Why podcasts make excellent syllabi

Photo by David De la Rosa from Pixabay

My students asked me to convince more teachers to make a podcast syllabus for their course, so here goes.

I never found the perfect book

Thinking back, I should have made a podcast syllabus long time ago. For years I have been searching for the perfect course book for my introduction to philosophy class, without success. The books were either too introductory, too advanced, included too few or too many philosophers, and female philosophers were generally ignored.

When I took over the course, it came with one of these old-fashioned printed compendia, with extracts from different textbooks and journals. I remember from my own student days that these collections were terrible to read, with various fonts, poor print quality and messy layouts.

As a temporary solution while looking for a book, I collected different open access resources that the students could use as alternative, including various texts, videos and a few podcast episodes. These resources worked well both for me and the students. They provided a different take on the topics from what I presented in class, and the students enjoyed having the choice between various formats. In particular, students liked the short videos, which were often professionally made, highly pedagogical, and at the same time quite entertaining.

Reducing screen-time and visual overload

When all university teaching went digital during the COVID19 pandemic, I had to radically rethink the way I designed my courses, including the syllabus. As academics, we are already spending most of our days reading and writing, and when we are not staring at a piece of paper, we stare at a screen. To reduce screentime and prevent visual overload, I decided to give my students an alternative to reading texts and watching videos.

In a bit of a whim, I set out to compile a syllabus consisting entirely of available podcast episodes. It was meant as a one-off thing, but the feedback from the students was surprisingly enthusiastic.

I should add that my experience with podcasts have been very limited until quite recently. The interest started when we had the idea to do a book launch as a podcast series. The episodes got thousands of listens, and they really boosted the engagement with our work. People told me that they listened to the podcasts during their commute, taking a walk or while doing chores. Some explained to me that the conversational style between two or more people made it easy to follow and more engaging, so it didn’t matter that the episodes were an hour long.

This experience made me realise how powerful the podcast format is, and it inspired me to start listening to podcasts myself while walking the dog.

Students are now prepared for class

When introducing the podcast syllabus for my students, I tried to always give them a choice of short and long episodes. If they had less time one week, they could listen to one of the 15 minutes episode, which would introduce them to a philosopher or a topic. Other episodes were longer, sometimes 45 minutes or one hour. It didn’t matter to me which option they went for, since the main purpose was that they came to class with some prior knowledge of the topic.

That students show up in class unprepared, without having done any of their reading, was a common problem in my course. The type of philosophy course I teach is a mandatory course for all bachelor students in Norway, independently of which program they choose. This means that many students are unmotivated and don’t make my course a priority. As a result, I end up spending more time introducing the philosopher and explaining the basics, and get less time to discuss the ideas with the class.

Since I started using the podcast syllabus, this has changed radically. Here is what the students said.

It was a refreshing change from the usual readings that we get in other courses. The podcasts are also more versatile so you could listen to them if you were going for a walk or catching the train or even if you were going to the gym to work out.

I liked the podcasts as syllabus, because I would have never managed to keep up with the syllabus for every week if it was given in reading material only.

I listened to the podcast at night before bed and in the morning when I walked to the classroom, and I actually remembered a lot.

I have listened to all of them so far, and I have also downloaded additional podcasts and audiobooks to try to understand certain concepts more thoroughly.

“It’s like learning a new language”

Now that my students show up in class prepared, we can discuss the themes in plenum and in groups instead of me giving one-way lectures. I want my students to engage actively in philosophical reflections and conversations, and not only memorise concepts and theories. If they all cram for the exam, just to forget about it afterwards, then what’s the point in education? As one of my students said, when commenting on a class she had failed: ‘It’s like learning a new language. There’s no use knowing all the grammar if one cannot speak.’ The readings would normally provide our students with knowledge of the theories, but philosophical skills and competences must be practiced, including discussing the ideas and reflecting upon them critically.

As a way of preparing for class, it was better and more engaging than reading a syllabus. The podcast media and the headspace I’m in when I listen to them is more inviting my own reflections about the topics than when I sit down to read, study and take notes. I was looking forward to it every week.

I used the podcasts several times a week, and it helped to listen to them every other day. I find writing about philosophy extremely challenging, and it feels like I understand more when having a dialogue with someone or hearing an explanation best.

A variety of voices and formats

With the podcast option, the students get different perspectives on the same topic, and I learned so much myself from listening to them before class. For instance, BBC In Our Time talks to three invited experts in each episode, while Philosophy Bites has shorter episodes and one invited expert. Radical Philosophy has a focus on female philosophers, which is not easy to find, with female experts to introduce them. Philosophize This is one person presenting different themes each time, and in Panpsycast three hosts discuss among themselves.

To have a choice of episodes was great because it gave different perspectives, broader knowledge, and more flexibility to listen in case you wanted to deep dive into one philosopher more than another or were short on time. It was nice to not have to absorb all the information only through class but have some time to process the information. I felt like by the end I had quite a good overview of the syllabus.

We get to hear different people discuss the various themes and their perspectives. When each in the group had listened to different podcast episodes, we could discuss them and share ideas and thoughts and get a better discussion.

When I got familiar with some of the podcasters, I recognized which ones I preferred and in what order; like the Panpsycast is more entertaining and has some good summaries, Philosophize This is good at making connections and comparisons, and the ones with different guest philosophers go more deeply into some concepts.

Students welcome the flexibility

An unexpected bonus from the podcast syllabus is that it helped accommodate different life-situations and made it possible for more students to complete the course. Since the podcasts don’t require people to sit down in quiet surroundings to read, many students have told me they were now able to combine their studies with family life and jobs.

I met one student in the supermarket, doing his shopping while listening to a philosophy episode. Another student told me that the whole family would listen to an episode in the evenings, and then discuss it, and a third said the podcast option made it possible for him to combine the class with taking care of his baby. One student used the commute between their class and their job to listen to the podcasts. All these students said that their life situations would otherwise have prevented them from completing the course.

An unexpected bonus of inclusion

Not everyone went for the podcast option. Students learn in different ways, and by offering various formats, the course became more accessible. Some students said they prefer reading to listening, or to have a combination of different types of resources. Most of them, however, said they used mainly the podcasts.

One day when I was chatting to some students after class, three of them told me they suffered from severe dyslexia and that the podcast syllabus had been a real game-changer for them.

Speaking as someone that has struggled with extreme dyslexia all my life, the podcast syllabus was absolutely brilliant. I absorbed more Information through these podcasts in this class than any other class with just reading books. If it wasn’t for the podcast syllabus, I would not have gotten out 1/10 of what I did in this class with it.

To me, listening is easier than reading, so I think podcast is an excellent way of doing “readings”. I also liked that we could choose between different ones, because then we could listen to more than one if we found something extra interesting, and if we were in a rush, we could choose to only listen to one.

Engaged students learn better

To provide different ways for students to engage with the material is also better for me as their teacher. In my experience, if one finds something interesting, relevant and engaging, then learning comes almost for free. Any subject can of course be made difficult, dry or boring (even philosophy!), which then requires an extra effort from the students to motivate themselves to learn. Our job as educators, however, should be to spark an interest in the subject and make the students want to continue learning on their own.

From the student testimonies, it seems that the podcasters did an excellent job helping me do so. And for that, my students and I are grateful.

I absolutely loved the fact that we used podcasts instead of readings for this course.

I really enjoyed the podcasts. They were an effective way of implementing course work into daily life, as philosophy is also quite heavy and thought inducing. It was great to be able to use the full brain capacity to ponder while listening to the podcasts rather than having to read in a book.

I used the podcasts and found it very convenient, engaging and fun to listen to. I would highly recommend the podcasts to future classes.


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