August 24th, 2011

What Does Your Syllabus Say About You and Your Course?


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?

36 comments on “What Does Your Syllabus Say About You and Your Course?

  1. It is interesting that as we try to assess our work as faculty (for important to us matters such as tenure and promotion), we are asked to provide evidence of the quality of our teaching. Many faculty have trouble with the fact that student evaluations are given so much weight and yet don't see their syllabi as an excellent teaching tool AND as evidence of who they are as a teacher. I've examined many course syllabi over the years and they are, at best, predominately used as class management tools…and at lower end of the quality spectrum, lists of rules and punishments for students.
    My question is — how do we really change this?

  2. Great post! I couldn't agree more about the importance of the syllabus to set the tone for the class, in addition to communicating critical information. I wrote a post awhile back that presents a "visual, 21st model" for a syllabus. Here it is in case you and your readers are interested.

    • I LOVE your visual syllabus! It's especially appropriate for an art course! I am thinking of creating a visual syllabus for my film, lit, and comp classes– even those I teach face-to-face. With most of us being visual learners and students being used to screens and icons of all kinds, a syllabus makeover like this makes sense! Thanks for sharing what you've done!

  3. Good article and reminder of how something is stated is just as important as the content itself. I agree, Garry, that we need to change the view if the syllabus from the student perspective – to be a helpful tool and not a punitive one.

    Thanks for the 'handouts' too!

  4. This is the kind of powerful and thought-provoking article that we have come to expect from the Teaching Professor blog. I am going to review my own syllabi against the background of the questions posed. I have often thought about how to make it more user friendly and how to ensure that my students read it. But there are many challenges. Some people do not come to the first class and they do not give the professor a chance to present him/herself as a non-traditional teacher. They assume that all syllabi are created equal and do not read it until they are ready to study for final examinations. In some cases this creates a lot of confusion. In the final analysis though we have to make sure that we do not oversell the case of a syllabus that motivates to the detriment of a syllabus that contracts. There is ample room for both.

  5. Oh, please. The syllabus, properly understood, is the brief course description in the college catalog. The course outline is a schedule of material to be covered. Course outlines have increasingly come to resemble railway tariffs as the handwringers in headquarters ask faculty to mention all sorts of things that have nothing to do with education.

    • Totally with you here. At least 50% of my syllabus has been filled with administrative crap that has nothing to do with the course. If a student were to read the damn thing, I'd probably have to waste a day explaining it. My department head recently told me that getting the format of the syllabus right was "the most important thing" I needed to do in planning and designing a new class. I wonder how the students feel about that? So far, the initial syllabus has been rejected for accurately quoting the course catalog, using the wrong font (the one established in the document), "violations" of the document formatting, and for unannounced additions to the administrative rules clauses. The lunatics are running the asylum.

      • I disagree. If you look up the disctionary description of syllabus, it is more than just the course outline from the course catalog. Most sources agree that it is a more inclusive description of the course, including topics, dates for assignments and exams, how the course will bve assessed, etc.

  6. I love this idea, until the very first student lawyer comes up with some kind of wacky behaviour and justifies it by saying "but the syllabus isn't clear!" If the purpose of your syllabus isn't to state your requirements in such a way that it is a defense against shenanigans, I would suggest you are a very new prof.

    • As one of the authors of the syllabus paper Maryellen was discussing, I am finding these replies terrifically interesting. We wrote the paper based on andragogical, rather than the dominant pedagogical, paradigm. I find Dr. B's comments about how adult students appreciate having the syllabus be a non-negotiable, nuts-and-bolts contract ironic, given andragogy's principles of educating adults. Perhaps the climate in the classroom follows a contractual nature, where students are focused on "gotcha!" kinds of justifications for "shenanigans" not covered on the syllabus. No syllabus will ever be able to cover every situation, or possible end-run around course policies. Our alternative is to create a course climate of mutual respect, where students don't try to pull that antagonistic behavior. We're in this together, right? When did professors and students become enemies? I have been teaching on a collegiate level for 15 years, and students almost without fail appreciate being treated as if they have some skin in the game in crafting a learning environment. Sure, some students want us to take ownership over their learning by pulling what "whatladder" relates. How much time do I spend on those students? Very little as compared to those who want to engage with their own learning. With respect to the posts supporting a contractual syllabus, I will say that one of the key conclusions in the paper is that instructors should be very aware of their own tolerance for ambiguity, and comfort level with sharing key course decisions with students. If you're not truly on board, then continue with the contractual format. It's worse for students if you ask them for input, then don't utilize it.

      • It's the odd one or two students who end up taking up the most time and causing the most stress, though. I had a student last semester who was determined to argue that it "wasn't clear" that there were 2 major assignments detailed on the syllabus. While 99.9% of all students understood the requirements, that one who decided to be adversarial in the hope of getting out of an assignment he forgot to do, or whatever, who caused me the most syllabus stress.
        I think a lot of profs start with a kinder, gentler syllabus, and then over the years they get student input that means they have to make it more and more of a defense against shenanigans.

        • Part 1: Agreed whatladder and Dr. B. There are many comments in this post that are quite intriguing. I've been in health care and health care education for 35 years (22 years teaching). I've observed that as time has gone by, more and more industries have increased their "rules" in response to legal and administrative … stuff, including the academic-industrial complex.

          For those folks who have issues with the "rules" in the classroom, how long are your system Codes? Ours in NV are over 400 pages long — doesn't seem that syllabi on the contractual level is out of line: faculty syllabi range from 1 page to 40 pages depending on the faculty member AND the program, not unlike the paperwork for the purchase of a house.

        • Part 2: There is a clear and pointed assault on higher ed to create more and more "Happy Teddies Kindergarten's" (HTK) at the expense of a quality higher education. Eventually, we'll price ourselves out of a market by having far too many "degreed" grads … who are unqualified to do much of anything from an academic perspective, much less from a professional perspective. It happened with the high school diploma and it's happening with the associate degree. The baccalaureate degree is next on the chopping block.

          Faculty, administrators, institutions and "systems" need to take a hard look at Princeton's solution to grade inflation as a part of not condoning HTK's and take higher ed back, rigor-wise, to pre-No Kid Gets Ahead. Syllabi are the least of our worries: administrators and politicians who permit students to run all over faculty are worthy of greater reports. The "lunatics ARE running the asylum"!, ForProfit And we wonder why grad school enrollments are down and grad degrees granted to US students are down? The answers are right in front of us if we'll look … and see.

  7. I couldn't disagree more. I teach college. Students pay big bucks to be here. My syllabus is not a place to give my them warm fuzzies. It's a place to list, contract-style, exactly what they need to accomplish to get the grade and at what level of competency to get the grade they're hoping for, to inform them of what they can and cannot do in class, and to inform them about what resources are available to support them. Excitement, intrigue, and wonder? They'll get that directly from me if they make the effort to come to class. Have all the decisions about the course been made? Yes, out of fairness, and because our legal department says we have to stick with what the syllabus says in terms of course expectations and not let the course be derailed mid-term because someone or other has this brilliant idea of something else to do. Ask students for feedback on the syllabus? Yes, on the first day of class, after we go over it: "Are there any questions about the syllabus? Is everything clear? Good. Expect a quiz over it on the first day of lab." Is all the focus on logistical details? Yes, because that's what a syllabus IS. It's not a sales pitch for Happy Teddies Kindergarten. It's a contract between my adult students and me.

    • Even in your disagreement, though, you indicate that the article does indeed hit home. Your language and the tone of your comment indicate that you consider anything other than a strictly contractual syllabus is something to belittle–and I'm guessing your course is well-structured and follows your sense of the right way to teach to the letter. It is your course and I'm not here to judge it or your approach to the syllabus.

      My version of "I teach college" is that I offer students in my class an opportunity to develop self-respect, respect for others, and new, broader horizons that standardized testing and teaching to the lowest common denominator in high school have all but completely squashed. Such things are not fostered in an environment that does not allow students to question, and possibly to question even the rules themselves. I can have a course of open ideas and still have high standards. Not all of my students will be mature enough to navigate my classes and there will be some who test me each semester. But that does not mean my teaching, my syllabus, or my vision of "college" is something to be demeaned.

    • I am an attorney and a tenured full professor and I agree whole-heartedly with your assessment, Dr. B. It is not to belittle those, like David H., who choose to adopt a different governance model in their classrooms. A teacher is free to approach his/her class in any manner they see fit, as long as they compy with the standards at that insitution and the law. However, failing to clearly articulate the course expectations and standards in the syllabus, as well as the consequences for failing to abide by them, is not a very prudent approach in my opinion and invites potential legal entanglements. Also, while group decision making may have several appealing aspects, lengthy debates over these issues could easily wind up detracting from the time spent on the subject matter of the course. So unless you are teaching a governance or leadership course, that might be hard to justify. Yes, students want and should be given independence and a chance to express their creativity. But they also want, and expect, the faculty member to provide a sense of structure in the classroom. I think there are better ways and more appropriate vehicles to encourage student independence, creativity, critical thinking, and than in the course syllabus.

  8. This is the kind of touchy-feely nonsense that engenders the entitled attitude that we face in the classroom. I'm to consult my students on my syllabus? On what, precisely? The lack of flexibility in my due dates? Perhaps the rigour of the reading schedule? Do you mean that I should ask them if they think my requirement of a medical certificate for an excused absence or an extension for a late assignment is too much?

    I rather think that my (presumably) adult students should be treated as such, and not be asked to take a quiz on the content of the syllabus to prove they've read it. How is a second-year student qualified to judge my syllabus? Or am I no longer the one paid to teach this class?

  9. I agree 100% with Dr. B. I believe students appreciate a well written and concise list of expectations, grading criteria and classroom etiquette. The professor sets the standards and rules for his or her own class. After 22 years of teaching college, I have had several students who tthought they could change anything they wanted. the spoiled youth of today. Thank you Dr. B . Well stated.

  10. In what way is letting students have a voice in course assignments and policies not treating them like adults? It seems like that is exactly the way that adults would want to be treated. It does not mean letting students make all the decisions. It just means giving them options that you, as the instructor and the one who DOES have the best idea of what they need to learn, can live with (i.e., any of the choices would result in student learning to accomplish your goals). If the students feel empowered, they will be more connected and invested in the course.

    • Forgot to mention – I have been teaching college students since 1988. Making a change to more student-centered teaching methods is, however, fairly recent for me, and it is working well.

  11. I'm a fairly new professor (adjunct currently in my 2nd year of teaching). I teach at the community college level, and part of my frustration comes from the fact that many of my students come from what I consider to be a "dumbed down" K-12 education. I have 18 year-olds in my class who can barely string together a grammatically correct sentence. How on earth did these students manage to graduate high school? I don't think it matters what content/department area you teach – students who cannot write a coherent paragraph on any topic are going to have difficulty when they get into the real world. Perhaps I have pretty strong expectations for students at the community college level. I just wish our K-12 institutions had equally strong ones as well.

    • I taught secondary mathematics for 20 years before becoming a college professor. I am not pleased with a good share of the present high school graduates. Having a daughter that is a secondary educator I have listened to her tell me exactly what is wrong with the K-12 system. For the most part it is not the teachers, IT IS the administration, time and time again. They value their high paying job over backing their teachers that are in the trenches putting up with the crap the students and parents are giving them. My secondary administrators backed the teachers rather than candoring to the parents! Times have changed. It is now the teachers that are caught in the middle between the parents and the administrators. The teachers are in a no win situation. Our society has too many kids raising kids!

    • Anne – one characteristic I see from our current students at the Master's-level institution in which I teach is their lack of retention. They frequently do very well in my class, go to the next one in the sequences and have no knowledge at all of what they learned. "Cram and purge, as the information can always be found" seems to be a common theme. To shortcut that, I now tell my students that their next class will NOT repeat this information, so put it into long term memory (which means study repetition, frequently and with focus, is required!) When they enter the next class they will have a graded exam the end of their first week that is over the precursor material — and if you do not score a 90%, then you need to go back and review! We just implemented this last year, and we are hoping the student grapevine will ramp up pretty soon with the information that you cannot cram and purge.

    • I agree with the "dumbed down" comment about K-12. They can't add either. I have had remedial math classes where the students can't add fractions. The really frightening part is that these remedial classes are filled with students who want to be K-3 teachers because they don't have to teach fractions. A LEGACY OF STUPIDITY.

  12. Anne, Do remember that if you are teaching "in a community college" that many of the courses you teach are transfer courses to a 4 year institution and, hence, are "college" or "university" "level". Don't sell yourself short 🙂 I do hear your frustration regarding No Kid Gets Ahead and what is (and has been) happening to our public schools. In my area, I've assessed both MATH and Reading skills — the Reading assesses, on average, such that at the beginning of the semester, that students find 10th grade too challenging to read; at the end of the semester, they're reading at grade 13+. And remediating students is by no means limited to just incoming students from high school: it's also occuring in courses that require college pre-req's that are not presented at an appropriate level, e.g., I have many sophomore students who do not have appropriate freshman lab skills who I have to "remediate".

  13. I like this post and the comments. I would like to know if some one has posted about the the first day course. What should be talked or taught apartfrom the giving and describing the content of the syllabus? Also how to manage a class having more than 80 first year students?
    Professor at university of Quebec at Chicoutimi

    • Dilip – I too have freshman courses with more than 80 students :-/ I am candid with them that I would prefer half that many, but the larger class sizes are a necessary consequence of the state legislature's declining support (from 89% when I started college 30 years ago to about 62% now…and the trajectory is arcing). So I talk about why it is important that we recognize this reality and deal with the consequences —- heavy perfume/cologne in a full lecture hall disrupts learning and may cause health consequences. Ringing cell phones cause distractions of others, reducing their learning. Playing electronic games on your laptop — even if the sound is off! — distract those behind you from paying attention and participating in class. Be good class citizens and facilitate the learning of others……This conversation has worked well for me. In the past I have given an electronic quiz over the syllabus, rather than reading it to them. This year I am giving the test in class as a solo-pair share-class discussion activity. Yes, this is graded. Yes, if you missed class you must come to my office and take the quiz. We will see how it works. Good luck!

  14. Society, our peers, and my institution requires that the syllabus be a clear and complete communication of expectations of student behavior, performance, and learning expectations while also articulating course policies and procedures. The consequences of student complaints and grievances over a less-than-complete syllabus have resulted in a faculty committee giving the students what to me seem to be unreasonable leeway….so the syllabus becomes more detailed in the policies and procedures of the course. Lately, though, I have been adding in more details —- why this course is required in the major or in general studies, what specific learning goals the course has (and then I ask a self-reflection question at the end of the course), more details on how to request reasonable accommodations and how that process unfolds, my teaching philosophy (which includes 'learning is work, hard work, that takes time, energy, investment,,….). I have also added what they can expect from me — in most cases, email response in 24 hours during the business week, graded assignments returned as soon as possible but generally in less than a week, civility, high expectations with support to reach that level of performance, etc.
    Joyce, professor

  15. As a student – I think this is a great post. A lot of the times the first day of class seems like the whole goal of the teacher is to scare as many students away from the class as possible by laying down the law in such a way that is almost hard to believe. Obviously some students always will try to game the system, but others (like me) are eager to learn and are very open and receptive to positive tone in the syllabus. Thanks for the post! It is fun and encouraging for me to read all these posts from professors who make such a big impact in the lives of students like me.

  16. Students play lawyer and look for all the loopholes to challenge their grades. The syllabus is viewed as a contract and must be specific. In any contract, vague clauses are interpreted against the maker of the contract. Furthermore, the more detailed and specific the syllabus, the lesser the chance of facing a favoritism (or discrimination) allegation. Let the lecture be the opportunity to excite them. I can't believe any "Why Johnny can't be happy with having to meet deadlines and both read/comply with instructions " liberalism would be under any consideraton! One colleague's syllabus started off with, Grow up, you're in college now." Another wrote, "This syllabus is non-negotiable."

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  1. […] What Does Your Syllabus Say About You and Your Course?: This one got me thinking the most of the articles in the two lists… I am sure that the syllabus for our Open Education course didn’t convey what we really wanted, and I’ll think quite a bit before we teach the course again. We covered the mechanics, not the engagement and liveliness that we wanted to see in the course. […]