Faculty Focus

HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS

The Straight Scoop Syllabus

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There is no shortage of professorial eye rolling when it comes to the subject of students and syllabi. Students might read the syllabus, but they typically don’t absorb the information presented within it, and they don’t seem to refer to it as a resource for information.  When fielding student questions about matters that are already addressed in the syllabus, faculty grow understandably weary, frustrated…vexed. 

To incentivize student comprehension of the document, it’s common for faculty to require completion of a syllabus quiz, or a syllabus affirmation statement: “I have read and do understand the syllabus.”

And yet, the questions persist. “Is there extra-credit?” It’s in the syllabus.  “Can I make up the exam?”  It’s in the syllabus. 

The bigger issue is the struggle to convince students that the syllabus is a valuable information source; that it can be referred to as a means to answer a variety of questions about topics that range from late submissions to office hours. There are a couple reasons for this disconnect:

  1. The syllabus is generally not reader-friendly.  It is designed as a contract, and contracts are unpleasant to read. In fact, contracts are typically the opposite of reader-friendly.  They are downright reader-hostile. 
  2. A syllabus is a manual, and no one reads instruction manuals, generally speaking.  Need proof?  Ask the team who works the technology helpdesk at your institution. They diligently send out instructions at every software update, and you know what happens?  

Faculty hit them with questions that were already addressed in the instructions. 

As a means to make syllabi better, the concept of the student-centered (or learner-centered) syllabus has been a fixture in academic literature for at least three decades.  A modern reader might expect that a student-centered syllabus would be informal and conversational, perhaps a pared-down document with just a few important facts.  

In fact, however, guidelines for a student-centered syllabus are more general. They direct faculty to develop syllabi with information that provides students with a roadmap for success in the course. A student-centered syllabus should provide students with information about expectations and policies that they’ll need over the course of the class. 

What other sort of syllabus is there?

That is, when it comes to syllabus development, the term “student-centered” is an adjective that is almost meaningless. It is the same as the syllabus formatting required at most institutions.

Occasionally, institutions will endorse a more conversational, informal writing style in a syllabus. This endorsement, however, does not constitute a retreat from the requirements to include policies written in language that have traditionally made syllabi unreadable. 

Given this history, let’s begin with an assumption, and see what we can do to make the information on syllabi more accessible.

The assumption: Institutions of higher learning will continue to require certain opaque administrative statements on every syllabus. No one will want to read these statements, in part, because they appear on every syllabus, so they are redundant; and in part, because they are written by lawyers and compliance experts. Neither field is famous for its compelling writing style. That is to say, no matter what, the official course syllabus will continue to be reader-hostile.

Given these conditions, consider the following alternative route: Distribute the regular institutional syllabus, replete with all of its impenetrable verbiage…but then, create a Straight Scoop Syllabus, give that to students too.  What’s in a Straight Scoop Syllabus?

The Straight Scoop Syllabus

Assignments and deadlines: This is the first thing any student wants to know: Each required task, and the timeline in which it should be accomplished.

Textbook requirements: Because textbooks are related to financial investments, this is also of great interest to students. If there are other expenses associated with the courses, this should be disclosed as well. 

Notable features that are unique to your course (or FAQs): As important as grievance procedures are, they are not unique to any course. On the other hand, your extra-credit policy or your late policy may be unique. The straight scoop should highlight those features. 

And a FAQ section just makes sense. It stands for Frequently Asked Questions, and that’s exactly what this syllabus companion piece should help address. 

Contact information: It’s a good idea to share the best way to get in touch with you: Email, office hours, and any other point of contact. 

The Straight Scoop Syllabus should provide this information in a reader-friendly style. The field of copywriting studies how to make written (or spoken) text compelling and engaging. For modern readers, that means liberal use of bullet points, short paragraphs, and a casual voice. For those who want to go the extra mile, some professors actually format class information as an infographic.

And yes, it’s a little extra work. But that extra work pays off twice—it manages syllabus questions, and it shows your students that you understand what it’s like to read a syllabus.