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The Skills Agenda

How to get students to read your syllabus

Use the first class of the term to show students how to use the syllabus and create a plan to direct them back to the syllabus over the semester.

BY LOLEEN BERDAHL | AUG 27 2021

When we craft our courses to incorporate skill building and other learning outcomes, the syllabus is key. As I’ve suggested in previous columns, the syllabus is the best place for students, and you, to connect everything together and to see the learning outcomes all in one place and how each part of the course serves a learning outcome. This is especially important as you integrate skill building into your course; you want students to know exactly what you are doing. You can and should be discussing what learning outcomes you’re addressing regularly during the course. But the syllabus is the first, best and most enduring way to let them to know your own skills agenda for the course.

One of the most common instructor complaints is that students don’t read the class syllabus. In addition to inspiring internet memes, this complaint can be a great source of frustration to instructors. Why do we spend so much time crafting our syllabi if the students don’t read them?

Image source: Loleen Berdahl.

Some students, in particular first generation and international students, may not be fully aware of the importance of the syllabus to their own academic success. Much of the time though, students know perfectly well that the syllabus is a master document for the course. However, they often don’t think about it until they need specific information. Then, they either can’t fine the information they’re looking for or perhaps are confused by it and other course resources and university policies.  Unless your institution requires all course syllabi to look exactly the same, students can easily become unsure of navigating between up to five different syllabi – each perhaps very well designed but all following a different pattern appropriate to the course.

Regardless of the reason for students not reading the syllabus or not sufficiently absorbing and understanding, this issue is a “known known” of academic life. And as such, we can prepare for and address it.

For students to get the most out of your course and your skill building and learning outcome goals, you need to show them why it’s worth their while to study the syllabus as a document. Here are some easy ideas for how to do this:

Make the syllabus available to the students prior to the first class and let them know they need a copy for the first class

Put the syllabus in the course learning management system (LMS) at least a few days prior to the first class. Alert students to its availability and inform students through a class-wide email or announcement that they will need to have a copy with them at the first class. For example:

Dear GEOG 248 students,

 

I look forward to meeting you at our first class on Thursday. To help you prepare, I have made the syllabus available to you on our class Moodle site. You will need to have a copy with you at our first class, so be sure to either bring a print copy or have an electronic copy on your laptop/tablet. Please bring any questions you might have about the syllabus to the first class.

 

See you Thursday!

 

Best,

Professor Johnson

Engage the students with the syllabus during the first class (or first week, for online classes)

To have students see the syllabus – rather than you – as their starting point for information about the course, make the document a central part of your first class and require them to engage with it directly. (For in-person classes, you may wish to bring a few printed copies for the students who missed or ignored your class email.)

Note that I used the word “engage.” Don’t lecture them about the syllabus. Instead, design an activity that requires them to search out information in the syllabus. Research suggests that students pay more attention to the evaluation components of syllabi (information on assignments, due dates and so forth) than other components. Given this, you may wish to focus your activity on the non-evaluation components or tie the non-evaluation components to the evaluation components. This can help to reinforce the point that the syllabus is more than a list of due dates and readings and can help students develop the skills to turn to the syllabus for answers in the future.

Here are six syllabus activity ideas to spur your own thinking:

  • Learning outcome mapping. Assign one of the course learning outcomes to groups of two to four students. Each group must map how that particular learning outcome relates to the course content and course evaluation components.
  • Figure out why activity. Have students review the class policies in small groups. For each policy, ask the students to discuss why they think the policy exists. (For example, why do assignments need to be submitted over the learning management system and not over email?) Follow this with a class discussion about the rationale for the class policies.
  • Jargon search. In pairs, have students review the syllabus and highlight any words that they don’t believe the average person knows or uses regularly. Have students write these down and hand them to you, and then explain the words in plain language to the class.
  • Syllabus quiz. Hand out a quiz with 10 true or false or fill-in-the-blank questions that can be answered with information in the class syllabus. Have groups of students work together to complete the quiz. Review the answers with the full class, inviting any questions for clarification.
  • FAQ search. Create a list of frequently asked questions that you have received in the past. Have students work in pairs to find the answers in the syllabus.
  • Personal assessment. Provide students with a feedback sheet on the syllabus that asks them to connect personally with it. For example: Which of the course learning outcomes interests you the most, and why? Which of the course assignments do you think will be the most challenge to you, and why? (Questions adapted from Linda Nilson’s Teaching at Its Best, pp 40-41.)

If it is your style, you may wish to add in fun or competitive elements (e.g., first three groups to finish are rewarded with chocolate bars). Positive associations with the course syllabus can only be a good thing.

Create an email signature reply that guides students back to the syllabus

I am a big fan of using different email signatures to save time in responding to common queries, such as student requests for information that is already available to them in the syllabus. An email signature provides you with template text that you can adapt as appropriate to the specific email query.

You can use the signature template to politely redirect students to seek out the answers to their questions in the syllabus. Here is some sample text to inspire your own email signature for “it’s in the syllabus” queries:

Dear [student name],

 

Thank you for your question. Good news: the answer is available to you in our class syllabus, which can be found on our class Moodle site. Just look under the [policies/assignments/readings] section and the information is right there. If you have any questions beyond the information in the syllabus, please let me know.

 

See you Thursday!

 

Best,

Professor Johnson

Why not just answer their question? In my opinion, failing to redirect the student to the syllabus is a missed opportunity for the student to develop their own skills to seek out answers on their own. That being said, if you sense the student is under stress, just give them the answer kindly. When in doubt, choose compassion.

(Not sure how to create email signatures? Check out this helpful 3-minute video.)

Refer back to the syllabus regularly over the term

Continuously remind students as the term goes on that the syllabus exists for them as a resource. For example, when discussing class assignments, directly reference the syllabus. Explicitly tie your class content to the learning outcomes over the course, “as described in the syllabus.”  And, if it fits your personal style, you can even get an “it’s in the syllabus” t-shirt for your wardrobe.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

How do you motivate or incentivize your students to read the course syllabus? Please let me know by commenting below or by connecting with me on Twitter at @loleen_berdahl and using the hashtag #SkillsAgenda.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

ABOUT LOLEEN BERDAHL
Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Dr. Berdahl’s most recent books include Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press; with Jonathan Malloy) and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science (Oxford University Press; now in its 4th edition with Jason Roy).
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  1. Christopher Yorkson / September 1, 2021 at 13:45

    Since I’ve started teaching in Canada, I’ve been encouraged to:

    1–tailor assignments to students individual needs, realizing that many can’t write well, either because they have poor preparation or cannot write in the language of instruction…

    2–to help graduate students with basic preparedness that used to be expected of undergrads

    3–to help students learn to use a library

    4–to help students learn to write a 5 paragraph essay

    5–to gamify my teaching

    6–to……

    And now I am being encouraged to teach my students to read a syllabus.

    When I got a PhD I didn’t think I was preparing to teach grade school.

    When do we say: “Enough! This is simply idiotic!”?

  2. JB Orange / September 1, 2021 at 17:46

    My research coordinator gave me a few years ago a mug emblazoned with the following inscription, “The ANSWER is in the SYLLABUS”. I bring the mug to each class (F-2-F and online), filling it with tea or water. The students see me drink from the mug, presumably being reminded to ‘check the syllabus’. I also insert a PP slide into my first class slide deck with a short video in which I hold up the mug, rotating it so that the students can see and read what is written on the mug …. and yet I still receive questions in which “The ANSWER is in the SYLLABUS” …. sigh