I hope you enjoyed Dr. Sean Sidky’s previous blog post, Creating a warmer and more inclusive syllabus. Now that you have created your syllabus, how do you introduce it to students? Can you share the decisions you made in constructing the syllabus and designing the class? This transparency along with giving students input on parts of the syllabus can help them feel some ownership of the class, thereby making them more engaged in it. To start with, let’s think through the purpose of your syllabus before we talk about how you introduce it, get feedback and input on it, and how you make sure that your students have read and understood it.
What is the purpose of your syllabus?
The purpose of your syllabus will influence how you introduce it to students. For your students, it is likely a document to be dissected to try and determine what kind of instructor you are and how you plan to teach your class. Think of how you introduce yourself to strangers and whether your syllabus sends similar messages to what you aim to send during in-person introductions. We do not all introduce ourselves in exactly the same way and our approaches will change based on the context. For syllabi, this context is created by the role that the syllabus plays for each instructor. These roles will differ for instructors and influence how syllabi are introduced. Knowing that our IUB students are taking five or more classes each semester, a clear and intentional introduction to your syllabus can help your students better understand you, your class, and your expectation, thereby ensuring a successful start to the semester. Let’s explore some of the roles that syllabi play.
Your syllabus serves multiple roles and clarifying those for yourself, and then for your students, can be immensely helpful as you start building your relationship with your students. Dr. Maryellen Weimer describes six different roles in her article, What role does your syllabus play?, namely a map, an invitation, a contract, a partly assembled puzzle, a sneak peek and/or an owner’s manual. Your syllabus might serve several of these roles or mostly one.
For many instructors their syllabus is a contract that lays out the rules of engagement and clarifies expectations, what instructors and student will and will not do, course policies, due dates, the grading structure and resources that students will need. This type of syllabus can come across as uninviting and even punitive, so you might consider ways of introducing it to students in more inviting ways. An option is to use a visual/graphic syllabus to make the content more appealing and approachable. The Memorial University of Newfoundland’s webpage about Graphic syllabi includes information about considerations when creating a graphic syllabus along with references to research showing that these syllabi help with retention of syllabus information and reducing concerns about the course. Some instructors inject a bit of fun by including small surprises in the syllabus. These could be fun facts about themselves, the course content, or a request to send the instructor a fun photo, think cute kittens or pets doing homework, for an extra credit point.
For others the syllabus is more of a roadmap of your destination outlining interesting stops along the way. You could use your syllabus to pique your students’ interest and start to show them how you will support them in their journey. Some instructors use quotes, images, or even concept maps to help students make meaning of the course, important concepts, and show connections between course concepts, thereby helping students start to build the foundational knowledge they will work on and from throughout the semester.
Perhaps you view your syllabus as an invitation for your students to join and help build their learning community. If you view your students as founts of knowledge with skills, perspectives, and expertise that they could and should contribute to class, then you will want to invite them to help design parts of your course and syllabus. If this is the case, how do you want to give students input on your syllabus? Think about where and to what extent you want them to have input. Do you want students to ask questions about the syllabus, give feedback on it, and co-create parts of the syllabus? Answering these questions, along with being clear about the role(s) of your syllabus will help you introduce your syllabus to your students.
How do you introduce your syllabus to your students?
Many students expect the first days of the semester to be boring introductions to classes and syllabi where they have little say and therefore disengage during these sessions. I won’t belabor this point since my colleagues will be sharing their first day of class strategies with you later this month. But, you might start by sharing why you are taking class time to discuss the syllabus. This is a good opportunity to let your students know how you view the syllabus- is it a fixed document where they can find all the information they need to succeed in your course or is it a living document that will be updated regularly, perhaps with their input? Setting the stage by sharing the role of the syllabus will clarify for students whether and where their input is needed on the syllabus. If you are not asking for their input, be mindful of introducing it in a way that they see your willingness to support them in their learning process. Now, let’s discuss the actual delivery of the syllabus document and sharing what you want them to do with it.
Getting student feedback and input on your syllabus
Some instructors want their students to give input on the syllabus by discussing it with peers, annotating it, and give input on parts of it. At minimum, we recommend you share your syllabus via the Syllabus, Files and/Module tools in Canvas. You could also ask students or groups of students to comment on the document itself using tools in Microsoft, Google, or to use a social annotation tool like Hypothes.is so that they can ask questions about the syllabus. You could also use class time for students to discuss and refine classroom norms and policies. Some instructors work with students to find consistent assignment due dates that work for the students’ and instructors’ schedules. Similarly, you might get student input on due dates for scaffolded assignments and/or large semester-long projects and papers. Students can give you input on which days and times of day are best for their schedules for turning in assignments, working in groups outside of class etc. Inevitably, there will be some differences of opinion on these matters so be prepared to select the times that work best for you and when you can grade their work. During these discussions, make sure that everyone has the time to think about the options and contribute their feedback. The use of a polling tool, such as TopHat, or a Canvas survey can ensure that everyone can contribute their suggestions. Some instructors give students a take-home quiz about the syllabus so that they have the time to read through the syllabus at a time and in a space that is conducive to providing thoughtful feedback.
You might wonder how we ensure that students have read the latest version of the syllabus, or any version for that matter. Below is an example of how Joe Packowski, a lecturer in the Kelley School of Business communicates with his students about syllabus changes.
Our syllabus for Honors Compass 2 is a living document and true partnership resource. While there are policies and expectations in place to best support everyone, course content and topics may change throughout the semester – sometimes based on feedback that I will ask of you in order to offer the best experience possible in our classroom. I will communicate any course changes or updates via Canvas announcements. Please review our syllabus to not only acclimate to our course, but also embrace the mutually beneficial experience I strongly believe that we all can have together. I am here to help and learn with you on our respective journeys in Honors Compass 2, so do not hesitate to reach out for any help after reading through our syllabus.”
Now, let’s look at other ways to ensure that students have read your beautifully crafted syllabus.
Ensuring your students have read the syllabus
A common frustration I hear from instructors is that they spend a lot of time constructing their syllabus and then their students don’t read it. Many of us have likely wanted to buy the t shirt that reads “It’s in the syllabus!”. Some instructors use a graded syllabus quiz to ensure that students at least glean the most important information from the syllabus. James Lang also describes other types of syllabus quiz questions in his article, The 3 Essential Functions of Your Syllabus, Part 2. He shares that asking students about which learning objectives or parts of the syllabus are most interesting to them or most closely aligned with their own goals could spark some interesting conversations. You could also ask students about the parts of the syllabus that concern them or that they have questions about.
One of the more creative introductions I have heard of is from Dr. Jenny Lale in our Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance who asks her students to act out the syllabus. She divides the students into groups and gives each group a section of the syllabus to present. She shared that this leads to hilarious depictions of the University president busting a cheater, Charlie’s Angels style, as well as opportunities to clarify when students miss an important element of the syllabus content. She always enjoys when a student takes on the role of instructor and is MUCH harder on the students than she would ever be—it does more work for her than any policy can because the students think she’ll be harsh based on that representation. It also allows them to meet, get to know each other, and sets the stage (literally) for the type of engagement Dr. Lale expects. Students report it is the most fun syllabus introduction they have ever had. Perhaps this idea is intimidating to you but think of other ways in which your students can discuss and even debate parts of the syllabus. You could assign parts of the syllabus to different groups and ask the groups to summarize the main points of each section. Students then have an opportunity to discuss, ask questions, or debate that section and collectively, with your input, develop the final version of it.
An example of different formats for the same syllabus
Dr. Alexis Peirce Caudall, Lecturer in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, gives students three versions of the syllabus to encourage them to read it. The first version is a one-page summary with the most important components of the class and answers to the frequently asked questions. The second version is the detailed syllabus that was created in Google Docs. This syllabus has a table of content that is aligned to the side of the document and allows students to easily find the pertinent information they currently need. Dr. Peirce shared that “In addition to being able to use the navigation pane to jump to the section that they need, having the syllabus as a Google doc means that they can also do a keyword search, control the font size, and or more easily use a screen reader if necessary. Alt text is provided for the images”. The third version is embedded in Canvas. She used the Interactive Syllabus template which allows instructors to create an interactive quiz in the LMS or Qualtrics. This syllabus encourages students to ask questions and/or express concerns about assignments. Dr. Lindsey Passenger Wieck at St. Mary’s University used this template to create this syllabus for Borderlands: Encounter, Exchange, Nation-Building.
Asking students for feedback throughout the semester
Drs. Kelly A. Hogan and Viji Sathy, authors of the book Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom, share that some instructors continue to solicit feedback from their students throughout the semester about what is working or not working for them in class or what is helping or hindering their learning. You could link to a feedback form on your syllabus and include a section for suggested edits to the syllabus. This will help you collect continuous feedback from your students and help as you reflect on your course and work to refine it for subsequent semesters.
If you view your syllabus as a living document that will change during the semester, let students know how they will receive syllabus updates. Perhaps that can be part of your community norms discussion during the first weeks of classes and/or include a statement like Joe Packowski’s statement shared earlier in this post that appears on the first page of his syllabus.
Get help with your syllabus
If you would like feedback on your syllabus, feel to contact us and one of our CITL consultants can meet with you and review your syllabus. Best of luck with the start of the semester and let us know if we can be of help.
- D’Antonio, Monica. July 2017. If Your Syllabus Could Talk. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Lang, James. February 2015. The 3 Essential Functions of Your Syllabus, Part 1. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Lang, James. March 2015. The 3 Essential Functions of Your Syllabus, Part 2. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. 2022. Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press.
- Weimer, Maryellen. March 2019. What role does your syllabus play?. The Teaching Professor.