‘Burn The Syllabus’ An Essay by Dr. Dan Tarara

This story is featured in the Fall 2018 edition of the HPU Magazine. Discover below how HPU Professor Dan Tarara encourages students to succeed by adapting life skills.


Adaptability. Resiliency.

I think about those words when that small silver box pops up on my iPhone’s screen, telling me it’s time to update my iOS software.

Do I click “Update now” and risk change that might wreak havoc on my phone and leave me scrambling? Or delay until later?

In other words, what’s my threshold for change?

Then I think about a journey one of my classes recently took.

In the middle of a fall semester, the American College of Sports Medicine changed a more than 15-year-old rule on which the foundation of the course was built.

It was almost Thanksgiving break, and my students and I had to make a decision.

Do we accept the update and start over at week 10 of a 15-week semester? Or do we delay?

What was our threshold for change? The answer might surprise you.

Parallel Hands

It begins with a classroom philosophy I’ve come to appreciate during my 20 years of teaching in High Point University’s Department of Exercise Science.

First, I believe the best learning happens when I change the dynamic from the traditional role of a professor having the upper hand and students having the lower hand to a relational dynamic — parallel hands. This is where I want my students to evolve and become the teacher.

The second is what I call closing the gap. According to studies, there’s an average of 17 years that may pass between the time health research produces new knowledge and the time that knowledge gets implemented into real-world practice.

That means I have to make a conscious effort to close the gap, even if that requires some uncomfortable disruption in my classroom.

If students graduate with knowledge but have no way to act upon it in the real world, what good is it?

It’s on the Syllabus

At the start of every course, I hand distribute the syllabus to eager students who want to know, “How many tests will we have? When are my projects due? How many pages does the paper have to be?”

Updates are an essential reality, and college courses are no different than cell phones. Courses and syllabi must be updated. The off-season between classes is the prime time for updates.

By mid-semester, students might get testy if you tinker with a syllabus. You can make tweaks along the way, but generally, we understand that a course syllabus is like a legal contract; there are limits.

But that’s exactly when the ACSM changed a rule that was the starting point for a lot of other rules pertaining to exercise. The old rule was this: Always get clearance from your physician before you begin an exercise routine.

Over time, cardiologists and physicians have learned that patients are better off getting started with activity immediately rather than waiting to see a physician first. There’s no need to place an antiquated barrier in front of them.

So in the middle of a semester, the ACSM changed a major principle in our field.

Technically it wouldn’t be implemented for several months, long after some of my seniors would graduate. But as
their mentor, I had to decide: Do I change their syllabus in the middle of the semester and start over with learning foundational rules? Or do I delay the update?

I went back to my core classroom belief — parallel hands for professor and student. And together, we took a vote.

Fully knowing that it was going to require more work, and fully knowing that the totality of that work was unknown, students answered with a resounding, “Yes, let’s do this!”

Our class installed the update not knowing how it was going to play out.

A Growth Mindset

Something happened along the way that I didn’t anticipate.

First, I was impressed by my students’ levels of adaptability. They were resilient in re-learning weeks of material in a compressed amount of time. The seniors graduated with peers from other institutions who either weren’t presented with the same opportunity to adapt, or who simply chose not to take it. But our process taught the HPU students how to engage an evolving world and how to close the gap.

There was also one student who stood out. Her name is Natalia. Natalia went home for Thanksgiving break, and her dad asked, “How’s school?”

Natalia shared what was happening in class with her dad, who happens to be a physician. And a bigger converversation unfolded between a father and a daughter — a physician and an undergraduate student — about cardiovascular disease, exercise and real-world practice.

She shared the update with her dad and became the teacher. Parallel hands. And her dad decided to close the gap at his practice, though most other practices wouldn’t adopt the ACSM rule for quite a while.

Her dad had the courage to recognize that his daughter is learning and has the capacity to teach him important things for his practice.

And that takes me all the way back to adaptability. How can it truly be modeled in the classroom?

It happens when we work to close the gap and position professors and students to work in a relational dynamic. Professors must embrace change even if it is challenging. We are role models for our students.

It happens when, collectively, we all decide to prepare for the world as it’s going to be, not for the world as
it is.

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