New Teaching Toolbox: Engaging Students with the Syllabus

Daisy Breneman and I published a CFI Teaching Toolbox last week. Here it is in all its glory — and in html format. (If you’re at JMU and would like to subscribe to the Teaching Toolbox email newsletter, go to the Teaching Toolbox page.)

So, we’ve all gotten emails (many, many emails) from students asking questions that are answered in the syllabus. Our response is sometimes amusement, sometimes annoyance, sometimes understanding: Why don’t students read the syllabus? Why don’t they remember what we put in the syllabus? Why do they still ask questions instead of checking what the syllabus said? As we all try to ease into yet another pandemic semester by working on our syllabi, this toolbox doesn’t have magical answers or solutions; but, we do hope to offer some ideas and strategies here for getting students to engage with the syllabus.

Maybe the first question to ask is: is the syllabus something WE engage with? Sure, we’ve written it at some point (though that writing process may have made heavy use of Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V). But do WE remember what’s actually in the syllabus? (Andreas here: I do not always remember, and sometimes students remind me of things I put in my own syllabus.) Is the syllabus even worth reading? Kevin Gannon, educational developer, historian, and JMU alum, makes this point in response to a viral story about an instructor who included instructions in his syllabus for how students could find $50—which all students overlooked. Gannon notes that syllabi are often the terms and conditions we all have to accept for a course, “boilerplate” text that’s required for reasons of accreditation and university policy, but mostly of little real-life interest to both students and faculty.  

So, what would a syllabus look like that’s of interest (and use) for us, and for the students?

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