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Case Study Number Two:

Exploring Five Syllabi and Significant Learning Experiences
Hallie Moberg Brauer
Loyola University Chicago

Exploring Five Syllabi from Top Tier Universities- and an Alma Mater
This brief exploration of five different syllabi from an array of institutions seeks to
discuss the syllabi in detail individually, and then will go on to compare and contrast the syllabi
to each other, finally evaluating them on a surface level based on the framework for significant
learning experiences that L. Dee Fink (2013) lays out in his book, Creating Significant Learning
Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Developing College Courses. Using his typology and
brief discussion of what each class might be doing well or could improve upon will end this
exploration. The five syllabi were chosen from classes taught at four of the best universities in
the country. Based on the fact that they are to offer the best education, it is interesting to
evaluate if their class design reflects instances of significant learning. The final syllabus was
chosen from the alma mater of the author, simply to compare what a liberal arts college offers in
contrast to the leading institutions of higher education in the United States.
Brown University (Spain)- Painting I & II: Color and Pattern/ Nature and Culture
The syllabus presented for this class is constructed around an experience that the students
will have living in Spain for six weeks. It is taught and designed by Wendy Edwards, a professor
of painting and art history at Brown University. The class is designed as an experiential learning
course where beginner and advanced level art students use their experience abroad to inform
deeper there understanding and learning about color, technique and critique. Each week the
students are expect to produce a different type of painting and then each student spends time
receiving feedback from their peers, professor and other faculty in the program (Edwards, May).
Students focus on different types of things to paint, from architecture to items in nature that
inspire them as well as cultural observations they make while living abroad.
The experiential and immersion aspect of this class goes a long way to add to the
students experience of learning about the process of learning to paint, how to incorporate color,
nature and culture into their artwork. The learning outcomes of the class revolve around the

development of students ability to transcribe visual knowledge as well as their participation in
cultural events scheduled for them throughout the shortened learning period. While artistic
learning outcomes are different from those of more traditional classes, this learning environment
seems like it would be highly conducive to the artistic and personal growth of the students in the
class based on their experience and the large about of feedback and assessment they will receive
throughout the course.
Harvard University- Anthropology and Human Rights
The class being taught in this syllabus is an introductory level class in the Anthropology
Department at Harvard University. It was constructed by Professor Theodore Macdonald in the
spring of 2014 (Macdonald, January). The course is focused around three case studies for the
first part of the semester and then shifts to understanding the field work that the professor
himself has done in South America. There are only four areas of assessment mentioned in the
syllabus, a midterm exam, a final exam, a research paper, and class participation. This leads the
student to believe that class discussion will be a part of the class set up.
The syllabus is not particularly detailed in regards to what activities and discussions will
be happening each week, but the weekly readings and due dates are outlined clearly for students.
The syllabus gives the impression that this is a lecture based class with some discussion to take
place around the readings. However, the main goal of the class appears to be imparting
foundational knowledge about the subject to students. It is possible the final paper will elicit the
connections of the professors learning goals with the teaching and learning activities and his
feedback and assessment; however these outcomes are not clearly outlined in the syllabus.
Princeton University- Queer Theory
This class is taught by Gayle Salamon for three hours once a week. It is a three hundred
level class, thus might be offered more specifically to junior and senior level students. The
syllabus itself has a funny rhythm to it, which is accented by the fact that it was given to students

with all of the text being centered on the page rather than having the text aligned to the left as is
typical for most documents. The syllabus is broken into the parts of the class that students are
expected to complete. The reading section of the course encourages students to think critically
about the readings and journal each week as they complete the readings to keep their thoughts
and questions the theory brings up at the forefront of their minds. The class is then divided into
three more sections of assessment which include participation, written work, and two
presentations to be given to the class over the course of the semester. Students will synthesize
what they have learned from the theory and share their additional research with the class
(Salamon, August).
The syllabus seems to be constructed around encouraging the students to dig deep into
the course material and think critically about it, as well as synthesize and more towards to new
levels of understanding beyond the material at hand. The syllabus also makes it clear that no
screens are to enter the classroom, computers or cell phones since the instructor feels that this
interferes with the engagement students have in the classroom discussions and over all class
experience, (Salamon, August). Overall the course seems highly interesting and engaging, as
well as balanced along the lines of clear assessment expectations and development of a students
knowledge of the topic beyond simply foundational knowledge.
Yale University- Welfare Economics and Equity
The class in this syllabus is a two hundred level economics class which is clearly
designed to impart foundational knowledge to students about the practices, theories and
mathematics of Welfare Economics. It is taught by Dr. Don Brown. The syllabus is a rather bare
bones structure of the class that simply informs the students of exactly what they will read,
which concepts they are expected to master, and the fact that there will be one midterm and one
final which will determine their overall grade in the class (Brown, July).

There is a brief discussion of the fact that participation in the class is essential, leading
the student to believe from the outset that the class is not entirely lecture based, but could include
some discussions of the readings and problem sets assigned for outside of class. The syllabus
also outlines that students are to act as teaching assistants to their peers as the class does not
employ a teaching assistant to aid the professor. Thus students are clearly expected to work
together outside of the classroom to master the information that will appear on their mid-term
and final exams for the class.
DePauw University- State and Local Government
This class is the only class featured here that is not taught at an Ivy League Institution. It
is taught at a private liberal arts college in Indiana. It is a two hundred level Political Science
class taught by Bruce Steinbrickner and it is one of the required classes to complete a major in
political science at the institution. The class is broken up into three parts, where students study
various aspects of federal, state and local levels of government. The syllabus clearly states
students are expected act as if they are colleagues in the field of political science, to do academic
research and do experiential research as such. Students are expected to complete a systematic
report of observations of local government public meetings. This means attending one or several
local government events over the course of the semester, as well as completing a research paper
to complement their experience. The syllabus states that the Indiana State Legislature is also in
session during the course of the semester and students are encouraged to use that as a resource
for their learning and research as well (Steinbrickner, January).
This experiential aspect of the course happens in addition to weekly lectures and
classroom discussion in which participation is highly valued and two exams will be administered
over the course of the semester to assess student learning. The class seems to be a mixture of
having the goal of the course is the sharing of fundamental knowledge, as well as experience

outside the classroom that allows students to experience what they are learning about, and begin
to think critically through the concepts they learn over the course of the semester long class.
There are several points that each of these syllabi have in common, that are essential
aspects of building a class. Each class has clear expectations and understanding of what is
expected from students in terms of what will be graded. The types of assignments and how they
will be weighted throughout the class are clearly stated. The breakdown of what type of
assignment has what kind of weight varies greatly from class to class however. In the
Economics of Welfare and Equity evaluates students on two exams and that is all (Brown, July).
The State and Local Government class has a very wide break down of assignments, presentations
and participation upon which students will be evaluated (Steinbrickner, January). All classes
have systems of evaluation, but they vary greatly from class to class, instructor to instructor and
discipline to discipline.
Another similarity is that all of the syllabi mention attendance and participation in class
as being and invaluable a part of a students experience in the classroom. There is little doubt in
any of the instructors minds that a student can simply read the required readings, do the required
work for class, and learn the maximum amount the class has to offer without being present in
class to participate in activities or to hear the lecture of the day. More observations around this
point will be made in the next section, as it is not always clear from the class why attendance
might be absolutely necessary in class, if the goal of the class is simply to gain foundational
knowledge on a subject.
One major difference between some of the classes and others is that way in which some
classes are highly focused on an experiential aspect of the learning process and others lack this
component altogether. The art class offered by Brown University in Spain uses all aspects of a
study abroad experience to teach students to become better painters (Edwards, May). The State

and Local Government Class asks students to directly engage and experience local government
(Steinbrickner, January). However the other three discussed, from Queer Theory to
Anthropology and Human Rights do not seem to seek to engage students in an experiential
manner at all.
Studying a syllabus as an isolated document which represents what students will learn
from an in classroom experience is not a complete or perfect way to assess exactly how and what
students will learn in any given classroom, however it can be provide some good indicators for
what the focus of the classroom learning will be about. However, if each is to be evaluated based
on the twelve steps that L. Dee Fink lays out in his book to integrated course design (Fink, 2013,
pg. 75-76) then it is possible to see that perhaps some of these syllabi were constructed with only
steps nine through twelve in mind. Based on the five syllabi that were described here, and the
work of L. Dee Fink (2013), there are areas of concern that these syllabi exhibit.
Each syllabus would certainly benefit from using Finks Taxonomy for Significant
Learning (Fink, pg. 35) because two of the five classes seem to focus exclusively on
foundational knowledge being the end goal of the course, those being Anthropology and Human
Rights (Macdonald, January), and Welfare Economics and Equity (Brown, July). The other three
classes each include different elements that might encourage students to engage with Human
Dimension of the taxonomy as well as the Application of the learning that happens. However, it
appears that all five of the syllabi discussed above fall extremely short their course design when
they reach step five of Finks Steps in Integrated Course Design. This step says, Make sure the
primary components are integrated (pg. 75). To do a full analysis of each syllabus and where it
fall short is outside of the scope of this assignment. However, each of the syllabi seem to reach
this point with different levels of success, and the overall goal of the class seems to get lost in the
process of explaining assignments and grading rubrics. If the classes were truly integrative, there

would be evidence in every syllabus that the designer had included each piece intentionally.
However no class really includes all of the important pieces and two of them seem to only have
thought about the last four steps of the process without even considering the first eight other
steps. While it is clear in each syllabus what the professor intends to cover and how he or she
intends to grade assignments, this intentionality piece seems to be missing from all of the classes,
and it may leave each class falling short of creating true significant learning experiences for
Finally, there is also a large unknown factor in this conversation about whether or not
these classes produce significant learning experiences that Tony Wagner (2012), in his book,
Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, would not want
to be discounted. In each of the case studies mentioned about all kinds of young innovators in
the book, Wagner mentions example after example of people, teachers and professors who served
as meaningful mentors to undergraduate students. In the example that he gives about Laura
White, a student who felt that college was not all it could have been for her (Wagner, pg. 107)
one thing that stands out in her experience is the fact that she has a strong mentor who is
professor of hers named John Howard (Wagner, pg. 109). Her mentor did not necessarily teach
her in a revolutionary classroom setting, however he still believed in her and helped to make her
undergraduate institution of Tulane University a transformative place for Laura.
It is possible that each and every one of the authors of these syllabi is doing that for a
student at the institution where they teach. They may not have crafted the most innovative or
integrative syllabus, however that simply does not mean that their students are not having
meaningful classroom experiences which allow them to grow in new and exciting ways that an
analysis of an online syllabus simply cannon capture in this simple exploration.

Brown, D. (July, 2014). Syllabus for welfare economics and equity. Retrieved from S285E_1.pdf
Edwards, W. (May, 2014). Syllabus painting i and ii: color and pattern/ nature and culture in
Comillas, Spain. Retrieved from
Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to
developing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Macdonald, T. (January, 2014). Syllabus anthropology and human rights. Retrieved from
Salamon, G. (August, 2013). Syllabus: Queer theory. Retrieved from
Steinbrickner, B. (January, 2011). Course syllabus: state and local government. Retrieved from
Wagner, T., & Compton, R. A. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who
will change the world. New York: Scribner