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Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education
ISSN: 0260-2938 (Print) 1469-297X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/caeh20
Assessing learner‐centredness through course
Roxanne Cullen & Michael Harris
To cite this article: Roxanne Cullen & Michael Harris (2009) Assessing learner‐centredness
through course syllabi, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34:1, 115-125, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02602930801956018
Published online: 25 Feb 2009.
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ISSN 0260-2938 print/ISSN 1469-297X online
© 2009 Taylor & Francis
Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education
Vol. 34, No. 1, February 2009, 115–125
Assessing learner-centredness through course syllabi
Roxanne Cullen* and Michael Harris
Ferris State University, Big Rapids, USA
Taylor and Francis LtdCAEH_A_295767.sgm
(Received 1 August 2007; final version received 5 January 2008)
10.1080/02602930801956018Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education0260-2938 (print)/1469-297X (online)Original Article2008Taylor & Francis000000002008Dr. RoxanneCullencullenr@ferris.edu
One attempt to revitalise undergraduate education has been by shifting the dominant
pedagogy to a learner-centred focus and supporting an emphasis on the scholarship of
teaching and learning. The discussion regarding efforts to refocus undergraduate
education to be more intentional by moving towards a learner-centred paradigm is
encouraging, yet it is crucial to acknowledge that most of the effort and literature on
the learner-centred paradigm and the scholarship of teaching and learning have
necessarily focused on strategies for the classroom. It is equally important for
administrators to consider the impact of the paradigm shift on their roles. Assessment
and evaluation are the very core of the learner-centred paradigm. Assessment is both
the single-most important gage of learning that drives the educational process and the
most effective means of implementing institutional change. In this article, the authors
offer a means of assessing the degree of learner-centredness in current teaching
practices through a systematic review of course syllabi. Using a rubric developed for
this purpose the authors have reviewed course syllabi in order to develop a benchmark
for the degree of learner-centredness present in current teaching practices and
employed the results as a vehicle for planning professional development.
Keywords: assessment; syllabi; rubic; learner-centred
Colleges and universities in the USA are struggling with the issue of accountability, espe-
cially in regard to student learning. One attempt to revitalise undergraduate education and
to respond to the calls for change has been by shifting the dominant pedagogy to a learner-
centred focus and supporting an emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning. In
this article, we will present a means of assessing the degree of learner-centredness in
current teaching practices through a systematic review of course syllabi. Using a rubric we
developed for this purpose, a review of course syllabi from two separate academic disci-
plines is offered as an illustration of how this assessment practice can be used by academic
administrators to develop a benchmark for the degree of learner-centredness present in
current teaching practices and employ the results as a vehicle for planning professional
The goal of achieving greater learner-centredness is based upon new understanding of
long-standing good practice. Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) description of the seven
principles of good practice provided guides for enhanced undergraduate teaching based
upon years of research on teaching practices as well as what simply seemed to be common
sense, such as increasing the contact between teacher and student, developing cooperation
*Corresponding author. Email: email@example.com
116 R. Cullen and M. Harris
among students, employing active learning strategies and providing prompt feedback.
More recently, research in brain functioning has provided additional support to these prac-
tices. Work by Sylwester (1995), Marton and Booth (1997), Leamnson (1999) and Zull
(2002) has aided in defining what learning is from a biological standpoint. Distinctions
between memory and knowledge, depth of knowing and concepts of teaching and learning
have been characterised by such researchers as Biggs (1999), Entwistle and Entwistle
(1991), Ramsden (1992), Langer (1997) and Bowden and Marton (1998), and psycholo-
gists (Gardner 1983; Csikszentmihalyi 1990; Covington 1992; Conway et al. 1997; Dweck
2006) have contributed greatly to our understanding of the role of memory and motivation
in regard to learning. In sum, what seemed to be good common sense and effective practice
has been further validated by research from multiple disciplines and perspectives allowing
us to say with even greater confidence that we know how people learn, what inhibits
learning and different kinds of learning.
Our experience both as research and teaching faculty and academic administrators at a
variety of administrative levels has informed our understanding of bringing about institu-
tional change, leading us to believe that comprehensive change must be grounded in
research and driven by assessment. Assessment and evaluation are the very core of the
learner-centred paradigm. Likewise, it will be through assessment, grounded in research
on learning, that the change from the instructional paradigm to a learner-centred one will
be achieved. Assessment is both the single-most important gage of learning that drives the
educational process and the most effective means of implementing institutional change. It
provides data, something to measure, and as Kouzes and Posner (2002) point out about
successful leadership, what gets measured, gets done. In their words, ‘Leaders can influ-
ence outcomes by providing tools for measuring progress’ (82).
Academic leaders need mechanisms to assess the current academic environment in order
to have a clear understanding of where they are and the steps that will be involved in making
progress towards the learner-centred goal. Great strides have already been made in assessing
individual features of learner-centredness, like student engagement. The National Survey
of Student Engagement ([NSSE], Indiana University Bloomington 2007b) is now used by
610 campuses in the USA to help them assess good practices in undergraduate education,
particularly in regard to active and experiential learning. While not tied to a specific course
or curricula, NSSE focuses on perceptions of engagement related to classroom and co-
curricular activities and learning, as well as the institutional environment for learning. This
is in contrast to the Course Experience Questionnaire (Ramsden 1991), an instrument
widely used in the UK to assess student satisfaction and learning experiences across an
entire program of study (Kuh 2001).
Other features of the learner-centred paradigm do not have large-scale assessment
mechanisms readily available but can be ferreted out individually using any number of
quality assessment instruments, such as the suite of instruments provided by Educational
Testing Services (ETS 2007) which includes such instruments as the Program Self Assess-
ment Survey, The Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress, and the Student
Instructional Report. However, we are still in need of five individual efforts at developing
assessment of learner-centredness.
The assessment instrument that we have developed focuses specifically on the profes-
sor’s intent to create a learner-centred environment in the classroom, not necessarily the
outcome of those intentions. The results of the assessment are intended to provide the
academic administrator with an indication of a direction for faculty development and a
means for determining support needed to impact instructional effectiveness in regard to
Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 117
The syllabus as indicator of learner-centredness
We have begun assessing the degree of learner-centredness by a systematic review of course
syllabi. Syllabi can be a surprisingly rich source of data. A syllabus is more than an outline
of a course. It represents the mindset, that is the professor’s philosophy of teaching and
learning as well as his or her attitude towards students, and conceptualisation of the course.
Weimer (2002) discusses the syllabus in regard to the balance of power in learner-centred
teaching. She illustrates how the syllabus establishes, who is in control of everything, from
which and when materials will be mastered to policies for student behaviours and every
logistical parameter of assignment submission. We have found that a thoughtful review of
course syllabi can reveal much about the degree to which professors are trying to implement
learner-centred practices within a unit or department and subsequently provide the academic
administrator with insight for setting professional development goals.
How does the learner-centred syllabus differ from a conventional syllabus and thus
serve as an index of degree of learner-centredness? Numerous resources are available
regarding the creation of a learner-centred syllabus. Beaudry and Schaub (1998) developed
guidelines for developing a learner-centred syllabus suggesting such basics as the inclu-
sion of instructional goals and performance objectives, organising the content of the course
or as they say ‘chunking’ content so that students can see the relationship of the parts and
see the overall framework and rationale. Along with this they suggest delineating effective
activities which facilitate learning of content and make clear at the outset that considerable
learning will take place outside the classroom.
Grunert (1997) provides conceptual as well as practical advice on the creation of a
learner-centred syllabus including guidelines for developing a rationale for a course, defin-
ing learning outcomes, determining student involvement and developing outside resources.
The general organising principle is for the teacher to consider in what way the syllabus can
be useful to the student, as both a reference and a tool for learning. Diamond (1997) clarifies
this principle, ‘A learner-centred syllabus requires that you shift from what you, the instruc-
tor, are going to cover in your course to a concern for what information and tools you can
provide for your students to promote learning and intellectual development’ (Grunert xi).
The purpose for a review of course syllabi is to gage the degree to which a professor
is trying to develop a learner-centred environment. The key feature of learner-centred
pedagogy is the shift from teaching to learning, with an emphasis on student learning as
opposed to delivery of content. It follows, then, that the syllabus should reflect those inten-
tions, for the syllabus is the introduction to the course, serving as an overview for how the
course will unfold. Therefore, a syllabus for a course that is striving to be learner-centred
should include some of the key elements that define the learner-centred approach, namely
an attempt to create community, a sharing of power and control over what is learned and
how it is learned as well as a focus on assessment and evaluation tied directly to learning
outcomes. The clear articulation of learning outcomes and clear methods of assessing
those outcomes is a fundamental requirement of learner-centred pedagogy. We recognise
that the presence of learning outcomes on a syllabus is not proved by any measure that the
course has a learner-centred pedagogy, but certainly the absence of learning outcomes is
an indication of a lack of intention and/or understanding on the part of the professor to
address a key feature of a learner-centred environment.
Rubric for assessment of syllabi
We have developed a usable framework in the form of a rubric for assessing learner-
centred qualities in course syllabi (see Appendix 1). The aim was to develop a mechanism
118 R. Cullen and M. Harris
that could capture on a course-level some of the features that characterise best practices in
learner-centred teaching, as articulated by Chickering and Gamson and further validated
through brain function research. The features identified by this research can be broadly
organised into three areas which we have used to establish the criteria for our review. The
rubric we designed is divided into three categories: (1) community, (2) power and control,
and (3) evaluation/assessment.
Category one examines community. Creating a sense of community is a key feature of
the learner-centred class. Fostering community through group work and team projects as
well as other opportunities to learn from one another, as opposed to viewing the professor
as the single source of knowledge, has long been acknowledged as a productive pedagog-
ical strategy. Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of social development put forth the framework for
the value of collaborative learning, indicating that individuals could learn more through
collaboration than independent problem-solving. Social constructivists (Bruner 1960,
1966; Brown 1994; Prawat and Floden 1994; Cobb and Yackel 1996; Duffy and Cunning-
ham 1996; Gredler 1997) furthered that concept by stressing that collaboration among
learners is more productive than independent learning, in part, because of the opportunity
for learners to share different backgrounds and skills.
Another facet of community involves relevance. In other words, does the professor
attempt to create a sense of relevance to the learning environment by providing rationale
for learning and learning activities in order to establish a sense of purpose, trust and subse-
quently, community. The accessibility of the professor is another indication of community
in the sense that accessibility represents investment. The professor who is willing to invest
energy and time with students shows a commitment to student learning which in turn
fosters a sense of commitment to learning on the part of the students.
The second rubric category examines power and control. Perry (1997) notes that
students’ perceived loss of control adversely affects their academic performance. A sense
of control is tied to motivation. Zull (2002) examined control in relation to brain function
and noted that extrinsic motivation is akin to loss of control. Intrinsic motivation for learn-
ing creates a sense of control over one’s learning. Ascertaining students’ sense of intrinsic
motivation cannot be easily determined by a review of syllabi; however, a syllabus can
reveal attempts by the professor to create an environment where control is shared. The
manner in which policies and procedures are presented is one indicator. The amount of
choice provided to students is another indicator of shared control as are the responsibilities
expected of the student, that is, the extent that the student is seen as a partner in the learn-
ing experience as opposed to a recipient.
The third rubric category examines evaluation and assessment. We have made a
distinction between evaluation and assessment for both are key to a learner-centred
approach. We use assessment as ongoing, formative feedback, feedback from professor to
student to let the student gage progress as well as feedback from student to professor in
order for the professor to determine if learning is taking place. We use evaluation to mean
summative determination regarding learning outcomes and if specific learning outcomes
have been met. The more the mechanisms for feedback, both in terms of assessment and
evaluation, the better.
Using this rubric, we have reviewed course syllabi in order to develop a benchmark for the
degree of learner-centredness present in current teaching practices and employed those
results as a vehicle for planning professional development. We offer a sample review of
Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 119
syllabi from two different academic units to illustrate the use of this instrument. The
academic units are from the same public comprehensive university of approximately
11,000 students, both serving an undergraduate population. From two different colleges,
the units were of similar size, unit A comprised 15 faculty and unit B comprised 10 faculty.
All participants were tenure-track faculty with more than three years of teaching experi-
ence within their respective units. The units were chosen because of their interest in adopt-
ing learner-centred pedagogy as determined by individual professor’s ongoing work with
the university’s Faculty Centre for Teaching and Learning. Faculty consent to participate
in the review of course syllabi was obtained by the department head, with an agreement to
take part in a discussion of the results with the intent of determining follow-up professional
development programming. The review of syllabi was conducted during the summer
semester, thus allowing us to schedule the discussion with the units during the week of
professional development activities that takes place each year prior to the beginning of fall
semester classes and to coordinate with the annual planning cycle for faculty development
The syllabi from academic unit A revealed a consistency of approach among the unit
with the area of greatest degree of learner-centredness being related to the community
criterion (accessibility of teacher). This suggested that they were interested in interact-
ing with their students. However, it is clear from the ratings related to learning rationale
and all of the evaluation and assessment criteria that, in most cases, there was no tie
between learning outcomes and learning rationale, evaluation, etc. We anticipated that
once the concept of learning outcomes was clearly understood in relation to student
learning, that the professors who were already providing explanation of assignments
and activities (community criterion 2: Learning Rationale) would consider tying those
explanations to learning outcomes. Also, nearly all of the unit A syllabi received low
ratings (1 or 2) regarding the extent that power and control was shared with students.
Therefore, learning outcomes and their relationship to building community and to
developing approaches to evaluation and assessment appeared to us to be a good start-
ing point for discussion with the unit regarding professional development opportunities
Based upon our review of syllabi for unit B we determined that the approach to the
discussion of professional development might have a different emphasis (Table 2). In
academic unit B, the presence of learning outcomes in category three, evaluation/assess-
ment, was high which suggested that they understood the articulation of learning
outcomes and employed them in assessment and evaluation. However, the relationship of
learning outcomes to the learning rationale was low (all syllabi were rated at 2). These
syllabi were also heavily focused on rules and procedures in category two, power and
control, which was understandable considering the academic unit prepares healthcare
professionals and many procedures are dictated by State health codes. We determined that
a starting place for loosening up some of the rigidity present in the presentation of the
rules and procedures would be a discussion of how the rules play a role in learning. By
tying the necessity of the rules to workplace habits and employer expectations, they could
develop a rationale tied to lifelong learning that would subsequently reduce the sense of
arbitrary or authoritarian control on the part of the professor. We decided to focus the
discussion of professional development around the importance and function of rationale
120 R. Cullen and M. Harris
We enjoyed rewarding and productive discussion based upon the results of this review. Our
review of course syllabi for degree of learner-centredness was conducted as a means of
formative assessment. We believe that an examination of syllabi using these criteria can
serve as a guide for future faculty development initiatives as well as a catalyst for ongoing
discussion of teaching and learning. Such a review should be done openly and results should
be used as a mechanism for discussion of curricular goals, for identifying incremental steps
towards the larger goal of curriculum reform. To quote Kouzes and Posner (2002), ‘Progress
today is more likely to be the result of a focus on incremental improvements in tools and
Table 2. Sample assessment of unit B.
12 3 4
Accessibility of teacher 0% 40% 60% 0%
Learning rationale 0% 100% 0% 0%
Collaboration 0% 0% 50% 50%
Power and control
Teacher’s role 50% 50% 0% 0%
Student’s role 0% 90% 10% 0%
Outside resources 0% 90% 10% 0%
Syllabus focus 0% 100% 0% 0%
Grades 0% 0% 100% 0%
Feedback mechanisms 0% 0% 10% 90%
Evaluation 0% 10% 10% 80%
Learning outcomes 0% 0% 10% 90%
Revision/redoing 0% 20% 80% 0%
Table 1. Sample assessment of academic unit A.
Accessibility of teacher 7% 40% 53% 0%
Learning rationale 7% 67% 26% 0%
Collaboration 7% 53% 33% 7%
Power and control
Teacher’s role 33% 60% 7% 0%
Student’s role 33% 60% 7% 0%
Outside resources 33% 60% 7% 0%
Syllabus focus 33% 53% 14% 0%
Grades 26% 67% 7% 0%
Feedback mechanisms 0% 93% 7% 0%
Evaluation 0% 67% 33% 0%
Learning outcomes 26% 67% 7% 0%
Revision/redoing 7% 67% 26% 0%
Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 121
processes than of tectonic shifts of minds’, and as they ironically warn, ‘If you await a
paradigm shift, you could be waiting decades’ (209). We need to keep the scope of the long-
range goal realistically in mind as we assess our current state and plan for the future.
Assessment should be used to foster a climate of learning. Kouzes and Posner (2002)
provide clear guidelines for leaders to create a learning climate. First they say, ‘educate,
educate, educate’ (307). Furthermore, they caution that strengthening others requires a
climate conducive to learning, a further reminder that as academic administrators we must
apply the principles of the learner-centred paradigm to all facets of our work. A prime
requirement for people to be capable of learning – changing and developing new skills –
is that they feel safe; they must feel able to trust the system and the people involved. With-
out that level of comfort (safety) people are generally unwilling to be vulnerable, to take
in information that might seem threatening or to develop new skills. The typical reaction
is defensiveness, screening out criticism and putting the blame on anyone and everyone
It is essential to keep in mind that the shift to a learner-centred academic environment
will necessitate change and change can be uncomfortable. However, if those in leadership
are willing to commit necessary resources to ‘educate, educate, educate’ all parties
involved, administration, faculty and students, then the process can become one with a
shared goal, a shared vision and subsequently a greater sense of ownership for all involved
and a greater chance of success. People support what they help to build.
Notes on contributors
Michael Harris serves as the Provost and vice president for academic affairs at Kettering University
and a professor of public policy. He received his PhD in public policy from Indiana University, his
master’s degree from Tel-Aviv University, and his undergraduate degree in economics and business
administration from Bar-Ilan University. He is a graduate of two of the Harvard Graduate School of
Education’s programs (IEM and MDP). He has published three books and in a variety of journals.
A fourth book Leading the Learner-Centered Campus is forthcoming by Josey Bass. Dr. Harris has
been recognized for his teaching and serves as a political commentator to a variety of broadcast and
Roxanne Cullen is a professor of English at Ferris State University where she has also served as
Writing Center director, administrative head of the Department of Languages and Literature, interim
associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and assistant and associate vice president for
academic affairs. She received her PhD in English from Bowling Green State University and a BA
in English from SUNY Geneseo. She is co-author of the forthcoming publication with Dr. Harris,
Leading the Learner-Centered Campus.
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Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 123
12 3 4
number of office
except in class
number of office
phone and email
Available for more
number of office
phone, email, fax,
means of access
fax; holds open
than office (e.g.
activities but not
tied directly to
and activities; tied
of groups for work
required; use of
groups for class
students to learn
from one another
No shared power.
rules are written
No shared power;
while teacher is
may be offered
some choice in
class as well as
input on trading,
due dates and
Student is told
what he or she is
Student is told what
he o she is
encouraged to go
minimum to gain
Student is given
material to class.
Some projects rely
class via class
Appendix 1. Rubric for determining degree of learning-centredness in course syllabi
124 R. Cullen and M. Harris
Reference to outside
provided but not
outside of the
learning outside of
the classroom and
to provide outside
information for class
Focus is on
some reference to
and focus on
and means of
are minimal or left to
Grades Focus is on
Grades are tied
Grades are tied to
option for achieving
points; not all work
see or to
Mid-term and final
test grades with
Students may see
but not retain
copies of tests
Grades and other
the form of
employed for the
papers, SGID or
other feedback on
Evaluation Tests (not
Tests, quizzes and
and peer evaluation
Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 125
Goals for course
stated but not in
the form or
stated and are tied to
No rewriting or
Some rewriting or
Rewriting and redoing