The syllabus workshop we did in class was pretty fun. Some of the feedback I got was that my syllabus may have been a little too learner-centered and lacked enough structure to guide more apprehensive students. So I made some revisions to give students more direction. I’ll share the syllabus below and highlight some its aspects that may be useful to other instructors.

First, don’t pretend that teaching and learning can be separated. Be explicit that you do not have perfect knowledge and fully expect to learn something while working with your students. My syllabus starts with a short teaching philosophy that says as much.

The structure of the class is also very adaptable to scale and course content. The gist of the idea is to let the students teach themselves. In my syllabus, they may teach anything so long as the rest of the class agrees. Topics can obviously be narrowed by the instructor for more targeted lessons. Anyway, here it is. Critiques are appreciated. And reading recommendations for the course.  Here is the proposal I plan to submit:

SPECIAL STUDY: Self-directed Learning Techniques & Strategies

UNIV 1084


I.                   Catalog Description


This is a course about learning: the process of questioning truth more often than finding it.  What is your definition of learning?  This course emphases learning as a collaborative process in order to promote students deliberate participation.  The content of this course will be decided over the course of the semester based on each class’s interests.  Students will take an active role in designing the curriculum and instructing their peers.

Prerequisites: None


Course Number: 2984

ADP Title: Self-directed Learning


II.                Learning Objectives


Having successfully completed this course, the student will be able to:


  1. Identify their personal reasons for learning and articulate the value of their education.


  1. Research reliable information and techniques for learning.


  1. Plan and implement strategies to acquire specific knowledge.


  1. Clearly and effectively communicate ideas, propose questions, flexibly frame problems, suggest solutions, and justify conclusions.


Credit Hours: 3


III.             Justification


Teachers’ jobs – like parents’ – is to put themselves out of business.  That is, guide their students to a point where they can continue their development and education self-sufficiently.  I think many teachers would agree that producing life-long learners is one of the higher goals of education.  Unfortunately, the very structure of most classrooms and entire institutes of schooling are top-down and can undermine that goal.  K-12 students have virtually no authority in the classroom.  Undergraduates have just slightly more freedom.  This pattern develops students’ habits to defer to teachers for information instead of relying on themselves and their colleagues to chase inquiries or solve problems.  It teaches that an education is something given from someone else rather than sought out for one’s self.  Virginia Tech’s Curriculum for Liberal Education allows undergraduates some customization in their educational choices; however, the bulk of a students’ courses will be predetermined once they’ve chosen a major.  This style of schooling can lead to many teachers’ bane: passive learners – bodies fillings desks to fulfill credit hours.

As pedagogical professionals, we must realize that many students have not had to seriously assess their reasons for pursuing an education (it’s a law that they attend school as children), nor have they had the opportunity to decide the content of their learning.  Formal, teacher-lead schooling is very much a habit forced upon students as early as age 5.   If we want to educate students to become independent, critical thinkers who engage their communities with a degree of social consciousness and democratic commitment, we will need to shift to student-lead, peer-taught instruction moderated by an instructor: a class structure that is middle-out instead of either top-down or bottom-up.  Such a class structure could better encourage and empower students to take the leading role in shaping their education.  This is how we train future innovators and entrepreneurs.

The course would be valuable to all majors and academic levels.  Its aim is to develop students’ abilities to operate independently under the scrutiny of peer revision – consistent with the publishing philosophy that governs scientific and humanities journals.  Ultimately, we want our students to be knowledgeable and charismatic enough to present ideas to their colleagues in professional, academic, and social settings.  What better way to prepare them than by giving them the freedom to design and practice such presentations?


IV.             Prerequisites and Requisites



V.                Texts and Special Teaching Aids


See syllabus


VI.             Syllabus


Virginia Tech

PHIL 2984: Self-Directed Learning Techniques & Strategies

Spring, 2016


Instructor:                  Andrew Schultz                                                           Office: HOLDEN 126

Email:                                                            Office Hours: By appointment


Any student with special needs or circumstances should feel free to contact me to arrange
appropriate accommodations.


Teaching Philosophy


I think of myself as more of a veteran student than a teacher.  We’ll be exploring some interesting problem spaces in this course and I probably have more experience with the areas instead of some inherently better means to navigate them.  I should be thought of as a guide.  I can show you around, point out interesting landmarks and questions, but I am perfectly happy to help you start exploring something new and outside of my direct expertise.  Please share your interests with me.


Educational Objectives


Having successfully completed this course, the student will be able to:


  1. Identify their personal reasons for learning and articulate the value of their education.


  1. Research reliable information and techniques for learning.


  1. Plan and implement strategies to acquire specific knowledge.


  1. Clearly and effectively communicate ideas, pose questions, flexibly frame problems, suggest solutions, and justify conclusions.


Course Description


This is a course about learning: the process of questioning truth more often than finding it.  What is your definition of learning?  This course emphases learning as a collaborative process in order to promote students deliberate participation.  The content of this course will be decided over the course of the semester based on each class’s interests.  Students will take an active role in designing the curriculum and instructing their peers.


Learning is a process of (a) gaining the ability to identify questions that are personally, socially, scientifically, economically, etc. interesting and novel, (b) discovering and/or inventing reliable means to gather information, (c) evaluating and prioritizing the importance of and need for specific information, (d) developing the capacity to verify information and its source’s validity via routine, rigorous skepticism, (e) efficiently recalling past experiences by (f) making creative associations within and between areas of knowledge, (g) building ready access to dense webs of information that allows for adaptive critical thinking and creative problem solving, (h) achieving through the application of knowledge, and (i) becoming proficient at sharing valuable information in ways that facilitate understanding – in a word, teaching.  This class is about developing your own philosophy of learning and gaining new strategies to better control and direct your education.


Teaching and learning can’t be separated; therefore, teaching will play an important role in this course.  It is more than merely transmitting information.  Teaching well means doing one’s best to inspire the students’ interest and imaginations, nurturing their confidence and enthusiasm to explore independently, anticipating students’ frustrations, misunderstandings, shortfalls, reservations and resistances – this requires you to simulate disparate ways to formulate problems and generate solutions – teaching is about manufacturing rewarding challenges, pointing out opportunities, and illuminating ways in which students can attach meaning to their lives.  Basically, if you can learn how to effectively teach others a topic of mutual interest, you will be empowered to better direct your education through teaching yourself.  In this class you will be teaching your peers.  Your first task will be convincing them that you have information worth learning.


Course Reference Materials


Capaldi, Nicholas. The Art of Deception: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. Ed. Miles Smit.


Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People


Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.


Heinrichs, Jay. Thank you for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson can Teach us About the Art of Persuasion.  Published by Random House, Inc., New York. 2007.  


Thompson, George. Verbal Judo: The Gentle art of Persuasion ­


Class Structure and Proposed Procedure


(for letter grade and Pass/Fail; No Audits)


“The purpose of education is to teach a defense against eloquence.” – Bertrand Russel


“Truth springs from argument among friends.” – David Hume


Whatever we decide to learn this semester, my hope is that we will question and argue about it – Is it relevant? Why do we care?  Is it important?  How much? Is it accurate?  To what limits and in what situations? How do we know? Et cetera…  The class will be based mostly on student-lead discussion under the instructor’s moderation.  Participation and engagement are critical in this class.  One of two required reading for the course is an excerpt from Love is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends by Tim Sanders.  The excerpt contains arguments I like for the efficacy of books as self-directed learning tools and the significance of reading as the most important habit for continuing one’s education.  I hope it justifies the course structure proposed below.


The second mandatory piece of is a choice between the five books listed above.  As the course description explains, the ability to learn relies on one’s knowledge of and skill at teaching; further, teaching begins with persuading students to engage the material.  Each book above offers its own introduction to rhetoric: the tools, techniques, and strategies of influence.  Reading one will facilitate the class structure outlined below by developing students’ argumentative skills and enthusiasm for debate.  To respond to Bertrand Russel, a good defense is to have superb offense.  Influence from others is best resisted by the ability to reciprocate targeted influence in them – these books can teach you to do that.  However, the rest of the course material is up for debate between the instructor and students.  Here is a suggested format:


First, spend ~3 weeks studying rhetoric as a class, identifying our favorite persuasive techniques, and developing our argumentative skills by debating which book teaches the art best.  Next, identify individual and collective learning interests, brainstorm questions related to those interests, and systemically design plans to investigate as many topics as possible.  Teams of 3-4 students could produce a presentation that aims to answer those inquiries for the rest of the class.  Their goal could be persuading their peers to investigate the concept or topic further for themselves.  Each person would do this at least 3 times throughout the semester; teams may (are encouraged to) change between presentations.  This would ensure that each student will experience responsibility for researching and teaching their peers while gaining familiarity with multiple team dynamics.  Say, for instance, each presentation is primarily a kind of book report – an attempt to persuade the audience to read the book(s) upon which the presentation was based.  Alternatively, a group could refute the main theses presented in a book, convince the audience it’s not worth reading, and propose another option.  Students can also write short summaries of their books to share with the class.  Conducting class this way and assuming groups only present 1 book at a time, individuals need only read 4 books while we collectively receive the benefit of reading 20-30 books worth of customized education over the semester – pretty impressive!  Ideally, the presentations will inspire and convince individuals to read more than the minimum 4 books, and groups’ presentations will tie the ideas and conclusions from multiple books together.  Students are challenged to read 10 or more books of their choice this semester.  Imagine if a class of 20 did this and summarized each book for their peers.  That would be 200 books in 13 weeks – damn impressive!  Let’s shoot for somewhere in the middle: collectively averaging 6-8 books per person this semester.


Proposed Course Schedule


Week In-Class Readings
1 Intros & icebreakers, syllabus overview & revisions, Curriculum Brainstorming Love is the Killer App (excerpt)

One of the rhetoric texts

2 Discussion Rhetoric Text
3 Discussion Rhetoric Text
4 Discussion Book 1
5 Discussion Book 1
6 Presentations Book 1
7 Discussion Book 2
8 Discussion Book 2
9 Presentations Book 2
10 Discussion Book 3
11 Discussion Book 3
12 Presentations Book 3
13 Presentations Book 3


Grades and Expectations


You are responsible for directing your learning through the selection of course content and design of your presentations.  You have the freedom to teach the class however and about anything your group agrees to so long as you do so with civility, foster an inclusive environment, demonstrate intellectual integrity and remember…


Evaluations (assuming the suggested format is agreed to) will be done utilizing in-group peer-reviews, audience reviews, and instructor reviews.  For instance, in-group reviews will evaluate individuals’ contributions to preparing the presentations; the audience and instructor will review the engagement value, relevance, clarity, accuracy, and persuasiveness of the presentations.  Class participation will be based on your contributions to developing the course’s content and engagement in the weekly discussions.  A good rule of thumb would be to have at least 5 comments and questions ready for each session.  Students are expected to propose materials and justify their relevance to the rest of the class.  Involvement in designing assessments and providing meaningful feedback for peers is also expected.  The instructor has veto power in creating and modifying rubrics for assignments but student input is welcome and encouraged.  The details of each rubric should be mutually created and agreed to by the students and instructor.






The tenets of the Virginia Tech Graduate Honor Code will be enforced in this course, and all assignments are subject to the stipulations of the Honor Code.


Personal Essay – Philosophy of Learning (15%)


Class participation:  (20%)


Reading Journal – 10%

Course Contributions – 10%


Presentations (65%)


In-group peer review – 20%

Audience Review – 30%

Instructor Review – 15%


*Notice that students control as much grading power as the instructor. 


Recommended Readings



  1. Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
  2. How to Train A Wild Elephant – Jan Chozen Bays
  3. In Praise of Doubt – Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld
  4. The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers
  5. Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar…: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes – Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
  6. A Little Book of Language – David Crystal
  7. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking – Daniel C. Dennett
  8. Meditations on First Philosophy – Rene Descartes
  9. The Spiritual Emerson – Ralph Waldo Emerson; Ed. Jacob Needleman
  10. Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Paulo Freire
  11. Pedagogy of Freedom – Paulo Freire
  12. The Heart and The Fist – Eric Grietens
  13. The Tao of Pooh – Ben Hoff
  14. The Te of Piglet – Ben Hoff
  15. Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
  16. The Social Contract – Jean Jacque Roseau
  17. The Conquest of Happiness – Betrand Russell
  18. Breakfast with Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day – Robert Rowland Smith
  19. Would You Eat Your Cat? – Jeremy Stangroom
  20. Walden – Henry David Thoreau
  21. Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu



  1. The Science of Discworld – Terry Pratchett & Ian Stewart
  2. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark – Carl Sagan
  3. Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience – Stephen S. Hall


Business/Economics and Environment

  1. Mid-Course Correction – Ray C. Anderson
  2. Cradle-to-Cradle – Michael Braungart & William McDonough
  3. How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie
  4. The Plundered Planet: Why We Must – and How We Can – Manage Nature for Global Prosperity – Paul Collier
  5. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey
  6. Outliers – Malcom Gladwell
  7. Ecological Intelligence – Daniel Goleman
  8. The Ecology of Commerce – Paul Hawken
  9. Natural Capitalism: The Next-Industrial Revolution – Paul Hawken and Amory & Hunter Lovins
  10. Thank you For Arguing – Jay Heinrichs
  11. Who Moved My Cheese? – Spencer Johnson
  12. Our Iceberg is Melting – John Kotter
  13. Think Like a Freak – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner
  14. Freakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner
  15. I Moved your Cheese – Deepak Malhotra
  16. The Omnivores Dilemma – Michael Pollan
  17. Your Money or Your Life – Vicki Robin & Joe Dominguez
  18. Love is the Killer App – Tim Sanders
  19. The Outsiders – William Thorndike



  1. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert Cialdini
  2. The Gift of Fear – Gavin de Baker
  3. The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg
  4. Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Beliee, Feel, and Want – Nicholas Epley
  5. Moon-Walking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything – Joshua Foer
  6. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahnemann
  7. What Does it Mean to be Well-Educated – Alfie Kohn
  8. Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
  9. The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer
  10. Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps – Allan & Barbara Pease
  11. Better than Before: What I learned about making and breaking habits-to sleep more, quit sugar, procrastinate less, and generally build a happier life – Gretchen Rubin
  12. The Hidden Brain – Shankar Vedantam
  13. Verbal Judo ­– George Thompson



  1. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carol
  2. A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
  3. Siddhartha – Herman Hesse
  4. The Glass-Bead Game – Hermann Hesse
  5. Damned – Chuck Palahniuk
  6. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  7. Ishmael – Daniel Quinn
  8. Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut
  9. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde


Politics and History

  1. Politics – Aristotle
  2. Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond
  3. America: Imagine a World without Her – Dinesh D’Souza
  4. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
  5. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and Triumph of Spectacle – Chris Hedges
  6. Republic – Plato
  7. Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism – Richard Wolff
  8. A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

VII.          Old Syllabus


Not Applicable


VIII.       Curriculum for Liberal Education guidelines

5 thoughts on “Peer-taught Classrooms: A Recipe for Creating Learner-Centered Bonanzas

  1. Mohammed Farghally (mfseddik) says:

    Thank you for the syllabus. I really liked you presenting yourself in the beginning of the syllabus as a veteran student. I believe this will create an intimate atmosphere between you and your students. This will make students more dare to exchange ideas and ask questions within class. This will have a positive impact in their engagement within the course content and will allow them to get the maximum from this course.

  2. Ken Black says:

    I agree about thinking about ourselves as students. Something my advisor always mentions is that we are experts because we are one day ahead. The material we cover is not impossible, and if we frame it right, students can have fun, or at least me interested, in what we have to share.

  3. GREG PURDY says:

    The idea of this class is really interesting to me. Being able to help students find their way in their journey to understand their own learning styles should definitely be something we encourage at the undergraduate level. Even being exposed to this type of course early on in their academic career could help them as they progress through their undergraduate degree.

    1. Andrew S. says:

      I actually think it would be interesting to see the youngest students that this structure could be implemented at. Young adults are notoriously bad at voting; I think this is a symptom of the top-down school structure. We simply build up their habits to be passive and defer to others for direction. It would certainly be valuable in directing their education but I think the real value of this class, and something I would like to research, would be if democratically run classrooms create more civically and politically engaged young adults.

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