A colleague shared an excellent but not yet published paper on the syllabus. It got me thinking as this is the time of year when most of us are revisiting these venerable documents. Oh, I know, some of you finished yours back in May when the semester ended. And then there are the rest of us who are working on them feverishly as the beginning of new academic year quickly approaches.
Whether yours are ready to go or just being developed, all our syllabi merit a critical review on a regular basis. I’d like to share some questions to think about as you take a contemplative look at your syllabus.
How would you characterize the tone of your syllabus? Is it friendly and inviting or full of strongly worded directives? Is the focus on what students will be learning or on all those various things that they should and shouldn’t be doing? Why do we feel so strongly that we have to lay down the law in the syllabus? Do we need a policy to cover every possible contingency? Do multiple prohibitions, rules and pointed reminders develop student commitment to the course?
Does your syllabus convey the excitement, intrigue and wonder that’s inherently a part of the content you teach? Does it hint at or openly state the enthusiasm you feel about teaching this great subject? Does it mention the many things students will know and be able to do as a consequence of their engagement with the content? If you read this syllabus, would you say the course is taught by somebody who loves learning?
Does your syllabus indicate that all the decisions about the course have been made? Or does it leave some options up to students or identify some areas where they might have a hand in deciding some of the details associated with the course? Is it really necessary for the teacher to make all the decisions about the course? When the teacher decides everything, how does that affect the motivation to learn? Does teacher decision-making help students develop as independent learners?
Have you ever asked students for feedback on your syllabus? Try this, wait until three or four weeks into the course and ask students to take out the syllabus and in a five-minute free write tell you anonymously what they thought about the course and the instructor on that first day when you went over the syllabus. Or, ask them to describe their sense of an ideal syllabus. Or, ask them to write about the most unusual syllabus they’ve ever encountered. Or, inquire why so many students don’t read their syllabi, and if you’re really daring find out if they have or haven’t read the syllabus in your course and ask why.
The authors of the paper I mentioned think we’re too oriented to the syllabus as a contract and I have to agree. When the focus is on all the logistical details, all the terms of this particular learning deal, we miss an opportunity to generate enthusiasm for the course, indeed, for learning.
Syllabi can convey messages that build rapport between the teacher and students and they can help create community among students. I know courses need policies, students need guidelines and some students take advantage of teachers. But I wonder if we don’t err on the side of being too defensive in our syllabi. We could all benefit from discussion of these syllabus-related issues, and I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comment below.
It’s also a great discussion to have with a colleague. Give a trusted colleague your syllabus and ask him or her what they conclude about the course and the instructor based on the syllabus. If you’re not comfortable doing that with your own syllabus, there are lots available online and one of those can be considered in light of these questions.
I have three final questions for you: Have you ever thought about creating a syllabus that invites students to a learning event they just might want to attend? What would that syllabus look like? How different would it be from the syllabi you’re polishing and posting for this Fall?