Giving the Syllabus a Lecture

syllabus

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.

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Comments 2

Jennifer Clarke | Mon, 09/23/2019 - 14:09

I give my students a syllabus quiz online.  We use and LMS (schoology, but I can see using BlackBoard or Canvas easily) so this is fairly easy.  I do not use class time for this.  I don't wory if they talk to one another- the idea is that they actually take out and use the syllbus, and know where to access it. I hate to spend class time on reading something that they should be able to comprehend.  This gives them some accountablilty, as well.  I am then able to do *actual science* the first day of school. In high school, it's too easy to disengage the first few days/ weeks.  This allows me to hold them responsible, and then to be sure they have acknowledged the information they need to know. 

David Frohnapfel's picture
David Frohnapfel | Sat, 09/28/2019 - 06:45

Similar to Jennifer, I have the students responsible for reading the syllabus as part of a course orientation.  The orientation contains an introduction to the structure of the course, navigation of the online materials and basic use of the LMS (we use D2L), the syllabus, and perspectives on the different point earning categories for the course (homework vs. quizzes vs. exams).  The students have to complete a quiz on the orientation which is open for the first few days of class and they can take it unlimited times until closing.  The orientation also includes a welcome video that covers the "boring" nuts-and-bolts information from the syllabus.  For the first day of class, I have a second power point presentation that covers a few important highlights about the course as well as some additional "inspirational" perspectives. I also have a video version of the second presentation that posts online after the first day for the students who join the course late.  The videos are  made using power point and exporting the slide show as a video.  Rather than narrate the videos, I add music clips to keep it from being too boring.  I add the videos to the course site using the university's kaltura site, but you could easily add them to YouTube for linking to your site.  It takes a decent amount of work behind the scenes, but allows me to "cover" the syllabus in 15-20 minutes of class time freeing up most of the first day to jump right in to discussing the major themes of chemistry.