earth did I inflict these on anyone? I wondered.

Then we started with the oral presentations.

One of the requirements was that they each find at least one scholarly article on their book and discuss it.  It turned out that the literary databases at our college are so limited that it was impossible to find even a book review on novels as classic as The Naughtiest Girl in the School or From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I had to adjust the criteria to the point that the research component of the assignment became basically meaningless.

I’d instructed each of them to present for 10-15 minutes, and we spread the presentations over 8 classes (5 presentations per class).  The first handful of presentations was enjoyable, but it became clear early on that requiring a “plot summary” without practicing how to make a plot summary clear and concise had been a big mistake.  The plot summaries dragged on endlessly, rife with minute detail, and the rest of the required components were treated in a couple of moments – a number of presentations were over 20 minutes long but consisted primarily of a brief biography of the author, lifted straight from Wikipedia regardless of my warnings, and a meticulous overview of the plot, followed by 90 seconds of analysis.  By the time we’d dragged through 5 or 6 of these, there was little time for anything else in the class period, and regardless of how different the books were, the presentations were ALL THE SAME.  It was agony.  Students stopped showing up for class.  I didn’t blame them.

One of my two classes is, for whatever reason, considerably weaker than the other.  I just finished grading the blogs for that weaker class, and the class average is 59%.  Ergo: this assignment was not a success.  The oral presentations were not a success.  They are working on their final papers right now, and were required to come in small groups to work on their outlines; barely half of them showed up for their small-group meetings.  The other class is faring better but there is still a general feeling, at least in my mind, that this course is a random, pointless mess.

Despite the issues, I feel some good things came out of this course.  Those students who kept their blogs diligently wrote some really inspiring things, and the conversations in the comments sections showed some deep and broad learning.  I certainly enjoyed reading the blogs more than I ever enjoy grading papers.  Some students reported being inspired by the children’s novels they read, and passing them on to younger siblings.  Some reported finding Paul Tough’s book extremely interesting, and their papers, blog posts and discussions about it indicate that most of them understood his ideas well and are applying them constructively to their lives and the literature.  So it’s not that there’s no learning happening, but I’m expecting a lot of scathing reports on the course evaluations about the confusing and meandering way that learning came about.

At this point, my plan is to shelve this course and return to its earlier incarnation, and take a couple of years to revise, revamp, reorganize, and reconceive.  I would love to hear your advice, and your stories.  Have you ever given, or taken, a course that just seemed like a bad idea?  If you gave it, what did you do to improve it?  If you took it, why was it bad, and what would you have changed?  Beyond that, can you see any solutions to the problems I describe above?

Image by Steve Woods


24 thoughts on “When the Syllabus Goes Wrong

  1. I think the more control we give students to direct their own learning, the more their prior preparation on how to learn comes through. Those good at following teacher directions but not so good at analyzing a work or making connections between ideas don’t make a lot of progress. It sounds like your course may have been a meandering mess because your students were unable to direct their own learning when they had the opportunity.

    Here in the States, the bulk of k-12 education seems to be aimed at doing what the teacher says and learning will magically occur. Students like that really don’t graduate prepared for the rigors of college-level work or to take responsibility for their own learning. In the past, when only the students who had an innate ability for this kind of thinking or had a family background or who were enrolled in elite courses most students were barred from attended college, this really wasn’t a problem. But now that the middle of the pack also goes to college, we have a dilemma. How do we persuade students who have had a completely different kind of education to shift over to the new way of learning? I think the answer might be in pieces, so that smaller parts of the course are self-selected.

    There is a great deal of criticism of schools for being overly controlling and killing creativity, so there’s an inclination to let go of control and demand creativity. But the fact is that a controlling education that neglects creativity requires less of the students. Some students educated in that way become resentful of it, but the majority become lazy in terms of their willingness to think, and they resent changes that require more of them. They also have trouble seeing a value in learning how to direct their own learning: the bulk of the learning in the course may have been about how to learn. But students may not see that.

    To respond to your question, I once took a course that very few students participated in. I don’t know that it was meandering, but I would guess their silence meant they weren’t getting a lot out of the course, and I also think they weren’t getting much out of it because they weren’t doing the work. They didn’t do all the reading, and they didn’t put any thought into what they read so they had nothing to bring to class discussions. It was awful for the professor, I think, but I enjoyed it immensely and recall many of the ideas we discussed quite clearly all these years later.


    1. Ashana: I think you’ve hit it on the nose here. One of the problems is that I was designing a course for students who are not only interested in reading and writing but have strong reading and writing, and lateral thinking, skills. Later this week I may post up a journal I wrote for my MEd course that specifically addresses the problem of using blogs in this course – by implementing this assignment the way that I did, I willfully ignored many “learner characteristics” that interfered w/ its success.


  2. I feel you. Here’s the conundrum–one spends 3-5 years fine-tuning a course, tinkering with it, changing this and that until it is a terrific class, one that inspires and provokes and changes the students; then, after a while, one starts getting bored with the damned thing, because although the class is new and fresh to the students, it can become rote to the teacher. Has happened to me, for sure.

    What to do about it besides scrapping the whole class? Well, the great thing about teaching literature/writing (versus, say, history or math) is that you can change texts and units at will. In my Brit Lit course, for example, I change the Shakespeare text every three-ish years to keep myself challenged and entertained. And I continue to tinker with units to improve them, make them topical, and keep myself stimulated. Perhaps you could return to your awesome childhood relationships course, and make small changes—add chpts from Tough’s book (and have the students connect character to relationships), offer choices on the final assignment (so you don’t have to listen to more Jackson Five stories), add your independent reading unit (albeit with fewer texts), etc.

    Best wishes!


    1. I have been thinking carefully about how to integrate some aspects of this new course into the old one in order to spice it up a bit. Like you, I change texts every few years or so, but when it came to this course, I think I was ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that was a mistake! You’ve given some great suggestions – thank you.


  3. I read How Children Succeed based on your earlier recommendation. And I don’t believe Tough. KIPP is a notoriously conformist “no excuses” environment; “grit” is a euphemism for “bootstrap”. What he describes are not liberal learning environments, but classic EdReform models that under close, honest, critical inspection don’t and won’t work. Just like Tough’s book. Because of the policies that Tough shills for, most teachers will never have the liberty of “trying out” an innovative approach to learning.
    I encountered logical fallacies in a freshman comp class. Your students probably don’t have the tools or experience to de-construct a weak argument. Why not look at fiction masquerading as non-fiction, like Jonah Lehrer, Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell…? Gotta get to work. Good writing, really enjoy your candor. Most people are afraid to admit a mistake, much less learn from it.
    http://www.edsource.org/today/wp-content/uploads/Fullan-Wrong-Drivers1.pdf u might like this


    1. Michael: the students’ job in this course is not to analyze Tough’s arguments, but mainly to look at the literary works they read and determine whether the characters and relationships in those works reflect/support/contradict anything Tough says. It is a complicated task, as you point out, but also a fun one!


  4. Hello Ms. Curious. Nice reflection on a class not working as you’d hoped. And you and/or one of your commenters above summed up a big problem. Student apathy and resistance to taking charge of their own learning.

    I try to gently guide my HS students and then get them to think. It’s a daunting task. Most are too lazy, even the ones who get it, and can think critically. They’ve told me as much. They don’t want to work. Too many students want to be spoon fed.

    This is a HUGE problem and part of why students arrive at college with no clue just how much they have to THINK and reason to be successful. And write a legible, organized paper, too.

    What to do? Keep on keeping on…


    1. That “resistance to taking charge” is really it, isn’t it? One big difference I see between my class that’s doing fine and the one that isn’t is that the “good” class is really interested in learning things. They get excited. When they don’t know how to do something, or what I’m talking about, they demand answers. The other class sits passively, and then when their papers/presentations/blog posts arrive, it’s clear that they were confused. Or they’re so confused that the papers etc. don’t arrive at all. But they don’t know how to ask the right questions, or forge ahead and make adjustments.


  5. It really also could be that your students failed at managing their time / priorities in the beginning(or maybe struggled with task switching between blogging and writing more formally?) and when they realized that the path was circuitous and the target shifty, they threw up their hands. Just because all that happened doesn’t mean it was a bad idea though – rather I think it’s a great one! If you want to stick with the theme, you might consider reigning things in just a little in terms of limiting selections and creating some structured guidelines for “what goes where.” If you scale back the blogging (or perhaps tell students that you will spot-check their blogs, but you won’t tell them when and where; in that way you will read less overall and they won’t know what you’ll read so they’ll have to keep up the quality) and scale up the structure, you might find that it works just as you hoped.

    As I read through your initial ideas, I found myself thinking about what I would do if it were a Psych class, or more psych oriented, and thought I’d share some ideas since you asked :). For one, you could further pursue your last question, “Can reading literature influence a child’s character” by having your students find some children of various ages to interview. Ask the kids what their favorite books are, whether they strive to act like those characters, and so on. As a class you could take some of the top mentioned books and then evaluate the character of the characters, to determine as a class whether those characters are worthy role models. As well, rather than having your students search for book reviews, have your students seek out some literature in Psychology on the development of self regulation, perspective taking, and the like (things that go into making kids “gritty”), then evaluate children’s literature to see whether those skills are portrayed in the literature? If you broke your classes up into groups and each group character-analyzed a different book, comparing it to the qualities in Tough’s book, and better yet, if the groups covered literature targeted at different age ranges, the final presentations could be really interesting: what would a child grow up to be like, who read and identified with the following characters, over the course of childhood? Maybe one set of books, over time could suggest positive growth patterns, whereas another set of books, over time, could suggest negative growth patterns?

    Anyway, I really like your idea. I’ve had classes and ideas tank too. It’s frustrating, but I try not to throw out the baby with the bathwater if I can help it. Its hard to get it right the first time, every time.


    1. As I think of it, I thought I’d add one more tidbit to my suggestion above. If you do go with an idea like that, a great final exam idea could be this: rather than stacking the deck in terms of whether the books presented at the end of the term might work together over time, have the students attend all presentations, then for their final exam, have them take a selection of books presented on (e.g., one from each age range, to cover the spectrum of childhood) and evaluate what kind of character might emerge in a child who read the whole set throughout childhood, identifying and acting like each character.


    2. Erica: “when they realized that the path was circuitous and the target shifty, they threw up their hands.” – this DEFINITELY happened with some of them. I think one reason many of my courses are popular with students is that if they put in a modicum of effort, they will find that all targets are clear. The targets in this course were not. That made them exciting for students who like a challenge. For others, not so much. I like the idea of students seeking out sources on psychology rather than on the books themselves – that could definitely work!


  6. I applaud you for taking the risk of trying new things in order to keep your teaching fresh for both you and your students. I tend to think well of course there was chaos! That sounds like the process of learning to me. It looks as if a lot was working well, so I’d say focus on deconstructing how you got that first part to work so fabulously where you loved it at times and the students were ecstatic at times… and do more of that. I see this as the essential first step in developing a new curriculum, and next year you would apply what you learned from this year about what worked. Bravo!


    1. I speak near the end of the third year of developing a new curriculum as you did — just because I wanted to. It has been working beautifully this year, however I’ve had two years of moving forward and trying not to focus on negative comments from the trainees. It’s been essential for me to have one or two people who help me to notice what’s working well and focus on that.

      Last year I tried something risky in a academic session and had one comment that, “the session was a complete waste of my time.” This year I did the same session only framed it a bit differently, and I had one trainee approach me afterward and say, “it was therapeutic….” along with other positive comments. I’m glad I didn’t toss the session after the discouraging initial response, as it was a powerful experience for the trainees this year.

      All in all, this third year of the new curriculum was fantastically rewarding. I suggest you consider hanging in there with yours!


      1. WUD: this is encouraging – thank you! Yes, I have to remind myself that courses are always wobbly the first time through, even if they don’t crash and burn quite as dramatically as this one did…


  7. Good to hear a warning about scrapping a syllabus totally. I’ve experimented with small bits of student-centred items (not blogging) and have found often I underestimate how much time I need to give to something.

    Take the reviews into consideration when you re-design the course and do n’t let this turn you from trying out new things. The rest is a work in progress.


  8. I taught high school English from a non-trad perspective and allowed students some freedom in analyzing the text. I found, much like you did, that this approach required extra work on my part. The lesson I learned was this–think first of the ramifications affecting you (especially time-wise) as a result of any curriculum changes you make. I like the ideas behind the changes you made to the course, but if the instructor becomes bogged down, the students don’t get the feedback they were formally used to receiving. Tinker, try again, but remember to evaluate the work you might be putting on yourself.


    1. LS: It’s funny – I often KNOW during the planning stage that I’m overburdening myself, but I think, “But it will be so interesting, I won’t even care!” I’ve been teaching for almost 25 years – you’d think I’d have learned this lesson.


  9. Oh…I have so been there. When you think “I can’t wait to hear these presentations..read these projects…and then you realize…Crap! They don’t know how to do this! Why can’t they do this? I guess I better teach them.” I’m glad to hear that even at the college level this happens. I’m sure you were thinking…this stuff is basic, they learned it in Jr. High. But sometimes in our rush to teach to the test/standards the little things slip through the cracks. Don’t be afraid to bring things to a screeching halt and teach something that needs teaching. I have done this. From the first few presentations I realized they had done it all wrong. We stopped, did some revision, then I allowed the students who had already presented to do it again if they chose. Kids so appreciate you saying…you know let’s try this again…it didn’t turn out as I had planned. It teaches them that it is ok to fail and that a real learner will start over, revise and endeavor to get it right.


    1. Bringing things to a screeching halt is so hard to do, and, you’re right, so necessary. I did pause at several moments to give advice based on what had come before, but it didn’t even occur to me to give earlier presenters the opportunity to present again…I will keep this possibility in mind for the future.


  10. You definitely took on a lot with the changes you made! I think the blogs were a great idea. Perhaps if you decide to teach this class this way again, choose 5 or so books that the students could read and present in groups. That way you’d have less books to get through and less presentations. Plus the students could work in groups to analyze and critique the way you want them to. Lastly, give them a rubric for the presentation portion that teaches them what a plot summary is and how long they should spend on each section of their presentation. I know you think the class was a failure, but I think that you are brave for trying something new. How else can we really grow as teachers? We have to try, even though we sometimes fail.


  11. I want to say first that, as a learner, I would have loved this course. I am rooting for you to tweak it and try again. When I feel bogged down by grading and heavy instruction/remediation, I divide assignments into three categories: ones that can be self-assessed, peer-assessed, and teacher-assessed. In order to do this, you may have to teach a mini-lesson on summary writing and let that be peer assessed. To lighten your burden in giving feed back on the blogs, every other week, have students rotate writing with reading and then responding to others’ blogs –dividing your work in half and giving the students a chance to interact with each other. Again, you may need to model for students how to reply to a blog in a productive and open-ended style. Another way to ease the blogging and focus it, is to assign students to read and then write book reviews (Goodreads is a source for some interesting book reviews.) For motivation, help students create book clubs by allowing them to group together based on an exterior element of their chosen books, such as similar themes, same gender author, time periods, etc. Then those students can meet together regularly with some type of self or teacher generated generalized focus for their discussion that could be used as the next topic in their blogs–discussion that would further their investigation character–paired with a quote or passage from Tough’s book (which because of you I am currently reading). Then, I would change their presentation focus–make it more like a book promotion–sell the class on the book–instead of an academic focus. This may lighten the perceived work-load of your students by making an element of each part easier to evaluate and more student-centered. As for the research component, it would be interesting to find common threads in the life story of an author and the prevalent themes present in their books (such as Gary Paulsen’s consistent theme of a cheating or weak mother and Kate Dicamillo’s characters who are mother-less and lost). Finally, for their final paper, have students focus on a specific character trait that they feel is vital for literature of today and then identify books which exemplify it which would give you a final product to evaluate summary writing. I hope these suggestions inspire you. Just so you know, I really look forward to reading each of your posts. Your candid reflections are inspiring to me.


  12. I’d like to comment on your use of presentations and resultant low attendance rates. I struggled with the same issue for years, and after trying several different approaches, I’ve found a great solution that works for me.

    First, I think assessable presentations are a really useful learning tool, but as teachers, we’ve got to be very clear about the parameters for such a task, otherwise students will run with it for 20 minutes, and nobody has time to sit through 50 x 20-minute presentations.

    I’ve been using the Pecha-Kucha style for the last few years (6m 40s = 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, automatically timed, and minimal text). I’ve found that Pecha-Kucha works on several levels: it forces students to boil down their discussion to the most essential points; its strict timing and set structure trumps any reason or excuse from students for going over or under time; and it encourages students to use images rather than chunks of text to complement their talk.

    Perhaps you could try something like this next time, with definitive guidelines, e.g. max 5 slides for the synopsis, min 10 slides for analysis etc. This will ensure that students spend a set amount of time presenting on certain aspects of their topic (and they will gain/lose marks according to whether they meet these criteria). It’s a very directive approach to an assignment, I know, but I’ve found that students prefer to have assignments that have very clear boundaries – it sorts out any confusion at the start of the semester and saves you a heap of time sitting through long winded presentations. Plus, in my experience, weaker students need this guidance and structure just to get through this type of assessment, whereas the stronger students tend to bend the rules to their advantage – and they often do this exceptionally well.

    As for getting students to rock up to your classes, try introducing a peer review system to the presentation assessment task. I always make participation for this optional – but if they participate, they can earn an extra 5% towards their final mark. You would be amazed at how many students rock up not only on time, but early, for classes when they know that they have to be there in time for the presentations just so they can get that little 5%.

    This technique nails several aspects of learning and teaching in one blow, and it’s particularly pertinent to creative writing and literature subjects. I get students to fill in short critical feedback slips for every presentation they hear. Presentations are always in the first 30 minutes of class, so students have to arrive on time to participate. Writing critical feedback also means they have to be attentive. All written feedback then goes to the presenter. It’s like your blog system, except all you have to do is collect slips of paper, glance through them to ensure there’s nothing inappropriate written there, keep a tally of which students participated that week, and assign them a mark for participation at the end of semester.

    This type of peer review system teaches students how to give constructive feedback, encourages them to pay attention and absorb the information, and if it’s worth some marks, even just 5%, they will attend all your classes on time.


  13. Siobhan Thanks for sharing the challenges. I resonate with the feeling – I recently came off a course rated 100, only for the next course to not work at all… http://bit.ly/tedxcn my Ted talk now live 😉 It is about 3 character traits for success – and how to test them in 3-6 year old kids, Have a great Sunday Conor

    Conor Neill || http://cono.rs


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