Every instructor in the United States--and beyond, for the matter--has probably had student approach her near the end of the semester to say he didn’t know regular attendance was part of the grade.
Other students didn’t know they were required to take a laboratory component, or that internet access was expected, or that there was a midterm exam. None of this information is hidden, by the way: most of it on the first page of the course syllabus, in fact. But therein lies the problem: these students usually are not reading the syllabus, and they should, as it’s actually the instructor’s contract with the students on how they will be taught. It’s not easy, but getting students to read the syllabus and making them aware of the class expectations is actually an integral part of the class and actually can serve not only as an introduction to the more routine and administrative details of the class but also to the content area of the course itself.
Make Sure You Teach the Course Syllabus
Go over the Syllabus the First Day
It seems elementary, but on the first day of the class, the instructor should go over the syllabus thoroughly with the students and introduce them to the course expectations. Some instructors skip this step, believing that students are responsible adults and should be expected to read and understand their course documents on their own. I agree with this position, actually; however, the actual practice of it proves problematic as significant numbers of students aren’t responsible enough to take this step without being guided. In addition, while introducing the syllabus, the instructor can introduce her own teaching expectations and style: for example, whether or not she prefers students to contact her directly about an absence or if it’s better to contact a classmate to find out what went on in class or to check the course website; how much students are expected to participate in class, whether or not peer interaction, for example, is a critical component of the course. Each instructor varies on preferences and expectations of student behavior, so it’s best to make these expectations explicit from the beginning. This can also be a mini-introduction to college expectations as a whole for new students: e.g., most instructors will not necessarily remind the student of upcoming assignments or give her an update if she was absent: it is generally seen as the student’s responsibility to take initiative on her course progress.
Have Students Develop Their Own Questions about the Syllabus
One concern, even for instructors who have carefully gone over the syllabus the first day, is that introducing the syllabus is not an interactive activity: that is, the student’s role is largely passive while the teacher talks and explains. Therefore, students often don’t pay attention, and hence they are surprised to learn that a specific assignment is part of the course. One way combat this concern is to make the reading of the syllabus a more interactive activity: have students sit in groups, for example, and develop five questions they have about the class. They can then search the syllabus and find answers to the questions. This also can serve as a first-day icebreaking activity, introducing each student to at least several of their peers, and setting the tone for the rest of the semester (if the teacher does have students work together often).
Give a Syllabus Quiz
Another way of holding students accountable for reading and understanding the syllabus is, a week or so into the course, to give a “quiz” on the syllabus with about ten important points the instructor really wants the students to understand. I count the “quiz” as participation points, really a smaller part of the grade than the actual quiz points, and I allow students to check their answers against a peer’s before turning their quizzes in. The point is for students to actually read and understand the syllabus, and they are more likely to do so if they know they are going to be tested on that knowledge.
Make It Really “Legal.” Have Students Sign a Statement They Have Read and Understood the Syllabus
Some instructors go so far as to have students sign a contract attached to the syllabus or the syllabus quiz that they have read and understood the policies within the syllabus. I don’t know how much this “contract” would stand up if it actually came to a dispute over the student grade with the office of the dean, for example, but this carries at least some added accountability within the class itself: e.g., if the student claims not to have “known” about the attendance policy, the instructor can remind her of the statement she signed regarding having read the syllabus, where the policy is clearly stated.
Post the Syllabus on the Course Website
A final step an instructor can take is to post the syllabus, along with other important course documents, on the class website, where he can direct students when they claim to have “lost” the syllabus (and therefore can’t be responsible for knowing its contents).
Benefits of Teaching the Class Syllabus
The benefits of actively teaching the course syllabus are many and extend beyond understanding the policies of a specific class. These benefits include increased awareness of college expectations in general: namely, that students are responsible for taking the initiative for their own learning and grades. The syllabus can also begin to introduce course content: typically, on a syllabus, major topics and assignments are introduced, giving students a quick overview of the semester.
In addition, students can begin to learn “the lingo” of the subject matter from the first day: for example, if the syllabus states that course papers are to be submitted in “MLA style,” the instructor will likely have to explain this phrase, and the students will acquire a term used throughout academic life.
Finally, teaching the syllabus at the beginning of the course sets the tone for the rest of the course: there will be assignments every day; there are no “throw away” or “easy” days; each day comes with an assignment (even the first day of class). In general, the syllabus should communicate the message students are required to take responsibility for their own learning as well as work with their peers throughout the course.