The Syllabus

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I know that syllabus creep is what everyone is talking about these days, but if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to ruminate on a different issue: whether students read syllabi at all. This is more of a problem on some campuses than it is on others, but the constant refrain of “it’s on the syllabus” can be heard throughout most North American colleges and universities.

The syllabus, as you know, is the critical document in any given course. This is where students learn what material will be covered in the class, what their homework is, when tests take place, the value of every assignment, and course and college policies. Many institutions consider it a legally binding contract, and once it has been distributed to the class, no changes can be made without the consent of the students in the class.

The syllabus therefore serves as a way for the professor to describe their vision of the course, but it also offers protection for students against disorganized instructors who might want to change deadlines or add assignments after the fact. It is a document to be loved and embraced – something that establishes rules that preside over the practical mayhem that inevitably occurs from time to time as a course unfolds.

Despite this, an astonishing number of students don’t read syllabi. And I’m not talking about the usual questions about what citation format an instructor would like to see, or how many sources are required in Assignment #2. I’m talking about basic syllabus literacy. Has student x even looked at the document? Do they understand how information is organized and what all of this means? And do have any concept that a proper understanding of the syllabus will help them succeed?

Unfortunately, in a large number of colleges and CEGEPS (less so at the large research institutions), students are not reading syllabi and definitely don’t seem to understand them even if they do take the time to take a peek. I think part of this is that shrinking budgets and environmental consciousness encourage instructors not to print and distribute paper copies of syllabi in class anymore. Instead, we talk about what’s on the syllabus, and ask students to make sure they’ve read the document over on their own time. Don’t get me wrong, saving all that paper is a good thing, but it does come with a few problems.

In many places, students do have laptops in class and can pull up the syllabus and follow along on the first day. However, I think it’s deeply flawed to think that they always do so. Here’s why:
1) Even the best lecturer has a hard time making the syllabus interesting and dynamic, so if ever there’s going to be a time when those rocking a laptop are looking at Facebook and/or shopping on Amazon, this is the moment.
2) Not everyone has a laptop in class, so you’ve completely lost any luddites in the room.
3) Half of the class either doesn’t show up on the first day or “add-drops” in and out, so they aren’t present when you talk about the syllabus anyway. This makes it seem like just one more piece of bureaucratic nonsense that they have neither the time nor the inclination to read on their own.

One of the only things that truly floored me when I made the move to CEGEP was that the students neither read nor cared about the syllabus (the other was the R-score, but I’ll save that for another day). Even at a very good school, the majority of them just didn’t see the point of this document when studying in a system where most of the information traditionally found on the syllabus is mirrored on the online classroom forum. The problem is, not all information found on the syllabus is reproduced via the online forum and so, for the first 2 weeks of class, I had a constant flow of students asking me how they were supposed to know what to read for which day. My move to Moodle has helped a little bit with the readings, but I still have some students who are confused about whether or not “that thing under today’s date” is the reading.

While I never encountered this sort of thing while teaching at the university level, it does seem similar to many of the problems I’ve heard about from friends who teach at small American colleges. I’d therefore like to think that I’m not alone at banging my head against a desk here.

I’ve tried combatting syllabus illiteracy by discussing what the syllabus is and why it’s important on the first day of class. I explain everything to my students that I just laid out for you. Despite this, absence and add-drops tend to mean that the students who need this talk the most are precisely the ones who don’t hear my shtick.

I’ve also tried reinforcing the message by making regular reference to the syllabus as I move forward throughout the class. Similarly, I reiterate that the syllabus is available online when I send out that first class-wide email reminding students about our readings (another CEGEP-specific practice that I’ve adopted to help students make the transition between high school and university).

So what do I propose we do about this? Well, first and foremost, I do think it’s important to keep trying to explain how a syllabus works and why it matters on the first day, and to do so explicitly. There’s still going to be that age-old problem with absences and add-drops; but if enough of us do this, theoretically students will learn syllabus literacy somewhere, at some point.

Also, I feel like we need to keep tweaking our online classroom model. Either we need to go all the way, and convert that online forum into something that fully replaces the syllabus – links to college plagiarism policy and all – or we need to make it look less like it contains all the course material a student could possibly need.

The most common online platform used by CEGEP instructors is something called Lea. Lea not only puts assignment due dates automatically onto students’ calendars, it also sends them a reminder when something is due. It does the same when a test is coming up, and it tracks students’ grades in real time.

All of this is great, but it seems to lull students into a false sense of security that they know everything without ever having to actually think about any of it. This is manifestly not the case, and lecture readings are a prime example of the type of work that students’ won’t be reminded to do without looking at the syllabus. So, if the online forum can’t outright replace the syllabus, then I think we need to find a new template that reiterates the absolute centrality of the syllabus as a course document. Maybe force students to click past it when logging on, or even just changing the default template so that it looks less like a syllabus?

This is one of those issues for which I lack a good solution, but it is something that I am determined to keep thinking about. In the meantime, until that epiphany comes, I will keep plugging away with my reminders about how important it is for students to be familiar with their syllabus, and I’ll keep fiddling with Moodle. I’ll do this until I’ve either figured it out… or, until I lose my mind. Given the ever-increasing levels of absent-minded professor syndrome from which I suffer, it may just be the latter. So if this blog randomly stops publishing, you’ll know what happened.

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