As the 100-plus-degree days hopefully become fewer and farther between, it’s that exciting time of year when over-achievers receive their syllabi for their fall coursework and delve in. When they take that head start on the journey along that nearly sacred roadmap — the syllabus — very few will stop to think about the document itself.

The syllabus is undoubtedly a product of the hard work of educators who thought a lot about how a coherent narrative will unravel over 13 weeks. It’s probably the result of multiple iterations of the course and reflection on what went well and what needed to be changed. It demarcates readings, problem sets, exams and all the other familiar mechanisms of a well-oiled course.

Let’s take one step further back and examine the syllabus from there. The document is a collection of concepts organized around a central theme. Either tradition or innovation decreed that these concepts should be taught together, that they are somehow unified and that learning them all together would be more beneficial than learning them separately.

But is that really the case? Certainly the story of British colonialism segues nicely into the story of the American Revolution. So for some history courses, a narrative style works perfectly. Perhaps for most of the trivium, a story format fits nicely, but what of the quadrivium? Of math, cell biology or physics?

I can vividly recall multiple instances in which, sitting in class last fall, my internal narrative sounded like this: “Hey, what? We’re learning this now? I could have used this math concept three weeks ago in my physics class!” Actually, at times, the voice in my head is a bit more vulgar when expressing distaste, but you get the idea.

Ideas are further categorized not only into syllabi and courses, but also into departments. And with those departments trying to determine the overlap between courses and the proper ordering of courses, there just isn’t enough time and communication within departments to have the perfect coherent ordering of ideas and classes and to completely minimize overlap. So, as long as we have syllabi, we may learn how to find the cross product of two vectors in three different classes, or by bad luck — or good luck, depending on your view — we may never run across Lagrange multipliers.

We have both the technology and the understanding of how concepts build on each other to take a more systematic and strategic approach to pedagogy. So what would school without classes and narratives and syllabi look like?

It would be more individualized — we have the IT infrastructure to track the concepts each student has mastered. Though this is a bit more granular than tracking classes mastered, the process is the same.

It would be easier — we know that building concepts on top of what you’ve already learned is easier than skipping steps. Furthermore, when you have a solid foundation, it takes much less time to learn new ideas.

It would be harder to teach — certainly having 80 people learning the same thing at the same time presents some “efficiencies” for the education provider, and in the past these aspects have trumped teaching the concepts students need at the time and in the order the students need them. It’s a huge challenge to provide a more modular education, but challenges exist to be overcome.

Already, online courses and TED videos are providing more modular, compact concepts packaged in 10- to 20-minute videos. When you walk away from a TED video, you have a new idea in hand, and you’re ready to use it. That concept doesn’t need to be embedded in a 13-week format for you to grasp it. Software products such as Knewton and Cognitive Tutor implement “adaptive learning,” which actively tracks what students know and what they are having trouble learning, and then measures out exactly where they need further teaching.

So, the questions become: How long will it take higher education to adopt new methods? Who will be a part of finding solutions to the challenges? Will it be you?

Michael Smallegan can be reached at smallmic@umich.edu.

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