Transforming your syllabus to reach and engage students

September 4, 2018

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Katharina PiechockiWhen Katharina Piechocki, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, prepares for a course she has taught before, she significantly changes the syllabus to stay relevant in a rapidly-changing world, respond to students’ (and her own) growing interests, and take advantage of events outside the classroom.

The benefits: Piechocki finds this approach increases student interest in comparative literature by helping them see connections in unexpected places—at Harvard, in the world, and in their own life experience.

The challenges: Changing nearly eighty percent of a syllabus for a course is quite time-intensive and Piechocki likens the creation of her syllabi to travel itineraries: “It’s an outline for where we’ll be going this semester, and although I don’t yet know with whom we’ll be traveling, my students and I need to be open to surprises and unexpected turbulences along the way that we will master together.”


Takeaways and best practices:

  • Carefully select required materials. While Piechocki deems it the most difficult aspect of transforming her syllabi, she believes choosing required materials is an important starting point and pays attention to current events to select items that are culturally relevant. “There is such a wealth of material, it’s mind-boggling. We sometimes have to look beyond the classics: there are so many books, films, and visual materials that might now be forgotten but were once classics and still wonderfully resonate with us today.”
  • Build in assignments to provide feedback. Weekly response papers with a 300-word maximum are required of all students. “I want to see a mind at work, thoughtfulness, and carefulness. Students have to adhere to this format and focus their ideas in a very short space.” This disciplined focus not only makes students better writers, it also enables Piechocki to follow their learning more closely.
  • Take advantage of institutional offerings that connect to content. When her students read Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, a 19th-century science fiction novel about former Civil War soldiers collaborating with researchers from Cambridge to send a projectile to the moon, Piechocki arranged a field trip to the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture to view an exhibition displaying telescopes from that time period. “Even if they thought the novel had nothing to do with them, students were able to see the connection to Harvard and how the University’s power, energy, and knowledge created over a hundred years ago resonated with a French writer of science fiction novels.”

Bottom line: Piechocki’s ever-changing syllabi inspire interdisciplinary thinking in her students and increases engagement. “I learn from students the same way they learn from me. I want to not only surprise students, but also be surprised by them.”