To Syllabus or Not to Syllabus

In my dreams, my students pore over every carefully crafted word in my syllabus.  In reality, I know that many of my students pay as much atttention to my syllabus as they do to Facebook user agreements.

Many of us, at the beginning of every semester, hand out stacks and stacks of documents as dense as commercial contracts to our students and tell them that they contain very important information that they need to read.

We all use syllabuses in one form or another. Why do we need them? I view a syllabus as serving two sometimes conflicting purposes:

  • To give students important information they need to succeed in the course; such as the topics covered each week, the assigned reading, and how they will be evaluated. It is important that we get students to read this information sooner rather than later in the semester.
  • To give students notice of important course policies on, for example, missing tests or exams, grading, and academic dishonesty.  This information needs to at least be pointed out and made available to students.

How can we make sure students read what they really need to know and also give them notice of important policies?

This semester, I took a different approach. I trashed my syllabus and, like a good Chinese meal,  broke it down into bite-sized webpages on my course website.  In this age of Twitter and texting, who has the attention span to read a 10+ page syllabus? This is what the outline of my “Orientation & Course Overview Module” looks like on my course website:

Slate screenshot

You’ll notice that nowhere does the word “syllabus” appear.  I have noticed many educators have a habit of tossing around technical educational terms like syllabus, rubric, summative, cognitive, etc. without regard to their audience. In particular, these terms are used with students. I bet that most students have barely a clue about what these terms really mean.  Why not use plain, functional, descriptive language?

Hopefully, my new online syllabus will make important information more accessible for my students.

Wayland

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About Wayland Chau

Post-secondary educator involved in teaching and course design for face-to-face and online learning.
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