Tag Archives: Inside Higher Education

Taking a Contrary View: How Useful is the Syllabus?

foxnewsby Hap Aziz

I noticed a picture making the rounds of Facebook today of an Austin Community College professor, David Lydic, wearing a t-shirt with the caption, “It’s in the syllabus.” The picture linked me back to this article on the Inside Higher Ed website title, appropriately enough, “It’s in the Syllabus!” I needn’t go into great detail regarding the specifics of the article, but one can readily surmise the overall tone of the content: educators are often frustrated by repeated questions for which the answers are found within the course syllabus.

While the picture shows an angry instructor, Lydic explains that he was posing for the photograph with that expression at the request of the student snapping the shot. Indeed, Lydic wears the shirt primarily as a humorous way to remind students of the existence and utility of the course syllabus. Like many instructors, Lydic has repeatedly gotten questions that would all be answered for students if they simply read the syllabus provided to them.

What I found very interesting were many of the comments posted in response to the article. Many appreciated the t-shirt for its light-hearted approach:

“I got a kick out of this article. All I want to know is ‘Where can I get one?’!”

“Getting the attention of the students is often difficult. This humorous approach will stay with the students not only in this class but others! Love it!”

“This is an easy, fun way to remind students of their responsibilities and it will stick with them.”

But some comments indicated some deep frustration and a rather unflattering view of their opinion of at least some of their students:

“Yes, we should hold their hands instead! Science knows that they cannot read the syllabus all by their little selves!”

“Syllabus skippers (and grade-grubbers, and deadline-benders, and special case pleaders?) may think they are entitled to ask any question they want. But they’re not. Public higher education is a public good that very few people have the privilege to use. Asking dumb questions or asking for special consideration in a classroom full of students is akin to leaving your trash on a public beach: it just ruins the opportunity that more thoughtful and responsible people are happy to have, and happy to share, by doing their due diligence.”

I’ve taught for many years in both public and private institutions; at community colleges as well as universities; face to face and online courses. In every one of the courses, I would begin my dialog with the students by telling them that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Not because I was interested in holding their hands to spare them the chore of reading, but because I understand that the learning process is complex, and that individuals struggle with different issues when they encounter something new.

Clearly, though, there is something to the “dumb questions” point if it resonates with so many in the teaching profession. Right? As the title of this blog entry suggests, I disagree with that perspective. Consider if we were discussing some other product, and the consumers kept asking the same question(s) over and over. There are several questions we would ask ourselves (“maybe our user manual stinks,” or “is the design of our product fundamentally flawed?”) that would indicate an attitude and a desire to better serve our consumer.

My point is this: if so many students regularly ask questions when the answers are in the syllabus, could it be that the syllabus construct is flawed, and we as educators should address that? In defense of students, we need to admit that:

  • Syllabi, while often addressing the same categories of information are by no means standardized in their format (even within the same academic departments at the same institution).
  • Syllabi are often used from term to term, and not all instructors are completely rigorous in the process of updating information.
  • Modern students are often non-traditional, and many are the first members of their family to go to college, so syllabi are a new thing for them to comprehend along with a whole host of other new things.
  • Modern students are conditioned by a world of just-in-time-information accessibility, so they often do not consider or ask a question until they actually are in a particular situation. Informing students at the beginning of the term via the syllabus that the final exam is worth 25% of the course grade doesn’t make sense when they don’t start thinking about the final exam until the end of the term.
  • Modern students are accustomed to searching for information using services such as Google, yet syllabi are often provded as Word or PDF documents (or paper!). This is not ideal for when searching for particular bits of information.

It seems to me that the age-old syllabus is not meeting the needs significant numbers of students. The solution isn’t, however, to dig in our heels and insist that students simply read the syllabus. At least that’s not the user-friendly, service-oriented solution that would actually address the issue in a meaningful way–more meaningful than a t-shirt that admonishes the student for their unfamiliarity with that document.

So as a challenge to my fellow educators, what might we provide to our students instead?

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