What Does Your Syllabus Say About Learning?

November 16, 2015

You’ve likely heard some variation of the adage before. It goes something like this: “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong." While often used in athletic circles, the origin of the phrase (as best we can determine) is actually found in education in 1902.

George W. Loomis, a school superintendent whose talk was recorded in the Michigan School Moderator expounded on the ideal methods to teach students spelling and conveyed what may have been the first iteration of the modern saying. Here’s what he said: “Much of the time spent in hearing children recite - guess till they get it right - should be spent in a definite teaching process, until they can not get it wrong.”1 George may have been on to something…

There seem to be two options before us as teachers. Option 1: teach students in such a way that will enable them to get something right (a piece of content, the performance of a process, etc.). Option 2: teach students by creating conditions that encourage performance past getting it right, and forward into not being able to get it wrong. Each option dictates a certain perspective on learning, and what it means to have learned something. That perspective shines through in your syllabus, and if you desire to move from option 1 to option 2, start with a syllabus refresh. Here’s a few ways to do so:

  1. Consider ways to explicitly name the learning process in which you seek to engage students. How is the course described in the syllabus? How are the roles of students/learners outlined? What does “success” look like in the course? Whether in the course description, through the course goals, or any 

  2. other central statement on the syllabus about the course, the language used to describe the course, the journey through the course, and what the student role is in that process, all reveal your perspective on learning. The more explicit the syllabus is in this regard, the more aligned your expectations will be with your students’, and everyone will have a better learning experience as a result.

  3. Incorporate more opportunities for students to practice into your syllabus schedule and assignments. Research shows that multiple opportunities for practice, and practice testing, in a low or no-stakes environment dramatically improve memory retrieval and long-term retention of information. If it’s not enough to get it right once, build in opportunities for students to have to get it right over and over again - or at least keep practicing until they do so.

  4. Don’t just evaluate students in one way, let alone one time - make this clear in the assignments section of the syllabus. If you want to emphasize not being able to get it wrong, it’s imperative to provide a greater number of assessments than a mid-term and final exam, and to vary those assessment strategies. Not being able to get it wrong should go beyond a single method of retrieval and application. A student may be able to get it right in a true/false, mul

  5. tiple choice exam format, but can they also get it right when they have to write about it, speak about it, apply it in some way to a problem, or use it to generate a novel idea? Make sure the syllabus outlines the different kinds of assessments used in the course and the rationale behind them. This is especially important to make clear to students via the syllabus, given the cumulative nature of the approach.

  6. The opportunity for practice via a definite process that leads to not being able to get it wrong means that assessments serve both a summative and formative function - make this clear in the points allotted for assignments, and/or how points can be earned. While many assessments traditionally served as the means through which we evaluate student learning in order to assign a grade, they can also serve as a tool to aid the learning process. Drawing on the principle of practice from #2 above, when we add multiple low-stakes assessments (or split up a high-stakes assessment into several smaller parts - e.g., think midterm exam broken into several short quizzes of a cumulative nature) it changes the way students engage with them. The fear and stress over getting it wrong subside significantly, and the assessments (while still serving the evaluative purpose) become another feedback mechanism to inform learning and learner improvement - particularly when students know they’re going to have another chance at this in the course. It may be through a future low-stakes assessment, or the ability to revise and resubmit for a grade. Either way, the focus shifts from getting it right once on that high-stakes assessment towards learning how to not get it wrong, because it’s going to be asked in some way or another over and over again throughout the course.

There’s a final, meta-level lesson hidden here in plain sight. If we take this kind of approach to engaging students in our course and reflect it in our syllabus, what does it mean for the process of constructing and reconstructing our syllabi, and our courses more generally? What happens if we own up to the core message of the saying: “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.” Perhaps it’s not enough to get the syllabus “right” in that semester, for that class. Perhaps the embodiment of the saying for us as teachers is to bring the same approach to how we design our courses - a constant and ongoing process of tinkering, testing, probing, and tweaking until we can adjust and adapt our courses to meet the needs of the curriculum, our students, and ourselves each and every time. Don’t design courses and compose syllabi until you get one right. Re/Design courses and compose syllabi until you can’t get them wrong.

Loomis, G.W., (1902, March 20). A talk to the critic teachers of the Central State Normal Training School. Michigan School Moderator (The Moderator) in Lansing, MI. ed. Henry R. Pattengill, Volume 22, p. 432.