Spiffing Up Your Syllabus

syllabi stacks

syllabi stacks (Photo credit: wayneandwax)

‘Tis the season for tweaking, submitting, and posting syllabi….and then swearing as you find errors or receive new components from administration that demand you repeat the entire process. If my colleagues’ attitudes are representative, syllabus preparation is large amounts of no fun at all.  Does it have to be this way?

While syllabus preparation may never elicit “Oh, goodie!” most of us can make improvements that help students gain a clearer understanding of our methods and expectations, leading to a more pleasurable learning experience for them…and a more satisfying teaching experience for us. Here are some ideas from several sources:

  • Write your syllabus in the first person. I know, I know.  Academic writing is almost always in the third person and relies heavily on the passive voice. This sucks*the*life*out.  Welcome to Snoresville. I adopted the first-person format after reading Kathleen Gabriel’s Teaching Unprepared Students (see our Goodreads sidebar). As a new teacher, I hid behind the pompous “The instructor will provide……” Who is this instructor person? Why, she’s me! (OK, Brian, she is I!)  So now I say, “I will provide….”

    syllabus for green media begins to take form

    syllabus for green media begins to take form

  • Use “I” for yourself and “You” for the students. We aren’t fooling anyone, folks. Don’t say “we will be learning…..” if you already know the stuff. (And if you don’t, then why are you presuming to teach it?). Referring to the work of D. Baecker, Gabriel writes: “Baecker (1998) proposes that we strive to be up front and honest on our syllabi by using the pronouns I, we, and you accurately and in a way that clearly describes who will be doing what and who is responsible for what. She notes that our syllabi are where all the ‘issues about power and authority come together…'” By the same token, don’t say,”We will have a quiz every other meeting.” Say, “You will take a quiz every other meeting.” When I clarified who was who, my syllabus immediately became more powerful.
  • Front-load the good stuff. Aren’t you tired of opening the directions for a new appliance, only to find that the first pages consist of helpful tips like “Don’t use this in the bathtub” and “This bag is not a toy”? (What! You don’t read the directions? Are you related to my husband?) The syllabus checklist at my college currently has 26 items for me to complete or check.  I’m certain that they are all uber-important, but my students don’t give a flip about most of them.  They want to know where to find me and, above all, how I’m going to assign grades.
  • Include the mandatory, but embellish when necessary. Our college has a very detailed Inclement Weather Plan—so detailed that it becomes confusing when applied to my military base campus and to my unique class schedule.  So I spell it out as it applies to our class, and I  clarify my expectations for those days as well as alternate means of communication. Confusion is definitely minimized.
  • Cover your back, Part I. This one is filed in my bulging “Lessons Learned the Hard Way” file. If you have a time frame for contesting your assessment of a student’s work, state it explicitly. I am happy to correct any errors in my grading, but I require students to present their evidence before leaving the room on the day that I return the work. And yes, there is a long, unhappy story behind that requirement.Working in Office Cubicle
  • Cover your back, Part II. We can all hum the “Nobody Told Me” refrain, can’t we? I include a statement on the last page of the syllabus that reads: “I have read and understand this syllabus. I have been given an opportunity to ask questions about any part that is unclear to me.” I require that students print, sign, and date that page and return it to me.  (Have them print their names as well.) Since I began “mirandizing” my students, not a single person has claimed “Nobody told me!”
  • Cover your back, Part III. Leave some stuff out deliberately. Never forget that your syllabus is a contract. If there are elements in your class that need to be flexible, then those might be more appropriately delivered elsewhere.  For instance, my class schedule is on a different sheet with a clear disclaimer that it is tentative, not a contract. I reserve the right to make adjustments as dictated by the needs of the class or unforeseen circumstances.
  • Personalize it. The tech goddess known as Kristen includes a QR code in the syllabi for her IT classes. Other faculty members include quotations appropriate to their disciplines.

    Example of Micro QR

    Example of Micro QR

  • Be a snoop. Ask to view your colleagues’ syllabi. Or, if you’re too insecure for that,  ask your students to show you syllabi from their other classes. I have yet to see a syllabus without an element ripe for poaching.
  • A few good words from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Teaching College (again, see our Goodreads sidebar): “I like to think of a syllabus as a road map—one that provides students with signposts, signals, detours, places to rest, sights to see, attractions, noteworthy venues, and a well-paved highway no which they will travel throughout the length of the semester. It is also a written document—an agreement between you and your students about what you will be doing and what the need to do to complete their ‘trip’ successfully. Never keep students guessing about a course. If it’s important for them to know, it’s important to put it in writing.” (emphasis mine)

We know that some of you are reading this as you jealously guard your own fabulous ideas.  C’mon…throw us a bone!  Share your best tips.


3 comments on “Spiffing Up Your Syllabus

  1. Kristen Lancaster says:

    Or get really creative… like this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3392B5R5BoA

  2. […] Spiffing Up Your Syllabus (pleasureinlearning.com) […]

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