“It’s all in the syllabus”, but why aren’t they paying attention?

 

College syllabi are often perceived as legal documents, with fine prints increasingly verbose, as the teaching profession itself gets complex, through integration of technology, innovations in teaching practices and the need to comply with various laws and regulations that have to be enforced on campuses.

For the protection of professors and students, it is still necessary to include “fine print” legalese in your instructional policies, which reside naturally in a syllabus container, unless better methods are invented and successfully promoted to replace the tradition. It is also necessary to have such detailed syllabi for course reviewers (university councils for instance) to have a consistent set of standards and formats to go by in evaluating new courses. Potential students may also appreciate consistent formats from an institution to be able to compare apples to apples when selecting courses.

However, “It’s all in the syllabus” is no guarantee for communication. While syllabi serve as legal documents, they should also have a communicative function. Here are a few suggestions to improve their potentials to communicate:

  1. Test students over syllabus content. To ensure students read your syllabus, create a short quiz. It does not have to be difficult. Design something “trivial” even! That should balance the seriousness of the tone in the syllabus. For instance, test them over your office location. You could also use such a quiz to familiarize students with the quizzing function of your learning management system. There is the stone to kill two birds! Alternatively, use games in class to test mastery of content in your syllabus. Ask students to conduct a scavenger hunt, or, as Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker did with a  “syllabus jigsaw puzzle” game, have groups focus on different parts of the syllabus, and present on each of them in class, so that, through sharing, students get a fuller picture of what you are expecting through the syllabus. However, be careful that not everything has to be internalized. Some requirements and policies should stay in the head, while others can live “in the world” (Norman, 1988), available to students when the need arrives. This will distribute their cognitive load for better learning.
  1. Apply sound design principles. To be fair, it is challenging enough at the beginning of the semester (the “drinking from the firehose” period) to read multiple pages of syllabi from different classes. Student will be all the more miserable if you are not considerate with the design of your message. In order to show students that certain messages are more important than others in your syllabus, sometimes I see professors seem to have put all fonts and colors together and throw a grenade into it to create quite a mess with all caps, italics, bold, colors, or all of the above, to call attention to important details, when the application of good design principles would create more engaging flow for reading and make emphasized content stand out in a natural way. Consider applying the PRAC principles(Proximity, Repetition, Alignment, Contract) described in Robin Williams’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book.   Move similar content, such as university policies together (proximity), repeat your pattern (such as use only bold for emphasis throughout the document), use consistent alignment scheme, and show contrast between subheadings and regular text.
  1. Put your syllabus on a diet. Instead of cramming everything into a gigantic syllabus, create an orientation module or page in your course. Put your printable syllabus on a diet by offloading to this orientation area such content as the schedule of activities, assignment requirements, and grading rubrics.  Canvas has “syllabus” tools that can automatically generate calendar items based on your due dates, and allow you to create links to pages which may be chunks of content from your syllabus. If students do not read a 5-page syllabus, they may click on a link to a page for grading policies only.
  1. Create alternative syllabus representations. While you may want to keep your “fine print”, “legal contract” version of the syllabus, create alternative representations of your syllabus to better communicate your expectations. For instance, use infographic, audio or video to represent information you would like to emphasize.   Adobe Slate is a fairly easy tool to use to create a flow of content with graphic. There are also various mindmapping tools for you to create advanced organizers or visual representations of your requirements. If you want to be even more creative, how about making a short movie about your course requirements?
  1. Translate action verbs into actionable items. Usually you describe in a syllabus what you would like students to do, and expect them to understand and act upon these descriptions.   I would suggest that you do not stop with action verbs. Use action items. For instance, instead of including a long rubric in your syllabus showing how you will grade a paper, create an assignment tool in your learning management system and associate it with a rubric. Directly use a rubric to grade their work. This will remove inconsistency between your assessment plan and actual actions. Another example: instead of making human decisions whether to accept a late assignment, use an assignment tool in Canvas to mark assignments as late, or prevent further submissions after the due dates. Instead of just posting an academic honesty policy, use originality checking tool (such as Turnitin) in your assignment collection process. In other words, your requirements will not just be “all in the syllabus”, but “all in the course”, spread out and close by when students work on tasks or when you grade them.

All of the suggestions above are based on the understanding that you will set requirements. You can also incorporate student insights and backgrounds by involving them in the development of your syllabus. When their input is incorporated, a syllabus is no longer the “law” a professor imposes, but a living contract for both parties to honor.

References:

  1. Norman, D. A. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things (1st ed.). New York: Basic Books.
  2. Williams, R. (2004). The Non-Designer’s Design Book (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press.

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