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Transform Your Syllabus into a Learning Tool


The syllabus is an important tool in the learning process; however, we often feel like it's just a document that gets referenced on the first day of class and students forget about afterwards. Rather than blaming students for not reading the syllabus, perhaps we should consider how we're utilizing the syllabus. Transforming the syllabus from just a reference document to a learning document can be accomplished by incorporating a few elements into our course design. See below for tips.

Tips for Using Your Syllabus as a Learning Tool

First Week of Class

If you're looking for a meaningful way to get students to read the syllabus, consider a syllabus discussion or reflection activity. To facilitate, you can divide students into small groups. Provide students with a series of questions related to the syllabus and course that they need to discuss. Alternately, you can have students do this individually. Individual students or student groups can submit their responses via Canvas or a Google form that you can display and discuss. Here are some sample questions you could consider asking:

  1. What assignment concerns you the most and why?
  2. What assignment excites you the most and why?
  3. Looking at the course calendar, what topic(s) are you most interested in? Are there topics you're anxious about?
  4. What weeks of the semester do you think will present the most challenge? Why?
  5. How does academic integrity apply in this course? What questions do you have about how the Honor Code applies?

Some faculty like to use syllabus quizzes to promote reading of the syllabus. Syllabus quizzes can have open-ended, true/false, or multiple choice questions depending on what you are hoping to accomplish with the quiz. Below are a few example questions of each type.

  1. What is the average weekly workload?
  2. What do you need to do before, during, and after class?
  3. What is the best way to reach me?
    • Phone
    • Email
    • Text
  4. Extra credit is available.
    • True
    • False
  5. How many exams will there be?
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4

A learning contract can help faculty set transparent expectations regarding student behavior in a course. Learning contracts clearly specify behaviors and habits for success and can promote student reflection on how they learn best. After reading the syllabus, students are asked to make their learning contract where they (a) acknowledge behaviors needed to be successful in the course, (b) set two learning goals for the course (not performance goals), (c) note something they can do to help them accomplish their learning goals, and (d) explain one challenge they may face in meeting their set goals and how they can address that challenge. To extend the learning, have students revisit their learning contracts and do progress reports. See more information about a learning contracts.

Throughout the Semester

Perhaps one reason why students forget about the syllabus after the first week of class is because instructors never reference or show the syllabus again during class. It makes sense that students may not read through the entire syllabus in the first week of class because not all of the information is pertinent at that time. However, sections of the syllabus are relevant are various times during the semester. For example, as a reading assignment, consider adding to your course calendar something like "Read Syllabus Page 4 Writing Assignment 1 Description."  This documents the expectation that students read that part of the syllabus in preparation for completing that assignment.

Consider projecting the syllabus at the beginning of each class period to show course progress and what is upcoming. This helps model the syllabus as a constant reference document over the course of the semester.

Ask students to view the syllabus (on their computer or hard copy should they have it in print). Have them go to a particular section during class time. This can work well before diving into more details of an assignment.

Consider uploading the syllabus as a Google doc (or use another tool that allows for annotation). Provide students with access to make comments on the document itself. They can ask questions, make suggestions (if you're open to this), and note upcoming opportunities that connect to the course content (e.g., a guest speaker on campus).

Over the course of the semester, consider asking your students to build a concept map of the core ideas, theories, components of the course and visually indicate how those ideas connect to each other. If your course is more process based, then building a diagram or flow chart may make sense. Students can utilize the syllabus as a guide as they translate auditory information into visual information, forcing them to process differently and providing another learning opportunity.