By David Pollock, PhD
Faculty Development Specialist
It’s a document that most everyone--faculty and students alike--take for granted. It often follows a predictable pattern of instructions and organization. As one student told us, it reads as if faculty are given a template and just plug-in their specific course information such as office hours. “You’re reading the same thing over and over again,” she said. It’s no wonder, then, that students don’t read it except when they need to know something very specific like when an assignment is due.
But can the syllabus be more than a list of due dates and other basic information? And if faculty work to make it more, does it do anything to help improve student learning in a course. In other words, does the syllabus matter?
The short answer is that, yes, when done well, a purposefully constructed syllabus can help engage students with the course right from the beginning1--and why wouldn’t you want to do everything you can to get students hooked right from the start? A syllabus that piques students’ interest with provocative questions, for example, can draw students in from the start. A well-worded syllabus can also influence how they perceive the instructor--as someone who is approachable and wants students to succeed--or as an authoritarian who is only interested in assigning grades. That perception can affect how students engage with you and the course from the beginning. The syllabus can also help students understand what the course is about as well as what and why they will learn certain things right from the beginning as well as throughout the course. It can be, therefore, not only a road map though the course but a tour guide as well.
All of that is true if and when the syllabus is created with the goal of designing one that is learner-focused as opposed to content-focused. In other words is the syllabus created with careful attention to the perspective of the student rather than just meeting a minimum goal of putting the basic course details on paper.
Consider these questions:
Is your syllabus written like a legal contract or more like an invitation to something interesting? Does the tone of the language make you sound authoritarian or approachable? Are requirements explained as things that must be done or opportunities to learn and experience something interesting?
Is your syllabus written so that it motivates students and arouses interest? For instance, are there interesting, “big, beautiful questions” posed? Is it easy to understand and read? Does the syllabus look appealing visually?
Is your syllabus transparent? That is, is it clear what students will learn, why it is important, interesting, or useful, and how you will know they learned (how they will be assessed)?
Watch and Listen
Two IDEA resources will help you learn more. Our 30 minute webinar, “Does the Syllabus Matter?” walks you through how to construct a learner-centered syllabus that achieves these ideals and more. Our SoundIDEA podcast episode, “The Lowly Syllabus” provides insight, background, and motivation for considering syllabus construction as a worthwhile endeavor and has resources for learning more.
Palmer, M. S., Wheeler, L. B., & Aneece, I. (2016). Does the document matter? The evolving role of syllabi in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48(4), 36-47.