Is It in the Syllabus?

Directions are instructions given to explain how.
Direction is a vision offered to explain why.
Simon Sinek

The course syllabus is the backbone of many courses; the syllabus is the means by which the teachers deliver their expectations and policies to students. However, getting students to read the syllabus has become such a common problem that it has entered popular culture. A quick search of the international net turned up over 50 memes, mugs, T-shirts, and posters all was some variation of the phrase “it’s in the syllabus.” My favorite being “It was in the syllabus it’s still in the syllabus it’s always in the syllabus” There are a lot of web pages written about the topic of the syllabus Amy Baldwin’s website is called “it’s in the syllabus.”  Austin Community College professor David Lydic has a unique approach to students asking him questions that are in the syllabus.

David Lydic using his t shirt, that reads it's in the syllabus, to answer a student question that is in the syllabus.
David Lydic showing his It’s in the syllabus t shirt. Image source Imgur

The funny thing is I had not planned on writing about the syllabus. However, I recently collected course syllabi for another project. I collected 20 syllabi for first-year majors biology courses and ten each from chemistry and physics. When I started looking at the syllabi and noticed something interesting, the only thing that was in all of them was the course name.

Five of the 40 syllabi did not list the course instructor, only 12 of them listed learning goals, ten didn’t even list course schedules. With all this emphasis on it’s in the syllabus, I was quite surprised to find that when you go and look at syllabus well, it’s not in the syllabus. Since a lot of schools or at least departments require course syllabi coupled with the fact that syllabi are generally regarded as legal contracts why is so much missing?

My guess is a lack of training and models. I’ve previously talked about out why I use models in my work and so I won’t go into it. If you want to read about it, you can review my earlier blog post here. For this blog, I’m going to use the recommended checklist from “the course syllabi: a learning-centered approach” second edition. When I used this checklist to examine all 40 syllabi, this is what I found.

Syllabi Checklist Table

Biology (n=20)
Chemistry (n=10)
Physics (n=10)
Total
(n=40)
table of contents

0

0 0 0
instructor information 17 8 10 35
student information form (not needed anymore) 0 0 0 0
letters to the student or teaching philosophy statement 0 0 0 0
purpose of the course 0 0 0 0
course description 8 8 6 22
course objectives (learning goals) 4 4 4 12
readings 17 8 5 30
resources 16 9 8 33
course calendar 17 8 5 30
course requirements 0 0 0 0
policies and expectations (Instructor/Course):
attendance 0 0 0 0
late papers 0 0 0 0
missed tests 1 1 0 2
class behaviors 1 2 2 5
civility 0 0 0 0
policies and expectations (University/College):
academic honesty 9 4 7 20
disability access 7 5 7 19
safety 0 1 0 1
evaluation 0 0 0 0
grading procedures 13 7 9 29
how to succeed in this course: tools for study and work 0 0 1 1

There are a few things on this list that are not relevant anymore; student information systems replaced student information forms.  I generally include the purpose of the course with the course description.  So, what do you think of this list?  Is it too much, not enough, should it just be different? There are two things that each appeared only once in a syllabus that I think I would add; one is a list of FAQs and other while I don’t necessarily like what it suggests. I understand its presence, and that is an escape plan.  Though in all honesty, it should be the responsibility of the school to have escape plans for all its buildings.

Course syllabi are the perfect example of where schools could and should help their teachers. With today’s learning management systems school should be able to create a page template for the syllabus. The advantages a lot of the information could be auto-populated, for example when the course is assigned the syllabus page auto-populates the course title, description, room and meeting times from the course catalog. Appointing the professor can automatically populate contact information. Additionally, programs could automatically fill school policies like; disability policy, honor code, harassment, and safety. A form that could be used to add all the additional information that faculty added themselves. Imagine having a form that auto-populates with a schedule of dates that you could add readings and assignments without figuring out the calendar.  Not only would this help save time, but it would also lead to consistency and support both new and experienced faculty include all the necessary components of a syllabus. Since schools write many of these components, the school should be responsible for their upkeep and consistency among syllabi.

Is there anything else you think should be in a syllabus? Anything you would leave out? Would a syllabus creation tool be something you would like to see? What do you think about the syllabus? Whatever you think about the syllabus as a group I think we need to think a little bit before we go into “It’s in the syllabus.”

Thanks for listening to my musings

The Teaching Cyborg

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