While learner-centeredness is important to quantify, education researchers
disagree on how best to measure it. The overall aim of this research was to
measure the learner-centeredness of introductory biology classrooms with a
valid and reliable instrument that offers a different perspective than self-reported faculty surveys or expert observation protocols – Palmer et al.’s
(2014) syllabus scoring rubric. We investigated whether syllabus rubric scores
aligned with both faculty self-reports and expert observations of learner-centeredness from the same classrooms, and whether these other metrics
predict an instructor’s total syllabus score better than instructor gender or
years of teaching experience. Course syllabi from eight instructors who taught
the same nonmajors biology course were scored independently using this
syllabus scoring rubric. Our results suggest that syllabus learning objectives
link to learner-centeredness and, interestingly, that other external metrics of
learner-centeredness may predict syllabus rubric scores derived from Palmer
et al.’s instrument.
Key Words: Course syllabus; expert perceptions; faculty perceptions; learner-centeredness; postsecondary; syllabus rubric.
Learner-centered instruction has many known benefits, including
increased student performance (Hake, 1998; White & Frederiksen,
1998; Kahl & Venette, 2010), improved critical-thinking skills and
content knowledge (Bransford et al., 1999; Shepard, 2000; Crouch &
Mazur, 2001), and lower failure rates (Freeman et al., 2014). Given
these benefits, instructors and researchers have sought reliable measures of learner-centeredness for reflection and reform.
Numerous such tools are available, including faculty and student surveys as well as observation protocols for trained experts.
Some faculty surveys gauge the affective aspect of teaching (e.g.,
McCombs, 2003), while others focus on self-reported pedagogical
practices and classroom dynamics (e.g., Trigwell & Prosser, 2004).
Similarly, self-reported student surveys allow students to reflect
upon their learning experiences, study techniques, and the overall
classroom environment (e.g., Biggs et al., 2001; Entwistle et al.,
2002). Learner-centeredness can also be measured by external,
trained experts using observational protocols. Observational rubrics
can measure the quality of student contribution and instructor
involvement (Sawada et al., 2002), quantify time spent on student
and instructor tasks and interactions (Smith et al., 2013), or tally
learner-centered teaching practices as well as the progression of
these practices (Wieman & Gilbert, 2014).
A less common means of gauging learner-centeredness is the
course syllabus. The syllabus represents the first faculty–student interaction and outlines expectations for students for the entire course
(Slattery & Carlson, 2005; Nilson, 2016; Richmond et al., 2016).
A learner-centered syllabus structures the classroom around the
learner (Hirsch, 2010; e.g., focusing on student needs and expectations for a course rather than listing instructor-derived rules and
guidelines), provides a framework for students to develop methods
for their success (Richmond et al., 2016; e.g,, via scaffolding expectations for the semester), and weaves learner-centered behaviors and
values into all aspects of the course (e.g., suggesting many opportunities for student choice in the course and using inclusive language
throughout the syllabus). Learner-centered syllabi tend to foster stronger student–faculty relationships and shift the responsibility for learning onto the student (Johnson, 2006; Hirsch, 2010).
Syllabi were rarely used as a measure of learner-centeredness,
until Cullen and Harris (2009) and Palmer et al. (2014) published
separate rubrics for this purpose. Prior to and between the development of these rubrics, Johnson (2006) created a checklist for development and evaluation of syllabi, and Hirsch (2010) outlined a set of
recommendations and practices for syllabus design based on Bain’s
(2004) “Promising Syllabus.” Other studies have reported that tone
and language are important factors to consider when developing a
syllabus (Slattery & Carlson, 2005). Though the syllabus rubrics by
Cullen and Harris (2009) and Palmer et al. (2014) are both intended
to measure the learner-centeredness of a classroom, Palmer et al.’s
(2014) rubric provides more detailed examples, separates elements
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 81, No. 6, pp. 403–409, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2019 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.6.403.
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER THE FIRST LINE OF CONTACT
How Course Syllabi Can Be
L E A R N I N G The First Line of Contact:
Used to Gauge & Reform
Learner-Centeredness in a
• ASHLEY B. HEIM, EMILY R. ALDOR,
EMILY A. HOLT