It Really, Really is in the Syllabus!
In an Age of Virtual Learning, Here's Suggestions on How to Improve Student Communications in Regards to the Course Syllabus (i.e. How to Get Them to Actually Read It!)
The course syllabus. Often, it becomes almost a work of art for us professors. It is something that each of us have to craft each semester. And yes, I use that word “craft” deliberately, as the course syllabus is the guiding document for your teaching and student learning in the course.
However, one of the “inside baseball” frustrations of being a professor is knowing that for all the many hours of work that one puts in to carefully creating a syllabus, students - by and large - neglect to actually read what is in it - at least up front in the course. Now there are students who will actually take the time to read the syllabus, but that number is always uncertain. And one thing is for sure, assuming students read - and understand - what is in the course syllabus is a dangerous assumption to make today. And yet, as the syllabus is more and more recognized as a contract for the course, student interest in syllabus content does only peak at the end of the semester for many students - when the grading provisions come into play.
And with institutions now mandating that more and more information be included in the syllabus each year - even before COVID-19 and the special instructions and rules that have to be in place for teaching and learning in the midst of a pandemic, this has made syllabi even longer! This “syllabus bloat” of course only means that even less students will make their way through reading much - if any - of the syllabus in many cases.
And so “how to get students to read the syllabus” has been the subject of many articles over the years in academic journals with titles like “The Journal of XXXXX Education.” Many roundtables and plenary sessions have been held at academic conferences (remember those in the “good old days” pre-COVID-19) on the subject as well. And despite many 5, 7, and 10 steps and suggestions being offered in print and many fingers being wagged at students at these conferences, the problem only seems to get worse with each passing year.
And now, there’s a pandemic, and many, if not most college classes, are - or will shortly be - taught either partly in-person or totally online. In this “new normal” of college in the age of the coronavirus, when it would be rare - and likely ill-advised (no pun intended, well, maybe just a bit!) - to have a “normal” classroom environment, communicating with students becomes even more essential - and yet harder - than ever! And yet, the same two persistent communications problems persist:
- Students not reading the syllabus; and
- Students not checking and reading their emails.
Now as a management professor, this organizational communication problem seems even more vexing - and critical - to me. As we say that we are preparing students to be “real world ready” and be prepared to succeed in the business world - and beyond - upon graduation, one thing is for sure. In any organization and in almost any job and with almost any boss, saying “I didn’t read that” is not an excuse that will carry much weight. Along the same lines, claiming that “I didn’t get that email (or text)” is not an excuse in a world where it is easy for one to see, with incontrovertible evidence, that yes indeed, you did!
And so I do feel that no matter what subject we teach, we are also teaching - and should be modeling - the communication skills that students should practice in their careers. Today, reading and reviewing documents and communicating via email are expected, not simply encouraged, in whatever field you work, be it in business, education, health care, government - wherever! There is not another option in the “real world” to being a good - or at least a functional - communicator today, and yet, students continue to fail at these baseline expectations in college classes.
And so that is the purpose of the present research. What I have done is call upon the “wisdom of the crowd” on social media to seek out ways in which my colleagues across higher education have sought to both get their students to read their syllabus and to read and respond to their emails. In this first article, we will look at their ideas on how to do the former. In the second article of this series, we will then address the matter of student email communication. And so yes, there were more than a few of my colleagues who posted comments that, well, weren’t proper for sharing, but shared sentiments like this professor did about the frustrations about how many students simply do not read:
In addition to (not) reading the syllabus and (not) reading emails, many students don’t follow directions well, right? In f2f (Face to Face) classes, I had signs that I posted on the white board with magnets each day (for many weeks until they “got" it).
- Read the directions
- Understand the directions.
- Follow the directions.
Then, when they received a low grade, I could just point to the signs.
Online (summer session), I have written this in emails, but it doesn’t pack as much of a punch.
This post makes me think that I can have a "background" in Zoom with those phrases (or "It's in the syllabus"), with the words strategically placed around my head.
Some may read the suggestions and ideas that follow and think that we are coddling today’s students in the way we address these matters. Yes, “Easter Eggs” and bonus points abound - incentives that you will not find in the corporate world! And some may read these and simply say something to the effect of, “That’s not how things were back in my day…” However, this article on the syllabus - and the one that follows on email communications - are offered as testimony to what professors are doing today across the country to get students to yes, read the d*^& syllabus!
Suggestions to Get Students to Read the Syllabus
Here then - unedited (except for grammar - yes, ironic! - but it is social media) - are the best suggestions I received through social media from my colleagues on how professors are actually getting students to yes, read their course syllabus. They are broken down into 6 categories:
- Teaching/Communicating the Syllabus
- Syllabus Design
- Syllabus Alternatives
Hopefully, these ideas - offered by professors across all academic disciplines and from around the country - might provide you with some innovative suggestions that you might consider implementing to improve your students’ “read rates” on your own course syllabus!
Teaching/Communicating the Syllabus
- “I am trying something new. I showed them on screen share where to find the syllabus and to read the two pages on grading policy and absences. But I didn't spend time on it like I usually do. I'm going to try going over it closer to the first exam, when it's going to feel more relevant and they aren't being inundated with tons of new information at the beginning of the semester.”
- “I use the adaptive release function on Blackboard and have students answer questions about the syllabus in week 1 to access the remainder of the learning content.”
- “In the first session I do a quick orientation and tell them that I won’t cover all of the syllabus so it’s important for them to read and digest pages 2-4 (the rest is a schedule and then the university required jargon). At the second live meeting, I’ll use an audience response system (or asynchronously in our LMS [Learning Management System] quiz) I do a quick poll with a few of the main points from my syllabus: when is your research proposal due, where can you find X form, how can you best reach me/what are my office hours, what is my main goal for you in taking this class... that kind of thing. I like doing it live because they see how many others don’t know (or maybe do) and it reinforces that they independently need to be responsible for the details.”
- “In a regular face-to-face meeting, I go over every excruciating detail of my syllabus and give them plenty of time to ask questions. In the end, I repeat: What can I clear up for you right now? Then they sign a contract that stipulates that I went over the syllabus (ad nauseam) and that they understand (here I make a list of the important stuff). Then they sign and date. I keep these throughout the semester for those who say, "I didn't know...." "I didn't understand..." I do the same online having a TEAMS mtg that's mandatory. They send me an email that verifies and acknowledges the same. I don't get too many questions after that, to be honest. If I do, I direct them to the correct page/paragraph of the syllabus. Ain't nobody got time to be repeating and repeating the same stuff, am I right? The other critical step here when I'm going over it verbally is that I give them real, concrete justification for each particular requirement/rule. I think that this is crucial for adult/semi-adult learners so that they don't see the syllabus as some way to punish, waste time or trick them. I spend lots of time talking about the importance of understanding every contract they are asked to sign in life and how their signature says something about their character.”
- “I did a PowerPoint voice over the syllabus and put it with the syllabus. Then I sent it attached to an email. No effect.”
- “I’ve been doing short YouTube videos with how to do simple things like post discussion posts, et cetera. Hope to save me from the repeated panics.”
- “I've tried to shorten the amount of time I spend on syllabus policies on Day One so I can get to content, but this semester, I spent a ridiculous (in my mind) amount of time walking carefully through the syllabus on screen share. I got more clarification questions than I've ever received and no emails yet (even after the first assignment has been due) asking me questions.”
- “I started sending a weekly agenda on Monday mornings. A bulleted list of all the things they need to do during the week. If that week included an assignment, I’d always remind them where they could find the directions for that assignment and on what page of the syllabus it was located. I know we always say “check the syllabus” but I think it helped saying the page number the info was on, and why they need that info (to complete an assignment). I got so much positive feedback on that one thing, I’ve continued implementing it in all my grad/undergrad online courses. So simple, but very much appreciated from students.”
- “Honestly, I don't do anything different in an online course vs. f2f (Face to Face) courses regarding these things. Once students have to scramble to solve a problem caused by ignoring info. in the syllabus or announcements, they tend to start paying attention.”
- “In the spring, I gave small incentives at the end of announcements, like ‘If you’ve read this far, email me your favorite song, and you’ll receive +1 on assignment X.’ I did get quite a few responses.”
- “Adding in hidden gems that say ‘if you're reading this, email me for extra credit points’ and not receiving one single email 😞."
- “I borrowed this idea from someone else, but I hid a ‘send me your best surviving 2020 meme for a few extra credit points’ a few pages in. My one class got the syllabus Thursday. One student out of 48 sent me a meme. 🙄"
- “For the past couple of semesters, I hid a statement at the end of the assignments section in the syllabus. I ask the students to send me a picture of a cat or a dog for extra credit. When they ask me for clarification about assignments in class, I tell them to read the syllabus. I get a ton of emails with cats or dogs in the first days of the semester. Then the rest follow on the second week.”
- “I put an extra credit assignment in the syllabus. It’s due at the end of week 2 and 50% find it without being told. I make a slight mention of it in my weekly video at the end of week 1 and then the rest of the students turn in the extra credit.”
- “I review all essential info from the syllabus in a Kahoot. If they’ve read it they do well, if not the important info is on the screen and they learn it then. Works well!”
- “I have them do a 'getting to know the course' worksheet -- it's pretty much like a scavenger hunt in the class documents.”
- “One of the first class activities is a syllabus hunt. I ask nine questions about key information they need to know (late policy, my email address, don't submit in .pages, etc.) and they submit answers to those questions in a Canvas discussion.”
- “I create a discussion board for general course questions that I’ve already covered a million times and give extra credit to the first classmate that answers it correctly so that I don’t have to. 😂”
- “I do a syllabus scavenger hunt group activity in my first day of class (online or otherwise). Worked pretty well. My adaptation to online has been: including how to use our LMS (Canvas) in it, using Zoom breakout rooms, and making it as a Google form. It's not for a grade, but part of building community.”
- “I have taught online classes for over 20 years as well as f2f (Face to Face). All quizzes, tests, assignments, homework, group discussions, class material is accessed through our LMS whether online or f2f class. It is or was a learning curve but in this day, well worth it. And I always have bonus questions on all my tests. ‘What is your professor’s name?’ ‘What is the complete title of this course?’ ‘What are my office hours?’ Not all get it correct.”
- “I have a colleague who has a quiz on syllabus content - a SCORED quiz.”
- “I include questions from the course syllabus in the students first graded quiz.”
- “I’ve done a quiz on the syllabus. Open book. They can find everything and read carefully.”
- “I do a syllabus quiz. I have it set up too where if they choose the wrong answer it tells them to go back and read syllabus section ___. We also have a required handbook/course pack thing that half of them don’t buy (and very truly it is required to be able to do the course) so I’ve started adding in scavenger hunt type questions related to the course materials, like what section will you need when working on ____ project? And the possible answers are page numbers. It’s worked well this semester!”
- “I use a quiz too! I also add accountability questions on all their assessments (checking online grades, reaching out when they need help, keeping in contact with instructor, attendance, etc.)”
- “I am requiring a non-graded quiz about the contents of the syllabus. I also am restructuring my learning Mgmt system with sub modules for each week that include Requires Readings, Videos to Watch, Activities to be Completed and Resources.”
- “I did a scored syllabus quiz and included a question saying ‘what do you want to learn from this class, phrased as a question?’ Then, they had to post that question in Microsoft Teams to demonstrate that they know how to access our virtual classroom environment. It also created a wonderful bank of essay questions for the upcoming midterm!”
- “I have shortened, reformatted, and reconceptualized my syllabus so it no longer looks and reads like a terms and conditions statement (when is the last time you actually read one of these?) and instead looks more like a digital magazine and is written more in the style and purpose of an introduction- to engage, set the tone, and introduce the course, me, and our course's policies.”
- One suggestion from a colleague at my institution was to make use of an 'interactive syllabus' - see: https://www.interactivesyllabus.com/”
Yes, getting students to actually read the syllabus is one of the intractable problems anyone teaching in college today faces. And yes, in today’s environment, where more and more communication - and teaching - must be done online rather than in person, the “syllabus problem” becomes all the more important. Hopefully, for those engaged in teaching in higher education, some of the suggestions made by colleagues from around the country will provide you with ideas that you might be able to incorporate into your classes and even build upon and make better!
On a final note, I did have one colleague offer the following perspective on what all of this means for students, and how important it is to realize the context in which many students find themselves today. All of us do need to take a step back sometimes and realize the difficulties a good portion of our students, who after all are our customers, face in their lives:
“In case this perspective is helpful for your article: It is unethical for instructors to be upset about answering questions that can be found on the syllabus (or elsewhere). For some students, a syllabus is a whole new genre they aren’t familiar with. Most students have several classes—and in this pandemic, it’s even harder for them to know where to find information. Our job is to guide them and support them. If it’s on the syllabus, then kindly remind them that the information can be found there and that you’re happy to go over it if they still have questions. Or use one of the many strategies others have listed above here to encourage them to interact with the syllabus meaningfully. But if they are working until 2am then trying to find information while exhausted and happen to trust you enough to send a quick email asking, then geez, be kind and supportive.”
That’s the real world. And yes, throw in a pandemic, and this is academia in 2020.
About David Wyld
David Wyld ([email protected]u) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness.
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