3 ways university classrooms can be more open

An open university class would treat a syllabus like a community document, incorporate student feedback regularly, and take a new approach to failure.
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Institutions of higher education stress the importance of student autonomy in academic exploration—yet the typical configuration of university courses does not take full advantage of students' potential to become actors in their education, rather than just receivers of it. To realize this potential and make university learning more inclusive of—and meaningful for—students, professors could learn a lesson from open organizations.

In this article, I'll highlight how the vision of an open organization could translate into concrete classroom change. I identify three problems that are part of status quo course structures and professor-student relationships, and propose potential solutions grounded in the principles of open organizations.

Problem 1: Assuming that professors always know best

College students generally consider syllabus week as the easiest week of the year. For one week, they can sit in their classes and think about which friend to catch up with over dinner as their professors deliver monologues about expectations and projects for the semester; students need only stay awake and offer the occasional nod. Needless to say, the existing design of syllabus week does not set the tone for a semester of academic immersion.

To academically engage students from the first day of class, instructors could make students collaborators in sculpting course expectations. Rather than asserting their expectations as law, professors could initially present them as suggestions and act transparently by providing reasoning for those proposed expectations. Before finalizing expectations for the semester, professors could host a student commenting period, so as to be more inclusive of students' concerns and ideas, and potentially better accommodate students' learning styles.

Professor Mary-Ellen Kelm of Simon Fraser University is one professor who embraces the collaborative syllabus model; while she acknowledges the risk and uncertainty of co-created course guidelines, Dr. Kelm has found the resulting manifestation of student engagement and understanding unparalleled.

In The Open Organization, Jim Whitehurst writes that, in an open organization, "a leader's effectiveness is no longer measured by his or her ability to simply issue orders." Similarly, in an open classroom, the thoughtfulness of a professor's planning would no longer be measured by his or her ability to issue expectations and announce grading schemes.

Problem 2: Fixed class structure

Periodic, student-accessible evaluations would help create an academic environment that students feel safe and supported learning in.

Though some colleges require end-of-course surveys from all students, periodic evaluations are rare. Even when profesors do implement periodic evaluations, they offer no guarantee that they'llreview them (or adjust the structure of their classes based on them). This is an issue because, as any student can attest, classes have their ups and downs. A professor's flipped classroom approach may be perfect for the beginning of the semester but become overly stressful as concepts become more advanced. Unmoderated class discussions may go smoothly for a few weeks but begin to exclude some voices as the semester progresses.

Periodic, student-accessible evaluations would help create an academic environment that students feel safe and supported learning in. Professors could request anonymous student feedback through online surveys every two to four weeks to accommodate for evolving student concerns throughout the semester. Professors could make this student feedback, as well as their direct and actionable responses to common concerns, viewable for all students. This transparency measure would demonstrate to students that their input is valued, and hold professors accountable to evolving student needs, thus increasing student engagement and support.

Problem 3: Professors as authoritarians, and grades as retribution

Miss a class? Lose points—end of story. Miss a homework problem? Lose points—end of story. In classrooms operating according to the status quo, grading schemes tend to penalize student mistakes, rather than reward learning. And professors are the strict penalty-enforcers.

To move toward a growth- and learning-oriented classroom, professors should prioritize the value of adaptability over a reputation for tough grading. One way of achieving this would be to allow students to re-do assignments or exams for an improved grade. Such a policy would encourage students to view projects and exams as the means to a greater end (a deeper understanding of the material) rather than ends in and of themselves.

Let me illustrate one possible implementation: My high school Calculus teacher allowed her students to re-attempt incorrect exam answers with step-by-step justification to earn back half of their missed points. The half-credit provision ensured that the test correction policy would not detract from students' incentive to prepare for assessments, yet the policy still served as a source of relief, an opportunity for reflection, and an encouraging reminder that my instructor's priority was to teach, rather than to assign grades. Implemented at a university level, a re-do policy could similarly help in connecting students to both the course material and to their professors.

Professors could prioritize establishing trust over establishing authority.

To further the positive redefinition of the instructor role, professors could prioritize establishing trust over establishing authority. One way this could manifest is through a more understanding approach to student absences. Rather than immediately penalize absences, professors could allow students to provide thoughtful verbal or written reasoning for missing class. This reasoning would not be considered an excuse, but rather an explanation intended to build a more transparent relationship between professor and student. A reasonable explanation could be, "I have an interview for my dream job that conflicts with class time and that I cannot reschedule," or "I feel so mentally exhausted that I do not foresee myself being a productive member of discussion today. I will work on my time management, and arrive next class ready to fully immerse myself."

In the spirit of organizational openness, this policy would imbue greater trust and transparency in professor-student interactions, and facilitate the proactive diagnosis of student problems with course structure and material.

By integrating a few measures to respond to student input and allow room for students' trial-and-error, universities can innovate in a faster and more informed way, and in doing so, foster greater student engagement. All that's needed to start? A few insights from open organizations, a desire to connect with students, and a little creativity.

Susie is an undergraduate student studying computer science at Duke University. She is interested in the implications of technological innovation and open source principles for issues relating to education and socioeconomic inequality. 


Here's a vision: How about making a syllabus so good that it eliminates the need to officially take the course? Out in the real world, you get away from the chess game of schedules and credits, and sometimes you just want to learn something. Even when you're still playing that game, you only have so much time on your schedule, so many classes you can take, some period of time you will devote to your "official" schooling. Many of us in reality want and need life-long schooling.

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