Class Sourced Syllabi

Posted August 5, 2014

By Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener

Perhaps you can relate to this: It is a month before the new term starts and e-mails trickle in asking to receive the course syllabus in advance. Some students want the syllabus so that they can make a decision about which courses to take. Others want to use it to work ahead. Regardless of their rationale I tell my students I cannot share the syllabus with them. My attitude does not come from stinginess nor does it come from a lack of preparation. Simply put: I do not have a syllabus.

Research on self-determination theory suggests that people are motivated, at least in part, by a sense of autonomy. It occurred to me that an instructor-created syllabus might undermine student autonomy. In essence, instructors tell students “here is what we are going to study, here is when we are going to study it, here is what I expect of you and here is how I will evaluate you.” Although this is precisely what students expect it may miss an opportunity to engage them more deeply.

The “Class-sourced syllabus” is based on the concept of Open Space Technology (OST) ( This is an approach to facilitating meetings in which you do NOT begin with a formal agenda. Instead, you invite the participants to focus on their own desired outcomes and to take personal responsibility for achieving these both for themselves and for the group as a whole.

What does this look like in a typical university psychology course? It looks a lot like a menu at a restaurant. The instructor uses her expertise to identify content areas that are vital to the course and those which are more elective in nature. She then allows the students to choose those areas that they personally find most interesting and adds them to the syllabus.

In my own course on positive psychology I ensure that we cover the core topics of happiness, strengths, altruism and optimism. I let the students choose from among “smaller” topics such as post-traumatic growth, courage and grit. I have experimented with letting the class vote on these topics as a whole and with allowing students to break into groups with each studying a different topic on some special weeks. I sometimes also allow students to choose from among various options for evaluation: tests, papers, participation and so forth. I always require two or more methods but I let the students decide how they would like to be assessed and then hold them accountable for their choices.

There is no doubt that a class-sourced syllabus is additional work for an instructor. At its most radical end, each student could have an individualized syllabus. In fact, with technologies like Noba, each student could even have an individualized textbook. The payoff, however, is a student body that is more motivated and engaged in the learning process. In my own course students waver between puzzlement and anxiety on the first day as they are asked to participate in the creation of the course. By the end of the term, however, the vast majority report feeling that this approach is refreshing and motivating.

Do you have experience using class-sourced syllabi? Are you critical or curious about this teaching method? We would love to hear your comments! Please post to our Facebook discussion on the topic.

[Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.]