Making the Most of the Syllabus

More detail can save faculty members lots of time answering questions later, writes Eszter Hargittai.

August 17, 2015

A common complaint from professors concerns students’ endless questions about topics that are covered on the syllabus. I have been teaching for over a decade and recall only one such incident. So while I appreciate that such questions would be irritating, I cannot relate to them. As with many aspects of teaching, it is possible to approach the syllabus in a myriad of ways. Here I share my related practices with the hopes that others can end up with fewer questions about issues that are already addressed on their syllabi.

My caveat here is that most of my classes are relatively small, creating the types of classroom settings that lend themselves well to conversations between students and the instructor much more than big lecture classes. That said, some of the points I discuss should work regardless of class size. For those that do not, I offer some alternatives.

On the first day of class, after a very brief introduction to the class topic and my related background, I pass out the syllabus in hard copy. We then read the document together out loud. I ask a student to read the first paragraph. Then the next student reads the next paragraph and so on. In addition to ensuring that every student reads the entire syllabus, I am also helping students get over possible anxieties they may have about hearing themselves speak in front of their peers. By having the safety of written material to read, they get to experience hearing their voice in class without much risk. (The syllabus does not tend to include words that may be tough to pronounce, which could be a source of potential worry, especially for nonnative speakers of English.)

After each paragraph, I pause and ask if there are any questions. It is important to make such pauses long enough that anyone who may have the slightest confusion has enough time to get over any possible shyness and raise their hand. Of course, this is not unique to this exercise. It concerns any situation -- whether in a classroom or a committee meeting of peers -- where one asks a question of a group. Even people who are not too timid to speak in public may need a moment or two to gather their thoughts.

I respond to any questions that come up, and we continue. My response may simply note that the details in question will be addressed soon in another section of the syllabus. Or I will give more details right then. In either case, I make a note on my own hard copy to update the syllabus with clarifying information.

This exercise rarely takes more than 15-20 minutes (depending on the number of questions) and has the huge benefit of making sure that everybody is on the same page when it comes to class expectations and requirements. With this task out of the way, I now know that everybody enrolled in class has read the syllabus. (My classes are listed as “first class mandatory,” and given how much we cover during the first session, I do not admit students who have not attended the first session and thus miss this exercise.)

In a larger class that may make it impractical to have students read the syllabus out loud all together, one possible approach is to have students break into small groups on the first day and read the syllabus together to each other. They can take notes on points they find unclear and then bring these back to the larger class after the small-group discussions. This exercise would help get students into the habit of interacting with their peers. It also acknowledges that some things may not be completely clear on the syllabus and gives a nonthreatening context in which students can ask questions, first of each other, and eventually from the larger class and the instructor.

My syllabi are very detailed. I start with the same skeleton for every class, but tweak that front section every term I teach. While my document has gotten quite comprehensive in covering all manners of issues that may come up, I still find ways to improve its clarity every term. It is also important to include any new policies the college or university may have instituted that concern classroom teaching (e.g., the sexual harassment policy or a discussion of and pointer to the detailed version of its policy on academic integrity).

Each syllabus starts with the course title, location, my name, contact information and office hours. Then I include a brief paragraph with the course description and objectives. This is followed by a list of the required readings included with full bibliographic information, but also an acronym I use to reference the books elsewhere on the syllabus. I also note here that earlier or later versions of books that have multiple editions are usually fine. Publishers often come out with updated versions, but the updates are rarely relevant enough to justify the associated exorbitant costs. Accordingly, instead of listing page numbers of readings in such books, I list chapter numbers and section headings so that everyone is reading about the same material regardless of the book edition they have.

Next comes a detailed section about requirements and expectations, including attendance, class preparation, class participation, weekly assignments, midterm, final, due dates, submitting material, technology, recordings and a note about respectful class environment.

The following part talks in detail about grades, starting with a general overview (what counts for what percent of the final grade) and then details about what I mean by class participation, weekly homework assignments, the midterm, the project presentation and the final paper.

Next is a section about special needs (e.g., noting technology use policy exemptions for those with disabilities requiring assistive technology), the university sexual harassment policy and academic integrity (for long policies, I offer a summary of the main points and then include a pointer to the website with the full policy). I include two paragraphs about absences, recognizing that both emergencies and special occasions happen (e.g., a sibling’s wedding), but also explain how students must handle them in order not to lose credit in class.

I end this introductory section with a note about email communication (i.e., that I communicate information about class by email and students are responsible for knowing about these), a heads-up about possible course schedule changes and a final note that states that “continued enrollment in this class signifies that you have read, understand and will abide by the rules set forth in this syllabus.”

I then list the topic of each class meeting with the date and week number next to it. Next comes the very detailed outline of readings and assignments. For each class meeting, I include a readings and an assignments heading, even if there is none for one or the other. In such a case, I just state “None” to clarify that the student is not missing some detail. I also do this with midterms and finals even if they do not exist in a course. It helps students know that they did not miss the section about a possible major assignment or exam. I simply note, “There will be no midterm exam.”

Lately, I have started inserting cartoons relevant to the class in general or a week’s topic in particular to lighten up the document.

On the weekly schedule, I list readings in the order in which I think it is best for students to read them. I explain this in class. Sometimes readings refer to each other and it makes sense to read a certain article first. I make sure students understand the reasoning behind the listing.

I explain the written assignments in detail including how much material I expect for each part. I specify this in number of words, since that metric is not subject to different font types and document spacing. I explain that the number does not simply refer to the minimum amount they should write, but also signals a maximum amount to encourage succinct phrasing on their part as they write up their thoughts about the readings and whatever other assignments they have.

Assignments are usually due at the same time each week, but if the plan deviates from this, I make sure to highlight it very clearly on the syllabus so that students do not miss the alternate deadline.

Over the years, I have become increasingly detailed in explaining what I expect from a final paper, if there is one. After all, the point is for students to learn how to write a paper rather than to have them guessing about various details as they put in the effort. I want them to focus on the substance of their research paper rather than wondering what I expect in terms of introduction, statement or research question, literature review, and other sections. It is also so much more pleasant to read organized papers that let you focus on the substance compared to material that meanders all over the place, obfuscating the topical focus of the writing.

At the end of each class meeting throughout the term, I leave a few minutes to address what is coming up for the next class. I talk about the order in which students should do the readings and why. I also touch upon the written homework assignment and ask if there are any questions about it. This is a much more efficient way to address questions about the homework assignment than having several students email me separately in case they have confusion.

Students can be anxious about a new class. By communicating expectations in detail and discussing these up front in the first class, I aim to lower students’ anxiety about logistics and increase energy available to focus on the substance of the course. Given that I almost never receive questions from students about points covered on the syllabus outside of class, and given that the vast majority of my students tend to meet the various requirements, this method seems to work to achieve that goal.


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