Understanding a Course Syllabus

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[sample syllabus page from my own]

There is a prevalent suspicion among the concerned faculty in higher-education: Many students may not utilize the course syllabi in their classes, and it take a toll in productivity of the education.

At the first meeting of each course, students usually receive a packet from their professor, called a syllabus. It contains lots of crucial information about how the course would be taught during the semester and what are the expectations from their professor. Often times, students learn a detailed information about the course first time from this packet. A clear understanding of such information can improve their chance of  success in that course. But, only if they read it, and more importantly, only if they understand it. Apparently, there seems to be a huge disconnect between what professors expect, and what students understand, from the (same) syllabus.

The Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at Austin describes about syllabus in the “Syllabus Support” section as follows: Your syllabus is a course description that serves three functions.  It is an invitation to your students to participate in your course by informing them of its rationale, learning outcomes, and content of the course and by providing an overview of the kinds of pedagogy, learning, and participation they can expect.  It is a contract between instructors and students that documents expectations for assignments, assessments, grade allocations, and student responsibilities. It is also a guiding reference to which students can refer for logistical information including the course schedule, office hours, required materials, and services available to them.  This page offers documents to help you in constructing and reviewing your syllabus to meet these three functions. (http://ctl.utexas.edu/new-faculty-resources/syllabus-support)

Fine. This is a good description about what a syllabus is for… for the professors. But do students understand in the same way?

As the university administrators increasingly emphasize more of ‘complete’ content of the course syllabi, the length of syllabi is ever getting longer and complex. The way a course syllabus is explained by each faculty in the class is however quite diverse: Some explain it as a guide while others more of a strict contract. Yet few faculty members check if their students actually read and understood that ‘guide’ or ‘contract.’ What can we do to help the students to better understand their course syllabi?

I need to admit that I often secretly blame the students in my mind when someone asks me such an obvious question that is so ‘clearly’ described in the syllabus (and I probably explained it several times in the class). I think “why don’t you read it first before you ask?” Although I do not brush off any student, I find myself usually explaining the matter by beginning with “As described in the syllabus…” Should I justify my response of providing the needed information to the students one way or another? Of course there are students who have legitimate questions when the circumstance is not quite clear to determine based on the syllabus description alone. But they are rather rare compared to the more common questions like, “When is our first midterm exam?” or “Do I need to study chapter 5 for the second midterm exam?”

I think distributing hard copies of the syllabus in the class and posting it online on the Learning Management System (e.g. Canvas or Blackboard) are all good and necessary, but more important thing is to let the students to have a chance to read it and ask questions to the professor at the first class. If feasible, conducting a ‘Syllabus Speed-Dating’ activity in the class by forming groups among the students can be very helpful. Another important thing that the professors should do for their students is to explain not only ‘what’ the students need to know, but also ‘why’ the planned activities or assignments are relevant for their learning, and ‘how’ their learning will be assessed. They need to show the students how much they will likely change (or transform) by the end of the semester due to the planned learning activities.

It might be helpful for many students if the university (or its academic support unit) provides a quick workshop about ‘better understanding/interpreting the course syllabus.’  This can save precious time for the professors to emphasize the importance of the syllabus itself and help more students to have a better idea on what to do with the syllabus.

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