How to Write a Syllabus Students Will Read

College instructors lament over the fact that many students do not heed their syllabi.  The suspicion is that they don’t read them.  The problem might be solved if instructors wrote short, simple, easy-to-read syllabi.  Or would it?

Before I move on, I encourage you to add the book on the right to you personal library.  It is not too lengthy – 132 pages to be exact.  It is an excellent reference to help you design your entire course.  The authors guide readers through the many important elements that go into creating a learning-centered environment.  

Why Students Don’t Follow Their Syllabi

Some instructors may argue that their less accomplished counterparts write syllabi that are poorly written, perhaps too complex or vague.  Others might suggest that some college faculty members fail to appeal to multiple learning styles and use technology with today’s students, alleging these are vital elements in today’s learning environment.  Yet others can and do relate this behavior to the parents who never allowed their children to become self-sufficient.  You know – the helicopter parents.  When a group of college instructors recently shared their points of view on this subject, there was one thing they agreed upon.  The failure is seldom if ever due poor reading comprehension.

There must be dozens of reasons why students show little or no evidence of reading their syllabi.  Here are a few more that come to mind:

    1. Failure to understand the importance of the syllabus as a contract between student and teacher.
    2. Poor organizational skills.  A student may have read it but not transposed it into his or her personal study schedule.  Others “loose” their syllabi.
    3. Past experiences in courses where the instructor’s syllabus was not too important.
    4. Failure of the instructor to enforce the “rules” in the syllabus.





Short Syllabus or Long – Opinions Differ

A college instructor, one whom I don’t know personally, recently commented that instructors who need to create a long syllabus have a problem.  She went on to explain that her one-page syllabus did the job quite well.

I disagreed with the instructor’s point of view.  For one thing, I wondered how this could possibly be fair to her students.  So I conducted some of that “faux-research” that strikes terror in the hearts of college instructors everywhere.  I looked her up on RateMyProfessors.com.  Interesting results.


For this instructor who admonished long syllabi and the faculty who use them, I found 11 student comments.  Her overall average quality rating was 2.5.  That is on a scale of 5 for those of you not familiar with this website.  She rated 2.6 in helpfulness and 2.4 in clarity.  However, there was one area in which several of her students gave her high ratings.  That was easiness.  The student with the most positive feedback wrote, “I think she’s a great prof, she’s really easy and doesn’t mind too much … she’ll help you in any way possible.”   It seems like part of this student’s thought was missing, but you can get the gist of it.   Another student wrote, “[The] class was easy, all people have to do is read her tutorials …”  But not ever student felt easiness was a good thing.  Here is the rating and comment from one student as it appeared on the website.  I have blackened out the course title and instructor name.

Student Ratings – Easy is not Good

……. If that claim was true, then a short syllabus was all that was required.

Before I go further, I need to explain the limitations and dangers in drawing conclusions from RateMyProfessors.com.  Everything students write there should be, as the old saying goes, taken with a grain of salt.

Using RateMyProffessors.com

In my opinion, the feedback an instructor receives on RateMyProfessors.com can be of value if properly interpreted.  Here is my advice:

  1. Recognize that the vast majority of an instructor’s students do not post on this website.  Therefore, nothing statistically significant can be gleaned from it.
  2. Students who post are motivated to do so.  When interpreting feedback, it is important to ask oneself what motivated that student.  Based on the hundreds of these online ratings I have read over the years, it appears students most often have a strong liking or disliking for their instructors.  Not too many “middle-of-the-roaders.”  For those who dislike their instructor, it is certainly an attempt to get even or punish that person.
  3. Not all students tell the truth, especially when it involves shirking responsibility for their own failures.  Who better to blame than their instructors?
  4. The rating system does not provide a good rubric for assessing instructor quality.  Easiness has no place in evaluating the true teaching acumen of a college faculty member.  However, this website is for students, and many of those who refer to it do want easy teachers.  Sad but true!
  5. What the students write may or may not be important.  If there are numerous glowing ratings with flowery superlatives like “great” and “best ever,” what does that mean?  You don’t know what criteria the students were applying.  Those comments might be based primarily on personality.  If a student writes about how well the instructor explained material, there is usually some substance to that.  However, you still don’t know if that comment was written by the “teacher’s pet,” and other students did not receive the same attention.  If, however, the student takes the time to write how the instructor motivated him to change his major to history and pursue a teaching career, you can be pretty sure that teacher is impacting lives in a positive way.
  6. The date the student rated the instructor may be significant.  Even if once true, old ratings may no longer apply.  If the instructor first taught a course in 2006, and is still teaching that course, it is reasonable to assume that he or she has worked out some of the kinks.  A negative (or positive) rating from that year would not have as much credence as one of late.
  7. Instructors may receive different ratings for different courses.  If the instructor was asked to teach a course outside his or her area of expertise, he or she may be criticized for lacking subject matter knowledge and ability to explain things clearly.

For these reasons, I cannot draw any firm conclusions about the teaching ability of the instructor who made the remark nor about the easiness of her class.  However, an easy class with an easy instructor might not need to detailed, lengthy syllabus.  That makes sense, doesn’t it?

I will make one other comment about these types of online ratings (yes types, there are others).  Every instructor who checks his or her Rate My Professors feedback should consider another idiomatic expression.  If the shoe fits, wear it!




Is a Short Syllabus Good or Bad?

Well, if you haven’t figured out my position on the topic, you haven’t been reading very carefully.  You weren’t one of those students who didn’t read their syllabi were you?  😉

Since I cannot support my point of view (a.k.a. bias) with research data, I am trying to remain as objective as I can.  I can come up with a few good reasons why a short syllabus may work:

  • The instructor highlights the key course requirements and then provides students with supplemental information in separate documents, paper or electronic.
  • The instructor is a master at giving students ongoing, accurate feedback on their grades.  Students are never surprised by their final grades.
  • The instructor has exceptional classroom management skills.  The unacceptable student behaviors that some instructors list may not be required by a teacher who can deal with those things swiftly and firmly.
  • The learning objectives and instructor expectations are very simple, not in a bad way mind you.  (I am having trouble coming up with a good example, but I acknowledge that this could be the case in some courses.)
  • The final grades are assigned based on students’ performance on a standardized professional examination.

However, here are some bad reasons for giving students a minimalistic syllabus:

  • The instructor does not want to be tied down in terms of class schedule and course content.
  • The instructor does not want to be tied down to precise, subjective grading criteria that are fair and equitable to all.  This would be the teacher who gives students the grades he or she thinks they deserve.
  • The final grade has just one or two components (e.g. a midterm and a final or one research paper).  While this may work in a graduate course, studies have shown that students want and need more “smaller” grades.
  • The instructor just doesn’t care that much.
  • The instructor lacks the knowledge and skills to lay out a good course plan that includes well-written learning objectives with well chosen assessment techniques to evaluate student accomplishments.
  • The instructor has not planned out the course.  Therefore there isn’t much to document.
  • The instructor sees no need to model positive behaviors such as attention to detail.
  • The instructor is lazy.  (Almost forgot this one.)

What are the Characteristics of a Good Syllabus?

This is by no means a definitive, comprehensive list, but rather what comes to mind right now.  A good syllabus:

  • clarifies the instructors expectations;
  • includes well-written learning objectives, ones with action verbs (reference: Bloom’s Taxonomy);
  • identifies exactly how students will be assessed and how their final grades will be determined, thereby reducing the chances of a grade appeal;
  • lays out the course in a logical format, one that will help students learn;
  • provides advice for succeeding in the course;
  • references resources available to help the student;
  • explains what will be a learning-centered environment inside and outside the classroom;
  • establishes a schedule so that students can effectively schedule their time;
  • and yes, a good syllabus, whether short or long, should be written clearly in terms students can understand.  No ambiguity.  Little chance for misinterpretation.

I am sure that as soon as I post this article, something else will come to mind.  You surely have your own thoughts, which I hope you will share.  But before I close, I have one thing to add.  I read approximately 4,000 student evaluations each semester.  No exaggeration!  This term, there are more than 4,100 enrollments in my division, and I will look at every single one of them.  What I can tell you is that students do write comments like, “He made me work, but I really learned something.”  Contrary to what I was told by a university professor I once interviewed, the way to get good student evaluations is not to be an easy grader.


 

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Thank you!!!


© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Revised August 6, 2011




 


 

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC).

My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students.

After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


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