Giving the Syllabus a Lecture


Classes for the university I work at start in late August - typically one week after the community college we share a campus with begin. At about this time I do what most other faculty do and update, edit, revise, and occasionally rewrite my syllabus. I treat my syllabus as a semester contract with the student outlining their assessment, expectations, conduct, etc. with them. At the end of the syllabus I have a disclaimer saying that I reserve the right to make changes to this document during the semester. I rarely make changes to it during the semester unless I absolutely feel something is needed (i.e. emergency level need).

On the first day of class I would set aside a good chunk of lecture time to go over the syllabus - in my mind it felt ad nauseum but I also thought that perhaps the students needed it. When I taught fundamental chemistry (1-semester introductory chemistry for non-science majors) several years ago at a community college, I knew my students were from a variety of academic backgrounds, with often this being their first semester of college. So it seemed necessary, I thought, to brief them on the syllabus and all its content.

I kept this ritual as I transitioned over to teaching upper-division course work in my current position. These last several years I have noticed that students are using that time we go over it as a crutch - in that because I went over it in class they are relying on their memory of that experience as they syllabus rather than referring to the actual syllabus. For example, half-way through the semester some students would ask how many points are in the semester, or if there is another exam (my response on a good strong day would be “see the syllabus”, or in a moment of weakness or wanting to be nice I would just tell them). I understand that just telling them the information is not a bad thing in of itself but it gets them to rely on me as the source material (and I do make mistakes) rather than the actual document.

For me, I think my students have gotten that introductory syllabus experience from their community college instructors- that is what I keep telling myself. Starting this semester for the first lecture day, I will generally talk about the layout of the course but I will spend more time talking about the topic of the course, my expectations for how they should study and prepare for it, and then segue into lecture. I feel it is the right time for them to take ownership of that part of the learning experience.

Do I think this should be done at the community college level for our science courses? I don’t know. Part of me says yes and that they are technically old enough and (in theory) mature enough to adapt to it. But another part of me knows that many, if not most of the community college students, are there because they missed out on developing these skills on their own and need a faculty member or a particular course to demonstrate what it is they need to do with the syllabus. I do feel that the sooner we get them using the syllabus as a tool for each of their courses and practice using it then we are getting them to empower their own learning experience.