Thursday, January 24, 2013

Teaching the Syllabus

I have taken so much pleasure in crafting my syllabi. It has always been one of the things that I most look forward to planning and writing. Over the years my syllabi have varied from a few pages to twenty (when I included all the assignments for the entire semester), and I have taken great pains to choose just the right font and images, and honed my statements on everything from "Participation" to "Academic Honesty" carefully.

Regardless, I have come to realize that my students do not have the same relationship with their paper syllabi that I did when I was a student.  In general, I do not see students reading it in detail, highlighting and marking it up, or transferring its important dates to their college work planner.  It is entirely possible that after the first day of class they might not look at my beautiful creation ever again.  Most students are what I call "post-paper": it is easier, for them, to email me (from anywhere at any time) to ask me what the assignment is than to find and read the syllabus for the information they need.  I have to admit, it is easier for me to do the same thing--find a copy of the document on one of my many electronic devices within reach instead of locate the hard copy of my syllabus. In my online classes, "covering" the syllabus is conspicuously absent.  There are welcome messages, announcements, and activities, but I never spend time covering the syllabus--it's all there for students to use when they need it.  But the course seems none the weaker for it.

Beyond problems with the nature of the document itself are doubts about its place in my course.  The first day of class is still so exciting to me, and the syllabus is part of that routine.  However, after general introductions and an icebreaker, too much of the first day of class is reading from a document that I have printed for students, and the process of reading or covering of the syllabus is unrecognizable as what I would do in any other class throughout the rest of the semester.

I know that I want to familiarize students with the course on the first day of class, but I'm breaking every rule about student learning to do it in the way I have done in the past.  Especially because of my experiences teaching online, I am starting to think of the syllabus in all classes as a reference text, like an encyclopedia of relevant parts of the course, and therefore reading it in its entirety is not a logical or coherent use of it as a reference: we refer to encyclopedias when we have specific questions, not to read in their entirety from A to Z.  Do I really need to talk about Academic Honesty on the first day of class, out of context and before students have submitted any work?

My question remains: What are effective ways to teach the syllabus?  Part of the answer to this question comes from the individual goals we used to inform the construction of the syllabus as well as what our goals are for the first day of class.

  • What metaphor would you use to describe your syllabus?   Is the syllabus your blueprint?  A map?  Bread crumbs? A contract?  How does that metaphor suggest the role your syllabus should have in your course?
  • What goals do you have for the first day of class?  
  • How can we meet those goals (using a conventional syllabus or not)? 
  • If you want students to "know" it, how should we teach it? 
  • What are better ways to do this (other than reading the syllabus on the first day of class)?

The most important goals I have for the first day of class are starting to learn students' names, establishing the learning environment of the class, and explaining where they can find information about assignments and general expectations.  I'm certain that reading my syllabus does not facilitate any of these goals, and that students don't "learn" the syllabus either.  So many emails, in-class questions, and office-hour conferences have proven this: "When is this due?  What is the attendance policy?  What are the grading criteria?  When are your office hours?"  As we know all too well, those "It's on the syllabus" memes come from a very real phenomenon.

I don't know that I have a solution to this problem--or whether this is even something I would consider a "problem"--but I remain suspicious of a practice that has been an important part of my teaching since my first day in the classroom. Given what we know about student learning, I'm fairly certain that "covering the syllabus" does not accomplish the goals I have.

Because there is a policy, I will continue to write a syllabus, but I also plan to make it a more accessible "text" (for me and students alike) and an increasingly streamlined reference document.  Perhaps treating it like a reference text is a metaphor worth trying out: after introductions, and icebreaker, and a brief overview, I could let student questions dictate its coverage.  Or, delve right into teaching on the first day and use the syllabus as needed.

What about you?  How do you cover your syllabi on the first day? Have you found a different or more effective way to teach your syllabus?  What would you say are the best practices associated with covering syllabi?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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