Your Syllabus is a Contract with your Students

With the fall semester behind you and the spring semester in the planning stages, it’s a good time to reflect on your syllabus as a contract between you and your students.

image from: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1583

Typically, a course syllabus introduces the course and its main goals, as well as has some kind of calendar with readings and types of assignments. In addition, many syllabi also have the “rules of the road” for the course. Things like the late policy, attendance policy, grading policies, etc. These items are like a kind of contract with your class. You expect them to abide by the policies and, likewise, they expect you to abide to them.

If you are teaching a course this spring that you have taught before, you have an opportunity to improve the syllabus.

What aspects of your syllabus worked and what aspects didn’t? I often find that I wish I had a firmer late policy in my syllabus or a clearer statement about extensions on assignments. I usually have a couple of students who have great difficulty turning their work in on time. There are middle-of-the-night email pleas for extensions because of anxiety, personal problems, illness, family problems/disturbing news from home or friends…..It’s hard not to feel sympathy for these issues. It’s hard to just follow a late policy that you wrote when you hadn’t met the students in your class yet. Many of us will go ahead and let a student turn something in late or we won’t take the full penalty for the late assignment- in other words we don’t follow our contract the same way for all students. For how long will you accept late work? One week? Two? As long as classes are in session? What if the student has issues that interfere with every assignment? Should a syllabus have a statement about that? Now is a good time to think about these issues while the previous semester is still pretty recent in your memory. A number of my colleagues have “grace days” that students can use throughout the semester. If you have three grace days, a student can decide which assignments could really benefit from the additional time. I like this idea and plan to use a version of this in my syllabus this coming semester.

What about your assignments? Did you have too many? Too few? Did you cluster most of the work to be due in the final two or three weeks of the term? How did this play out with your class? There may be very good pedagogical reasons for having all the big assignments due at the end of the semester. Often these big assignments (term papers, research papers, final projects) are designed as culminating assignments that integrate the course material. But, if a student has one of these in each course due the last day of class AND then has a cumulative final exam or project on top of that, the amount of stress and anxiety surrounding all these large, weighty assignments coming due in a short period of time might not result in the best pedagogical outcome.

A lot of courses have several weeks at the beginning of the term without any assignments coming due. This often feels like the honeymoon period of the course. We tend to think the students are interested and engaged in the course material, we are building our relationships with our students, getting to know them. The relationships can turn just a little bit adversarial once you hand back the first graded exam or paper, so we often want to postpone that change for as long as possible. It’s crucial to have an early graded assignment, however. Students need to know if the effort they are putting into the course is effective. We need to know if our students are learning what we hope they are learning. This early feedback is crucial. My next post will explore this topic a little bit more.

What do you want your syllabus to tell your students? Here are the major elements that I think should be in every syllabus, at a minimum:

  • The goals of your course
  • How the course grade will be determined
  • Policies about assignments, late work, absences and the like
  • A calendar of readings, due dates for assignments
  • A statement about procedures and College policies for students with disabilities.
  • Often a syllabus will also contain information about institutional policies about academic honesty.

These are the contract details. Some course syllabi also provide a little bit of context and advertisement about the course, a little spice. I like to give students some ideas about why the course is of interest or how it will be useful for them or what outcomes I hope for them. I usually also provide some information about some of the formats they will encounter in the course. For example, if the classroom sessions will involve student-led discussion or lecture or small group work/activities. I usually put this sort of information at the beginning of the syllabus and the rules parts later on.

A well thought-out course syllabus is a key ingredient to a successful course. This contract you make with the students will give them clear expectations, both what you plan to do and how you plan to do it AND what they need to do to be successful in your course.

How will you make certain your students read the syllabus and understand it? Some faculty go over the syllabus on the first day. I frequently incorporate the syllabus in a first day ice-breaker activity. Some have their students take a short quiz on the syllabus. It’s a good idea to review assignment and attendance policies every now and then, too. Or you can wear this shirt:

image from: http://vitalsourcelife.wordpress.com/2010/10/24/syllabus-hell-week-james-beuerlein-d-c-student/

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