Professors, Students, and the Syllabus

January 29, 2013

(This article first appeared in the Graduate Teacher Program Handbook. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Regents, University of Colorado.)

Sharon Rubin, Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Studies
University of Maryland

For the past two years I've been sitting in on the meetings of a committee charged with approving courses for the University of Maryland general-education program. Very often the committee members leave those meetings mystified and exasperated. It's not that the courses proposed are inadequate; it's just that the syllabi submitted with the proposals are so often virtually impossible to decode.

I've listened while a faculty member from a related discipline has tried to guess what a syllabus might possibly mean. I've seen carefully worded letters from the dean requesting clarification--and then looked on as the committee has tried to relate a three-page response to the original syllabus. The committee has even developed a new cover sheet for all proposals, which requests detailed information about objectives and asks for samples of test questions and paper assignments. Yet sufficiently informative syllabi are still so rare that when one appears it elicits audible sighs of relief around the conference table.

The syllabi our committee gets are not much different from the ones I've picked up at conferences or seen attached to grant proposals. In other words, I don't believe the problem is local or idiosyncratic; rather, it seems to be basic to the teaching endeavor. We keep forgetting that what we know--about our disciplines, about our goals, about our teaching methods--is not known (or agreed upon) by everyone. We seem to assume that our colleagues and our students will intuitively be able to reconstruct the creature we see in our mind's eye from the few bones we give them in the syllabus.

The worst syllabi seem to fall into one of two categories.

The "listers" merely specify which books or chapters will be read during which weeks, without a hint about the principles behind the selection. The most puzzling of this type assign chapters in the textbooks in an order considerably different from the order intended by the authors. At best, such modification gives students the impression that the teacher is improving on the original organization for some yet as unrevealed purpose; at worst, it gives students the idea that one structure is no less logical or coherent than another, and that all parts are interchangeable and equally valid.

The "scolders" give brief descriptions of content and lengthy sets of instructions detailing what will happen if a student comes in late or leaves early, hands in a paper after the deadline, misses an exam, fails to follow the rules for margins and double-spacing, does not participate in class discussion. The scolders often sound more like lawyers than professors. Undoubtedly the syllabus as legal document has evolved because so often students demand that their teachers provide a set of rules, probably to give the students something concrete to cling to as they struggle with the content of the course. If even sophisticated scholars fall into the trap of equating quantitative data with significance, it's not surprising that students mistake the rules for meaning.

Here are some questions our committee often finds unanswered even in wonderful syllabi for wonderful courses:

  1. Why should a student want to take this course? How does it make a difference as part of the discipline? How does it fit into the general-education program?
  2. What are the objectives of the course? Where does it lead, intellectually and practically? Students should be able to find out what they will know by the end of the course, and also what they will be able to do better afterward than before. Is the purpose of the course to increase their problem-solving abilities, improve their communication skills, sharpen their understanding of moral ambiguities, allow them to translate knowledge from one context to another? Why are the objectives important, and how will different parts of the course help students accomplish those objectives?
  3. What are the prerequisites? Students should be given some idea about what they already know and what skills they should already have before taking the course, so they can realistically assess their readiness. Will they be expected to know how to compare and contrast, to analyze and synthesize, or will they be taught those skills during the course?
  4. Why do the parts of the course come in the order that they do? Most syllabi note the order in which topics will be discussed, but make no attempt to explain the way the professor has chosen to organize the course. Sections of the syllabus are usually titled, but only infrequently are questions provided for students to help them put the reading assignments and homework into context.
  5. ill the course be primarily lectures, discussions, or group work? When a percentage of the grade is for "class participation," what does the professor expect from the students--regular attendance? questions? answers to questions? Will the student be given alternative ways to achieve success in the class, based on different learning styles?
  6. What is the purpose of the assignments? Students are frequently told how much an assignment will "count" and how many pages long it must be, but they are rarely given any idea about what it will demand of them or what the goal is. Will students be required to describe, discuss, analyze, provide evidence, criticize, defend, compare, apply? To what end? If students are expected to present a project before the class, are the criteria for an excellent presentation made clear?
  7. What will the tests test? memory? understanding? ability to synthesize? To present evidence logically? To apply knowledge in a new context?
  8. Why have the books been chosen? What is their relative importance in the course and in the discipline? Is the emphasis in the course on primary or secondary materials and why?

"Well," you may say, "the syllabus isn't the course--everything will be made clear as the semester progresses." Or, "I can't ask my overworked secretary to type a 12-page syllabus." Or, "Students are interested only in the numbers--of books, of pages to read, of written assignments, of questions on the exam." Or, "A syllabus with all that information is too static--it doesn't allow me the flexibility to be creative on the spur of the moment." Maybe those are relevant objections--and maybe they are excuses for badly thought-out, hurriedly patched-together efforts. Whatever the rationale, I believe that the inadequate syllabus is a symptom of a larger problem--the lack of communication between teachers and students.

Most of the latest reports on undergraduate education have in common the criticism that faculty members and students no longer seem to be connecting. Our students do not seem to be involved in learning, they say. We seem to have lost the ability to create a shared community of values; we have substituted diversity for coherence and cannot find our way back to integrating principles. However, these reports all seem to ignore a very real wish among students and faculty members to find a place of meeting.

In 1982-83, Lee Knefelcamp of the University of Maryland asked 217 faculty members at eight colleges what they worried about most the first day of class. Their three most common concerns were, "Will the students get involved?" "Will they like me?" "Will the class work as a class?"

When 157 students at those institutions responded to the same question, their three most common concerns were "Will I be able to do the work?" "Will I like the professor?" "Will I get along with my classmates?"

The notion of relationship between teachers and students and material to be learned is clear in the answers from both groups. However, when the faculty members were asked what they thought students worried about the first day of class, they responded, "Will I get a good grade?" "Will the work be hard?" "Will the class be interesting?" When the students were asked what they thought teachers worried about, they generally couldn't answer the question at all.

The survey showed that there was a real desire on the part of both students and teachers for connectedness, but neither group realized that the other shared that desire. If the participants on both sides don't understand how to develop their relationship, learning will be diminished.

The syllabus is a small place to start bringing students and faculty members back together, of course, and its improvement is not the revolutionary gesture that curriculum reform seems to be. But if students could be persuaded that we are really interested in their understanding the material we offer, that we support their efforts to master it, and that we take their intellectual struggles seriously, they might respond by becoming more involved in our courses, by trying to live up to our expectations, and by appreciating our concern.

Then the real work can begin.

Copyright 1985, the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with permission.

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