a syllabus format that promotes learning

Syllabus Format May Enhance Understanding of Course Requirements

Over the years, course syllabi have evolved from a simple document that outlines course objectives and requirements to an intimidating, multi-paged contract of terms and conditions for successful course completion. A number of writers have proposed syllabus makeovers, including some who’ve suggested the syllabus be offered in newsletter style. Others have proposed quizzing students on the syllabus as a way to encourage them to read it carefully.

We decided to try these two ideas and investigate if they helped students understand four essential course requirements: course objectives, course policies, procedures for late work, and the number of exams. Each of us created one traditional course syllabus and one graphically enhanced syllabus in newsletter format, randomly distributing each type on the first day of class. We quizzed students on the course requirements on the second day of class. Both syllabi contained identical content.

The newsletter syllabi were designed using a newsletter template readily available in word processing programs. The essential elements of the syllabus were placed in boxes, enhanced with graphic elements, and written in different fonts. We tried for designs that highlighted important parts and were graphically pleasing to read.

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Compulsory Attendance Policies: An Interesting Finding

Previous research and firsthand experience for most of us verify that attendance in class improves performance. Many of our students would still like to believe otherwise, but the positive relationship between attendance and performance reported in the research is robust and long-standing.

In a good example of research that goes beyond replicating what is well established, a group of business faculty members explored the attendance-performance connection in a more nuanced way. They studied the effects of a compulsory attendance policy on absenteeism and grades, as others have, but they looked specifically at the relationship for high- and low-achieving students.

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Preparing a Learner-Centered Syllabus

The Oxford Dictionary defines “syllabus” as “an outline of the subjects in a course of study or teaching.”

“Students who read a good syllabus are more likely to feel that course strategies have been designed to help them reach their goals, rather than merely as busywork or, worse, to torture them” ~ Slattery & Carlson, 2013, p. 159.
The syllabus literature tends to focus on “Here’s what makes a good syllabus,” but hasn’t addressed the following questions nearly as well: “What are the purposes of the syllabus?” and “What are the syllabus’ implications for learning?”

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student engagement

What Are the Characteristics of a Learner-Centered Syllabus?

A learner-centered syllabus shifts the syllabus emphasis from “What will be covered?” to “How can the course promote learning and intellectual development in students?”

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