How can teachers help undergraduate students use the syllabus?
December 12, 2012 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Post-secondary undergraduate students, what can your teachers do to help you use the syllabus?

Every term, university instructors put a great deal of effort into writing syllabi that provide students with detailed instructions for how to do well in their courses. But many, many students in first and second year ignore the syllabus and wind up lost and confused. Why does this happen? What should your instructors be doing to help you access this resource?
posted by aunt_winnifred to Education (35 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've found that using a first day group activity + quiz about the syllabus really helps them dive in and retain the material.
posted by one_bean at 11:15 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Put it on the course website (and make sure they can easily find the website), hand out a printed version on day 1 and if time, discuss it briefly in class, and otherwise the responsibility for reading it is really up to the students.
posted by randomnity at 11:19 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Make it an easy to read, well formatted document. Make it available online. And really, the rest is up to the students to read it, follow it, and ask questions if they arise.
posted by greta simone at 11:22 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with randomnity. The students who read the syllabus and refer to it as necessary get frustrated when instructors waste time with activities/quizzes about syllabus. When you're in college it's your responsibility to use the resources made available to your by your instructor. Assuming you hand it out the first day and make it available on the web, you've done your part.
posted by sgo at 11:23 AM on December 12, 2012 [9 favorites]

I actually find that having them online and handing them out on paper works well. That way I can look it up easily when I have questions. I get inundated with so many papers that it's easy to lose track of them.

Please don't quiz them -- I've had that as a student and it just set a bad tone for the class. I want to be tested on what's important -- the syllabus is a guide to help us understand what we'll be doing.

The most important things I've found on a syllabus are when they really lay out what we'll be doing when, what we need to read, when we need to turn things in. Basically a calendar of the semester.

And as a TA, I've had a billion questions about things that people would have known by reading the syllabus (and my professor gave a 2 page one, not that hard). I think it's just organization -- he doesn't really put things online, and hands out printouts of his slides, so it's easy to misplace that one piece of paper you need to go reference, and easier to just ask the professor/TA.
posted by DoubleLune at 11:24 AM on December 12, 2012

Agree with the above --- I hated it when teachers made us play little games to remember these things. Man, I'm in university. Don't treat me like I'm a grade schooler!

Hand it out, write on the whiteboard / blackboard a web address where it can be found. Go over it in brief ("these are the assignments, there will / won't be an exam") and then move on. If the students can't be bothered to look at it maybe they shouldn't be there.
posted by AmandaA at 11:42 AM on December 12, 2012

Students (increasingly?) expect to have their hands held. It's not trivial to balance your desire to insist that they be responsible grown-ups against your desire that they learn the material and do as well as possible in the class (that is, have their grade reflect their grasp of the material, not whether they could sort out which books/subtopics you intended to emphasize). Many posters so far are attempting to decide that question for you, which really is a matter of institutional culture and your personal preference.

Obviously putting it online (and maybe prominent among your online resources) is valuable. I agree with skipping the quiz except in the most hand-holdy of colleges, but would advise that you take a moment to emphasize that the syllabus is something they should refer back to regularly, that it will help them determine what aspects of the course to focus on as well as what is expected. I think that's the most you can hope for, if they don't come into office hours or discussion sections where they could be reminded. Another possibility would be to add a sentence the first relevant time, before or after a lecture -- "and, for those of you watching the syllabus, now is the time to start thinking about your mini-project topics! keep on this stuff!" or whatever.

In my own experience, I mostly expected the syllabus to tell me what the course would be about (especially if there was a shopping period in the term), as well as what kind of work would be required (X papers versus Y tests, say, or Z books read per week), so that I could figure out whether I could handle the load. That meant I usually didn't track it too closely once the meat of the course got underway, and I could easily have missed "instructions on how to do well in the course" if they were more fine-grained and/or different for each topic. Whether that would have been a reasonable outcome (where my grade should reflect both material and general understanding of good study strategy) gets back to Question 1. :)
posted by acm at 11:43 AM on December 12, 2012

Explicit instructions/answers to common questions or situations, e.g. attendance policy - miss 3 or more lab days, and you automatically fail the lab portion of the class. This helps students to understand exactly what is expected of them, and also protects the instructor by giving you clearly stated guidelines to point back to in case there is any confusion, or if students try to cut corners or talk you into/out of things.
posted by illenion at 11:46 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why does this happen?

Because it doesn't happen in secondary school. As acm said above, students have had things spelled out in black and white for them and repeated ad nauseum for the past 12 years. It's not like anyone preps you for college or explains how it's going to be different then the experiences you've had thus far. So you dive in expecting it to function like high school did.
posted by royalsong at 11:55 AM on December 12, 2012

I think for someone like myself, the number of pages made it seem overwhelming. Eventually, I started to create my own excel spreadsheets which listed the week, readings, and assignments just because it was so overwhelming to look at my entire semester's worth of course outlines which was about 30 pages/semester. So, reducing the amount of pages/syllabus might be helpful for other students.
posted by livinglearning at 11:59 AM on December 12, 2012

Professors treat their syllabus like it's some holy writ. Students look and see a bunch of boilerplate and toss it. I move all the boilerplate stuff (ADA, school mission) to the very end of the document.

The first day I tell students, "This is our contract. It explains the terms of our deal: deliverables, dates, quality specifications, grading and penalties. Whenever there's a question about how we work together I'm going back to this contract."

For some reason, that works pretty well but I'm working with grad students. Not sure how that would go with undergrads.
posted by 26.2 at 12:15 PM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

Tips from faculty friends of mine:

1. Make them sign a piece of paper at the beginning of the semester saying they've read and agree to the syllabus. That way you have something to point to when you get the inevitable "but I didn't knoooooowwwww"s.

2. Offer a tiny amount of extra credit, like 5 points out of 500 total for the semester or something, for finding a grammar error that you intentionally put in the syllabus. My friend says that this motivates a surprising number of kids, despite the fact it has no practical effect on their grade whatsoever.
posted by MsMolly at 12:19 PM on December 12, 2012 [9 favorites]

When I would TA 2nd-year undergrads I found I had to repeat myself about three times. Grading policies / due dates / assignment expectations etc were in the syllabus, but I also posted them on the course forum, summarized them on the blackboard before assignments were due, and talked about them verbally. Essentially, I would continually re-deliver key information from the syllabus throughout the course, perhaps holding their hands a little more than you would for seniors.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:22 PM on December 12, 2012

I'm not sure how students can avoid reading the syllabus if there are deadlines and exams on it. Really, it's up to them to pay attention. Put it online, hand it out the first day. I don't even think you should go over it, just make it very clear that they are responsible for knowing what's on it.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:23 PM on December 12, 2012

I've TAd for classes in which the syllabus was a contract that had to be returned (or possible this was the academic misconduct definition, not sure which) - it doesn't waste the time of those students who did read and absorb the material, while still providing a tangible signal to the class that they were responsible for everything inside.
posted by heyforfour at 12:24 PM on December 12, 2012

I should clarify that by "go over it" I mean go into every little detail and read it out loud. Most of my very effective professors would just say "you're university students, you're capable of handling this". They would of course mention upcoming things in class, but the onus was on us to be prepared.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:25 PM on December 12, 2012

Along the lines of what MsMolly suggests, I make them not only sign a contract, but the contract is a document where they have to briefly summarize the policies regarding the few things I think are most important or cause the most issues (e.g., the test dates or the attendance policy). I find this helps a lot, but I don't think anything is going to cover you 100% from the "But I didn't know"s. Also, this is for beginning-level classes, so I'm a little more hand-holdy than I am for the more advanced ones. I make a copy for myself and return a copy for them, so if nothing else, they have a nice sheet with a summary of the most important course policies they can refer to without sifting through the entire syllabus.
posted by pitrified at 12:27 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

College students? You shouldn't have to. Sure, make it available on-line, but after that, sink or swim.

These young people need to learn to be self-reliant. If the information is out there, they should know how to use it.

Now, on the first day of class, I'd point out the key stuff, papers, exams, deadlines. Then ask for questions. Leave the door open, "If anyone has any questions at any time, my office hours are: XXX"

After that, it's on them.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:33 PM on December 12, 2012

I would maybe go over the main points in class (attendance policy, if you have any specific way you like assignments turned in, etc) and emphasize that it is in their best interest to read it, and then move on. Especially if it's available online. They're in college.
posted by radioamy at 12:41 PM on December 12, 2012

I think if you're working with incoming first year students, while it's annoying, it might not be a bad idea to explain what a syllabus is. I was a smart, disciplined student, but the first time I encountered a syllabus was in college and I had no idea what it was for. I looked at it and thought it was like the disciplinary policies we got in high school. It took a professor telling me, in a really embarrassing, aggressive way, once I'd screwed things up, for me to see that it was useful.

I think there's a balance between hand-holding and hands off, and that it's not unreasonable to explain that, hey, this paper, who you can also find online, is the authoritative document about this class - how your grade is computed, what to read, and when things are due. If you ask questions, I will first refer you to the syllabus. If you have questions about how to use it, my office hours are/the tutoring center is open/whatever resources your school has for students who need organizational help.
posted by linettasky at 1:02 PM on December 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

Past a point (going over it in the first class, making it available in multiple media) there is nothing you can do. College students are adults and that involves taking responsibility for their life in many ways, but they don't always realize this without encountering results of not doing so. Discovering that the class has a participation policy and they would have realized this if they'd either paid attention in the first week or read the carefully prepared document detailing it, is one of those encounters.

I imagine there are certain kinds of interventions that could be done at the orientation level, sort of a "how to take a college class" tutorial. But that isn't something I'm going to do in my classes. I do tend to mention it if someone asks a question that would be answered by the syllabus (though I still answer the question).
posted by advil at 1:08 PM on December 12, 2012

Update the dates on on the syllabus every semester / quarter (due dates, test dates, start & end dates of each week if you like to organize by weeks, lecture dates, etc). I'm in grad school, and pretty much every syllabus I receive was recycled from last year without even a cursory review. All of them refer to "Week 1," "Week 2," "Week 3," etc, and the due dates are all "due Sunday evening by midnight" rather than an actual date. This makes any search for a due date a slightly maddening process of figuring out "What week are we in? What's the assignment for this week?"

Not that it's tough for me, the student - I just mark the weeks on my calendar. But it's death by 1000 cuts, because figuring out what is due this week means several steps (Get syllabus. Pull up calendar. Figure out which week we're in. Find that week on syllabus. Find assignment for this week) instead of 2 steps. (Get syllabus. Find next due date). More important than the minor inconvenience is that it gives the impression that the prof didn't prepare for this quarter. So if you put a lot of effort into prepping for class, you're fighting an uphill battle against the impression given by the syllabus without dates.

Finally, I think the idea that the students would do great if they just read the syllabus is a bit misguided. If every student got A's and B's, what's the point of having all those other grades? Some students are going to end up lost and confused because the course is tough for them. A syllabus won't fix that.
posted by Tehhund at 1:08 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a TA, one thing I found to be very effective was creating my students a one page handout with all of the really important stuff on it from the syllabus. The course syllabus for intro classes are often monsters full of boilerplate and cya policy. While all of that stuff is necessary, many found it nice to have a quick reference to the assignment dates, grade structure, contact info and textbook info (with photos of the covers). It was a first year intro course, so most of them were already feeling a bit overwhelmed, so trying to minimise the info that they need to take in right away is always helpful.

The other thing that I find very helpful is to be given the syllabus in as many ways as possible. Give it out, post it online and e-mail it to them. Syllabuses get lost easily and you often don't notice until you really need it. I know several students who have lost syllabuses and have been to embarrassed to ask the prof or their classmates for a copy. They just coast along hoping that the prof will tell them everything they need to know in class with often poor results.
posted by cspurrier at 1:14 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

1) Put a copy of the syllabus online if applicable. Email a copy to students otherwise.
2) Actually manage to stick to the syllabus during the semester. Otherwise, the syllabus is not a useful document.
3) Update the syllabus if there are changes.

Some students are just not going to utilize the syllabus. Many students will. Aim for the plurality that you can actually engage in the course. I would not suggest going over the syllabus on the first day of class beyond very major points. Give students a few minutes to read through and then ask for questions.

Honestly, the majority of syllabi that I have experienced as a student have been at least 1/4th fluffy required material from the university administration.

TLDR, Make it a useful document. Aim for the plurality of students that this will benefit.
posted by graxe at 1:23 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My favorite professor's syllabi were clear but also conversational -- kind of like a letter to the student instead of a list of rules and guidelines. They were sort of fun to read because his personality shined through. I wouldn't force it, but if that fits your 'style' it's definitely helpful.

I would also segregate the material that you expect the students to read right off the bat (policies about extensions and grading etc) from the stuff that's less useful up front (the session-by-session breakdown, chapter assignments, etc). I might even go so far as to only print up the guidelines while referring students to the website for assignment schedules, or handing them out separately.
posted by telegraph at 1:25 PM on December 12, 2012

Best answer: I am currently an undergraduate student (but not for the first time).

My favorite syllabi:
-limit each section to no more than one page (e.g. class policies are one side of a sheet, list of assignments and due dates on one side of a sheet, lab schedule on one side of a sheet, etc.)

-have clear due dates not only for assignments, but also for reading and other work that is not turned in

-are easy to use as checklists so I can make sure I got everything done

-if the course is part of a sequence, tell me what to read or study to prepare for the next course in the sequence

My favorite syllabus this semester is long, but each page is its own thing, clearly labeled at the top, and all the pages with assignments or readings function well as checklists. It is more of a tool than a document, and I use it constantly.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:43 PM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Disregard everybody who says the quiz is too hand-holdy or boring for the first day of class. The quiz isn't for those people - they'd read the syllabus anyway. This is so you don't have to answer ten e-mails every week about the course policies. If the responsible students are bored for twenty minutes but get a chance to meet and interact with their classmates, that's ultimately a win. The quiz doesn't have to be worth anything. There's plenty of time for all those little lessons in responsibility for the students who can't get it together to read the syllabus - this is purely to make the least amount of work possible for you. Seriously, do a group exercise. Let them track down the important course policies and fill out a sheet together.
posted by one_bean at 1:49 PM on December 12, 2012

Best answer: Print it on nice, recycled paper and use excellent typographic design with lots of white space. I know it doesn't make sense practically, but when a teacher puts a lot of thought and care into materials it makes me want to do the same.
posted by R2WeTwo at 2:17 PM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I estimate that maybe only about half my classes actually had a detailed syllabus and really stuck to it. Departure from the syllabus is really common, especially if it's a professor's first time offering a particular course. If you are just, what, expecting students to do non-problem-set assignments without you or your TAs ever saying anything about the assignments in class, the students may well figure you changed your mind about the assignment.

I think students expect or at least appreciate guiding remarks like, "OK, see you on Tuesday and we'll talk about Spenser" or "This might be an interesting theme for you to expand on in your papers that are due next Monday" in lecture or section.

(And yes echoing other posters who say put it on the course website--if the syllabus isn't online, it might as well not exist.)
posted by phoenixy at 2:35 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all your inputs. I do go over the syllabus at the beginning, reinforcing it's importance as a contract, and of course I make it available online. I also stick to the syllabus, and I go over every assignment in class before it is due. I'm adverse to giving quizzes on the syllabus because it seems infantilizing. Maybe I'll just tell them that next time.

I don't really mind the constant questions from students, I just worry that they don't realize how to use the resources available to them. In addition, unfortunately, the standard mandatory "fluff" that the University requires is of critical importance to certain students. Access to information about how to book special accommodations, policies on late or missed work, plagiarism and writing support are just as important for first year students as assignments and course schedules.

The syllabus is a little bit like "how to do university" in a nutshell. I don't expect them to take it all in at once, but I do want them to feel like it is there for them to access as a resource. I really appreciate the concrete suggestions here from students about making the document itself more useful and accessible as a tool. I'm going to try some of these ideas.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 3:52 PM on December 12, 2012

Response by poster: Some students are going to end up lost and confused because the course is tough for them. A syllabus won't fix that.

granted! But from my perspective a lot of the students who fail would at least pass if they handed in something, on time, that demonstrates even a lame attempt to address the assignment.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 4:31 PM on December 12, 2012

Honestly, if you do it right, it's not about infantilizing them. It's about a stupid activity on the first day that (1) gets them to work together, (2) gives new students a chance to see the value of working in groups to solve a problem and (3) getting everybody on board with the syllabus. If you think it's infantilizing, then have them develop the course guidelines with you on the first day. You need to get your students to buy in to your course policies; either you can do it top-down by having them grapple with the foundational document for the course (the syllabus) and use that as a metaphor for learning the actual course content; or you do it as a community by developing it together. I've taught too many semesters with painstakingly-designed syllabi that are both handed out and made available online, only to find that 30% of the students think it's easier to disregard it entirely. It's really, really worth having students do something hands on with the syllabus on the first day. No, it's not appropriate for upper div courses, but this is exactly the kind of learning skill that intro courses should be developing. (Sorry for thread-sitting, I would've sent this as a MeMail if yours wasn't disabled).
posted by one_bean at 6:02 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

a lot of the students who fail would at least pass if they handed in something, on time, that demonstrates even a lame attempt to address the assignment

Yeah... and a student that can't be bothered to turn in assignments sure as hell isn't going to bother to read the syllabus. That's just plain common sense that turning in something is better than nothing. You really have to teach the ones who want to be there, not aim for the ones who don't care. Then the ones who want to be there miss out on what they could be getting out of the class.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:30 PM on December 12, 2012

My university has little blurbs for the boilerplate policy stuff that all end with a URL going to the appropriate part of the policy website (we have a policy website!). I put the 'important' ones (disability services, academic honesty (and what it means in the class), the non-discrimination statement (because I believe in non-discrimination, damn it)) on the actual syllabus and then had a section called 'other policies' that just gave the title of the policy and the URL (officially, we are required to tell them how GPA is calculated on every syllabus, which is a waste of four inches of syllabus space if you put the blurb and not just the URL).

I looked up all these policies and gave a one sentence summary when I went over the syllabus in class. I have a bunch of first year and transfer students who maybe do want to look up how GPAs are calculated. They can then highlight that URL or something when I mention it and go look it up later.

What my syllabus doesn't have are the homework assignments. It's all general information and policy, plus the exam dates. The course website is one page that lists the time/location of the class, office hours, exam dates and then a schedule of what we covered in class each week and the homework. Then there are guidelines for homework and links to various resources. I don't think I've had any procedural questions they should know the answer to this semester, which is admittedly probably a fluke. They were a little confused by me having a website at the start, as they've been conditioned to expect Moodle, but they got the hang of it. (The only things on Moodle are their grades and a link to the course website.)
posted by hoyland at 7:33 PM on December 12, 2012

Personally, If I were teaching I'd want to create a calendar feed that the students can subscribe to for homework/exam/reading reminders. Maybe with instructions on how to subscribe for different services.

I'd have a class discussion forum, so they can answer and help each other.

If I was teaching, I'd expect some people would do what I do, which is not really do the reading until I had to know it. So I'd use coursework, take home quizzes etc to guide them in their reading.

How I'd do things though is based on my personal experience, and is not necessarily helpful for your students. Maybe you would like some research.

Searching Google Scholar brought up several books and articles, Several of which I don't have access to. However the following are accessible.

a Book, Teaching at It's Best a Research Based Resource for College Instructors

a 2005 paper on best practices

A 2006 article on Best Practices in Syllabus Writing

A 2002 article on online syllabi

An article on gaps in High School prep for undergrad classes
posted by gryftir at 2:23 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

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