The Course Syllabus: Mundane Document or Engaging Resource?

The course syllabus most often exists in the Dangerfieldean realm of education (“no respect”). This lack of respect means that, with regard to teaching innovation and reflection and student engagement, the course syllabus typically is not invited to the pedagogical party. This is unfortunate because this document has the potential to hold much value to our teaching, our students’ learning, and our identities and roles as teachers. As the point of entry to your courses and to you, the syllabus could (and should) be much more than a requirements and policies depository.

When it comes to teaching innovation and faculty development, our thoughts typically go immediately to the two tech’s: technology and techniques. However, if you’re satisfied with the technology and techniques you’re using, you’ll be glad to know that you can satisfy your need to keep your courses and your teaching fresh by looking to your syllabus. Students aren’t the only ones who neglect this document. We do as well. While for our students the syllabus gets lost in the dark corners of their cavernous backpacks, for us it tends to suffer a flat life in a file as keeper of the requirements and policies we rarely revisit. Our students’ neglect follows ours, when they refuse to consult a document that enjoys no rejunvenation beyond date changes. Changes in the content and assignments are all well-and-good, but to put an immediate wa-bam! on the environment and culture of our classes, we need to change our understanding and perception of The Syllabus. We need to recognize its potential value and significance to teaching and learning. The syllabus may not seem as “sexy” of an option and may not seem to hold as much potential for innovation as the two tech’s do. However, it is usually our students’ first encounter with our courses and ourselves and thus functions as a welcome mat of sorts.

The type of information we offer in our syllabi and the way in which we deliver it sets the tone for our classes and conveys where our priorities lie. Therefore, when preparing for classes, we should give our syllabi the same level of thought and attention as we give to our course content, assignments, and policies. Yes, university policy mandates the inclusion and emphasis of particular types of information; however, we can balance that policy-driven content with content that equally emphasizes our passion for and dedication to teaching and learning. Indeed, we can create a learning-centered syllabus.

As Director of my university’s Quality Enhancement Plan, I have trained and guided faculty through the redesign of their courses–the goal being to achieve deeper learning through a more active and collaborative student experience. I focused on the two “techs,” dedicating training and resources to techniques and technology. The summer before I began working with the current group of faculty, I realized that I was essentially working in medias res–hence overlooking the true starting point of course redesign and innovation. I had been overlooking a commonly overlooked element of teaching and learning. What if, I thought, training focused first on syllabus, rather than course, redesign? How would a reimagining of the syllabus impact the overall effectiveness and culture of one’s course and encourage and influence further course redesign and innovation? A quick search led me to The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach by Judith Grunert O’Brien, Barbara J. Millis, and Margaret W. Cohen. This book explains and provides examples of elements and content that create a learning-centered syllabus. 

A traditional syllabus tends to provide just the most basic information about the course, is largely policy-centered, and is thus often neglected by students. Such a syllabus seems to exist only to provide the professor with a reference point for his or her oft-repeated mantra, “It’s in the syllabus!” We know there’s more value to it than that,  but the students usually don’t—until they’ve attempted to turn in an assignment late  or have missed one too many classes. We  can tell them time and time again that  the answers to their questions are “in the syllabus,” but the fact is that we say this way too often. 

 Aren’t you tired of saying it? Aren’t  you weary of dealing with issues that  are the direct result of an ignored  syllabus? I’m sure I just heard a resounding, “Yes!” so I’ll presume that you’re ready to retreat from the  battle and win the war.

Now I feel, as I’sure you do, that being aware of course policies is the students’ responsibility—that it’s fully their responsibility to read the documents we give them. But I’m a bit battle-worn. Aren’t you? ( Ah, I thought so!)

So, how do we write a course document that students will actually read? How do we compose a syllabus that doesn’t beg the subtitle, “50 Ways to Fail This Class”? More importantly, how do we create a syllabus that welcomes our students into our classes and invites them into the learning experiences that we have so diligently created for them? 

These are the questions my current group of ACES Fellows* had the opportunity to explore. By casting a critical eye on their syllabi and reflecting on their teaching, the faculty participating in the ACES Project have crafted engaging, pedagogically- and self-aware learning-centered syllabi. From simple strategies like using first- and second-person, to the more involved work of developing teaching philosophies and course purpose and value statements, each Fellow has achieved a course syllabus that provides an introduction to themselves and to their teaching philosophies, values, and priorities, as well as offers an inviting entry into the academic landscape to be explored. In short, they have created visually appealing documents that lay a student- and learning-centered foundation for their courses.

The most difficult part of this process was reconciling the welcoming and friendly tone needed in a learning-centered syllabus with the authoritative tone required of policy statements. This may seem a difficult or even impossible negotiation. However, you can accomplish thisnecessary balance by conveying the strength of your policies not only through their consequences but also through their value to student learning and development–academic, social and professional.

At the completion of their training, I asked the Fellows to reflect on their  experiences. Here’s what some of them had to say:

“ACES helped me create a syllabus that, I think, conveys both my approachability and student responsibility much better than previous iterations. The traditional syllabus always feels clunky and loaded with strict policies that I find can intimidate students.”

“While compiling my new syllabus using The Course Syllabus book, I have learned that I need to provide as much information to students as possible about why the course is important to me as a faculty member, to their future careers, and most importantly to their success as a student.”

“The process of creating a learning-centered syllabus encouraged me to think more intently about what I really want students to learn about American government. . . . Now, instead of concentrating on factors external to the classroom, my learning-centered syllabus will keep me focused on the classroom dynamics, and most importantly, students’ learning needs.”

“In the process of creating a new syllabus, I have learned above all to write directly to students in a friendly welcoming manner. Before this, the course syllabus was just a contractual document nobody, including me, really cared about. Now I am keen to breathe life into each paragraph so that every component of my class can be vibrant, exciting, and meaningful.”

“By participating in ACES and reconfiguring my syllabus I learned that the process of teaching begins long before stepping into the classroom. Of course, I knew this already. I prepared lectures and assignments and PowerPoint presentations and the like, but I never gave my syllabus such serious attention. . . . Serious contemplation about how I structure my syllabus has led to no less than a complete rethinking of how I teach altogether.”

As the closing sentence of the last quote conveys, the syllabus is an effective and logical place to begin the process of reinventing our courses and our teaching. Discovering more about ourselves as educators through the process of developing or revisiting our teaching philosophies for inclusion in our syllabi is certainly an added bonus.

In keeping with the theme of my blog (blurring the line between students and faculty in the classroom), I should add that, while I began class with a completed syllabus, it was by no means engraved in stone. I gave students the opportunity to express their ideas and concerns regarding course content and policies, allowing them to have a hand in further developing and revising this content.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Profhacker site links to examples of some very dynamic syllabi. 

Using video is also an option. However, depending upon what you include in your video, you might need to supplement it with a document.

And just for fun, here’s a Storify I created about the syllabus (insights and views from professors and students–ahhh, Syllabus Week!).

What role does the syllabus play in your course and teaching practices? 

Please share!

*ACES Fellows are the faculty members who participated in the ACES program (Active and Collaborative Engagement for Students), my university’s first Quality Enhancement Plan.

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4 responses

  1. Melissa, As soon as I came across Lynda Barry’s syllabus (http://www.openculture.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/lyndabarry.jpg) I knew that I wanted to use a creative approach to draft revamped syllabi for my own courses. Unfortunately, departmental standards limit that much creativity, but I’ve included more student input in order to blur the line, as you mentioned. If students take more ownership in the design of a course and in creating a unique class identity, they will be more inclined to refer back to the syllabus.

    Thank you for the links at the end (bookmarked!). Can’t wait to read more!

  2. Molly, thank you so much for your comment and for the link. I love learning about how others craft their syllabi. It’s too bad that we’re so often limited by departmental standards. That was an issue with a few of my ACES Fellows, and with one in particular whose department chair said that she had to change some of her content because it didn’t employ “academic voice.” In my case, I used a newsletter template that had a limited number of pages and didn’t have an option to add more, so some required information I had to distribute separately. From my experience, students welcome the opportunity to have a voice in course content and policies. This approach truly does set the tone for the entire semester.

    Just yesterday I uploaded my syllabus on flipsnack (www.flipsnack.com), which puts pdfs into e-book format. It makes it easier to read (no scrolling up and down). With this, I may have to find a new template so that I can make my syllabus more substantial–like a little book that includes video and audio files. I think it’s possible to do that with flipsnack.

    Thanks again, Molly!

  3. Dear Melissa
    Your article is very interesting and remember us that the principal in this job (the education), the creative and innovation is the most important for succesful our students.
    They must be know, that all activities that we implemented in the classroom is for they achieve the best learning, and for this the sillabus is the means to let them know it.
    Do you have more information in internet about the tips over how create best sillabus?

    1. Benito, I apologize for my delayed reply. I’ve been completing my dissertation and preparing for the defense. It’s been a very hectic time, and I have thus neglected my blog. To answer your question: the links I provide in the post are the best sites I found at the time. If you do a search for “learning-centered syllabus” you’ll find useful information–tips and such. I hope this helps. Again, I apologize for neglecting your question for so long.

      Happy teaching!

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