As a new academic year begins in many parts of the United States, my social network is being flooded with colleagues’ painful posts about getting students to read the syllabus. Many complain that students just don’t read the syllabus and constantly ask questions that could easily be answered if the students more closely examined the document. This week’s post is dedicated to strategies to help instructors “teach the syllabus” and to reduce the need to say, “It’s in the syllabus!”
1. Don’t hand them out during the first day of class. While many students expect to receive the course syllabus from you on the first day, they may be receiving four or five other syllabi for other courses during that first week. As they’re being bombarded with syllabi from many different classes with different attendance policies and grading criteria, it’s understandable that some students may have trouble separating the content. Introducing the syllabus during the second class could help focus the students’ attention on the syllabus content and provide time for building classroom culture and a collaborative learning community. Note: some universities may require distribution of syllabi during the first day of class. Check with your administration to be sure.
2. Screencast your syllabi. Instead of spending time in class going over the whole syllabus, consider recording yourself introducing the major aspects and posting the video online so students can refer to it as needed. Industrious instructors could take it one step further and record a series of screencasts that chunk the syllabus into digestible bits. Maybe have one video that focuses on grading policies and another that focuses on the major assignments of the class. By creating a series of recordings, students could refer back to only those videos with which they have questions.
3. Flip it. Instead of taking time during the first class going over the schedule and procedures, flip the lesson to focus more on application of the syllabus content. In this strategy, students would watch recorded syllabus videos before coming to class. During class, the students would be presented with application-based scenarios that they would need to solve based on their understanding of the syllabus. For example, students could be asked something like:
“Mary hands in an assignment on Wednesday. The assignment was originally due on Monday. How much of a reduction in grade should Mary expect based on the grading criteria in the syllabus?”
This would help students not just focus on the content contained in the syllabus but also how the content are applied in real scenarios.
4. Jigsaw it. Rather than painfully reading the entire syllabus to your students, hand out the syllabus in small groups and have them each examine a section in detail. After each group has fully examined their assigned section, assemble individuals from each group to present to one another. This helps to provide a more holistic view of the syllabus and puts the students in charge of their learning.
5. Have students sign a contract. The Institute for Learning and Teaching at Colorado State University recommends using contracts with students. Having students agree to the “schedule and procedures stated therein” may help motivate them to read the syllabus before signing their name on the dotted line.
6. Quiz them. In a study published in 2002 in Teaching Psychology, instructors at Clemson University examined the impact of quizzes on students’ knowledge and comprehension of syllabus content. Students were given true/false and short answers questions that related to the syllabus. The researchers found that the quiz helped motivate students to better read the syllabi in depth since they knew they would be assessed on it. Some innovative instructors may want to combine strategies and embed questions in a recording of a syllabus. By using a site like EdPuzzle, instructors could introduce the syllabus and assess their understanding simultaneously without using class time.