Reflections on authenticity in teaching and learning

An Exploration of a Negotiated Syllabus

Reflections on another attempt at a more authentic learning experience…

I used to teach an Advanced Writing module for CEFR C1 level Erasmus/Study Abroad students.  When I stepped into the module leader shoes in 2012 I decided to trial a semi-negotiated syllabus.  This post will detail the steps and decisions I took when doing so and feedback and reflections on its outcomes.

One definition of a syllabus is a ‘plan of what is to be achieved through teaching and learning‘ and should include aims, content, methodology and evaluation (Breen 1998, in Carter and Nunan, 2001, p.151).  The syllabus as it was was pretty clear in following all of these principles.  The aim was to introduce students to fundamental principles for academic study and expression, and to associated academic language.  The content included how to approach academic writing, academic conventions and style, essay organisation, referencing and ways of avoiding plagiarism. Topics were of general academic interest.  In terms of methodology, nothing in terms of pedagogical approach had not been formalised in writing at that point.  Students were expected to work on writing tasks in class, on which they could receive feedback. Homework assignment tasks had a formative as well as summative purpose. Students had the opportunity to benefit from a one-to-one tutorial.   The assessment comprised six writing assignments, including four essays of 500-600 words, two of which were written in class under exam conditions (Tests 1 & 2).  With regard to evaluation, students completed end of course standard Erasmus module evaluation forms.  The responses were incorporated into the Module Leader’s end-of-course Module Report, along with comments and reflections on results and content of the course.

So okay then, the course seemed to tick these four syllabus content boxes.  But there were a few things that I felt could be changed, supported by comments from students. Just before I detail those changes, let me point out Breen’s six recommendations for ideal syllabus design (p.151):

  1. a clear framework of knowledge and capabilities selected to be appropriate to overall aims;
  2. continuity and a sense of direction in classroom work for teacher and students;
  3. a record for other teachers of what has been covered in the course;
  4. a basis for evaluating students’ progress;
  5. a basis for evaluating the appropriateness of the course in relation to overall aims and student needs identified both before and during the course;
  6. content appropriate to the broader language curriculum, the particular class of learners, and the educational situation and wide society in which the course is located.

My principal concerns for this course were connected to the fifth and sixth recommendations.  I felt that the students needs were predicted and did not always correspond their actual needs, both in terms of language and writing skills. Öztürk’s discussion of negotiated syllabuses in Turkish HE English Preparatory courses also notes that time limitations and heavy staff workloads make it almost impossible to perform needs analysis at the start of a course (Öztürk, 2013, p. 37). I also felt that there could be an opportunity for students to practise their evaluative skills and demonstrate their autonomy (so prized at HE level study) by being involved in decision-making regarding syllabus structure and content, and assessment topics.  This is when I revisited the notion of the negotiated syllabus, an approach which I had read about during my DELTA studies years before but had not had a chance to try out.

So what is a negotiated syllabus?  In 1989, Clarke described the negotiated syllabus as a ‘radical syllabus type’ (Clarke, 1989, p.1).  He further stated that,

the negotiated model is totally different from other syllabuses in that it allows full learner participation in selection of content, mode of working, route of working, assessment, and so on. It should by this means embody the central principle that the learner’s needs are of paramount importance.’

I feel strongly about the principle of authentic learner involvement as I have seen that when students are given the opportunity to make genuine, personal decisions related to their learning not only does their motivation to engage increase, but their language usage becomes the vehicle for communication rather than a destination on a lesson plan.

I decided to start, logically, at the beginning of the next course and the first session was mostly given over to discussion with the new cohort of students about the course itself.   There were a few constraints; there were 3 groups of students and the content and assessments had to be the same for both groups in order to ensure parity and equality of opportunity across the module as a whole. Students discussed the following questions in groups and made notes and I then collected and collated these and presented them back to the group the following session for reflection.

Start-of-course discussion questions included:

  • What would you like to do on this course?*
  • What do you think is important for you to practise? Be specific! (please don’t write ‘essays’ but tell me what it is about essays that might be difficult for you or you’d like more practice in).
  • Do you want homework after every class? (If yes, how much?)
  • What kinds of writing would you like to do? Keep in mind this is an academic writing module so we can’t do stories!
  • Would you like to choose your own topics or let the teacher decide one for you? What topics would you like to write about?
  • How long (word count) do you think assignments 1 and 3 should be?
  • Do you think assignments should be uploaded (after marking but without marks) so everyone in the class can read them?
  • How do you feel about using wikis to promote discussion and share ideas and materials between the groups?

*(For those that had no idea (which is common when expecting the teacher to make these decisions) a list of existing sessions was provided for inspiration, although this had its own drawbacks in that some Ss just deferred straight to these T-provided items)

The results of the discussion are displayed below:

pollapollbpollc   polld

Observations and decisions:

Students seemed to find it easier to rank sessions in order of preference rather than make their own suggestions. When I asked Ss on a later course who did the same, they said this was because they’d never been asked before so had never really thought about it and others said it was because they expected the teacher to make these decisions and they didn’t feel they had the knowledge to know what they needed.  Öztürk (2013, p.38) mentions teachers traditionally being perceived as the ‘source of knowledge’ and both of these challenges suggest the introduction of a negotiated syllabus requires a scaffolded approach.  So the ranking of existing sessions with a couple of S-generated suggestions seemed a happy, middle road approach.  This tallies with Bowen’s comments that ‘many learners have no experience whatsoever in having a say in the content of their course. Their educational background has simply not provided for such an eventuality’ and that a negotiated syllabus is one that it is carried out ‘…in conjunction with the expertise, judgment and advice of the teacher.‘ This also promotes our ‘increasingly facilitative, rather than denotative, roles as educators‘ (Fornaciari and Lund Dean, 2014, p. 702).

Academic vocabulary was clearly a priority for them and this was also borne out by my experience of teaching the course; student work was commonly too informal in word choice and students’ academic lexicon was often inadequate for HE level writing. There was another ‘vocabulary’ module option but once Ss make suggestions, I don’t feel they can be ignored as the exercise becomes futile so we agreed to include more vocabulary building and use the AWL.

Session suggestions were UK essay organisation, doing research for essays, (peer/auto) editing work and analysing sample essays.  These were all subsequently incorporating into the syllabus.

Homework would be 1 optional homework task a week . This way, they got as much out of the course as they put in.  The homework modes were varied: writing, exercises, reading/research, web searches and watching Youtube clips.

Every session had optional extension activities for those who wanted further practice.  I also encouraged Ss to correct and resubmit work post-feedback as many times as they wished.

For the topic choice, it was decided that a list of topics would be provided by the teacher based on Ss’ interests.  Ss would then choose a topic from the list.  Again this halfway house seems appropriate for those who had not done this before.

At the end of the course the module evaluation went out as usual but I added the following question at the end : How did you feel about discussing the module content with your tutor and group at the beginning of the course? The student feedback responses were:

  • ‘it was a good idea as it helped focus the contents.’
  • ‘the tutor was really involved in our learning’.
  • ‘excellent, we can choose what we need.’
  • ‘it’s a very good idea because students’ interests are taking [sic] into account.’

There was no negative feedback.

The assessment results and attendance rates of this course revealed no dramatic improvements compared to previous cohorts but any quantitative improvement could be explained away anyway by the many variables (changes in student groups, teachers, etc) and it would be difficult to prove the semi-negotiated syllabus had had any effect on stats.  The key for me is the qualitative side, the feeling from students that they have enjoyed, found benefit in and/or been motivated by being involved in the learning process.    As Nation and Macalister (2010, p.166) argue, ‘involving the learners in shaping the syllabus has a strong effect on motivation, satisfaction, and commitment to the course. It changes from being the teacher’s course to the learners’ course.‘ The latter point strikes a particular chord with me and seems borne out by the students’ feedback.  Pre-determining courses/content/methodology without discussion is, I feel, missing a valuable humanistic and co-learning experience.   Any approach that can foster an environment of respect, ownership, cooperation, criticality and a group identity seems a no-brainer to me.   This seems particularly germane to the higher education context with its purpose of producing graduates ‘who are able to critically reflect on their learning and personal development‘ (Nesi and Gardner, 2012, p.35). As Fornaciari and Lund Dean (2014, p.703) highlight, andragogic rather than pedagogic approaches transfer ‘power, responsibility and motivation to the learner, away from the instructor’ and should therefore empower the adult learner and make them more independent.

The incentives for trialling this semi-negotiated syllabus were related to learners’ needs and their HE context.  But so much more came out of it for me as an educator and in a much wider sense than anticipated.  I see the (semi-)negotiated syllabus as an antidote to the more traditional ‘dictatorial and monological learning experience‘ Weimer mentions (Weimar, 2002, cited in Fornaciari and Lund Dean, 2014, p. 707).  I see it as a welcome and refreshing opportunity for education to champion creativity over compliance, collaboration over control.


T. Bowen, (n.d.) ‘Teaching approaches: the negotiated syllabus’ Onestopenglish. – accessed 01/05/2015.

M. P. Breen (2001) ‘Syllabus Design’ in R. Carter and D. Nunan eds. (2001) Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: CUP

D. C. Clarke (1991) ‘The Negotiated Syllabus: What is it and How is it Likely to Work?’ in Applied Linguistics 12 (1), pp. 13-28.

C.J. Fornaciari and K. Lund Dean, The 21st-Century Syllabus: from Pedagogy to Andragogy in Journal of Management Education 38(5), pp.701-723.

I. S. P. Nation  and J. Macalister, (2010) Language Curriculum Design. New York: Routledge.

G. Öztürk (2013) ‘A negotiated syllabus: potential advantages and drawbacks in English preparatory programs at universities’ in International Journal on New Trends in Education and Their Implications 4(2), pp. 35-9.

H. Nesi and S. Gardner (2012) Genres across the Disciplines: Student writing in higher education Cambridge: CUP


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This entry was posted on 27/02/2015 by in Uncategorized.

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