Syllabus Shake-Up Day Two

Welcome to day two of the 2022 Syllabus Shake-Up Challenge! In today’s post, I’m talking about traditional approaches to syllabus engagement and new strategies that an instructor can use that are more effective. 

If you’re just joining in, you can check out day one of the challenge here.

As with the previous days, there is a prompt for you to work through on your own at the end of the post. Feel free to share your thoughts with the community by commenting on this post, or on social media by tagging @ApothekeBlog or #SyllabusShakeUp!

A challenge for instructors to increase engagement with their syllabi

Getting students to read the syllabus

Last summer, I remember there being a lot of instructors on social media lamenting the fact that their students weren’t reading their syllabi.

They were also sharing their strategies for incentivizing the process; a notable example was the instructor who found themselves with a $50 bill still tucked safely in a safe at the end of term.

Other approaches, like one teacher who simply asked students who had read the syllabus to send them a photo of an otter, had lower stakes.

But these inevitably fall into the same trap of having high expectations of students (aka that they read the syllabus) without making sure they fully understand the stakes in the first place (aka how to read a syllabus; what the syllabus is for and why they should care).

Traditional approaches (and why they don’t work)

  1. Incentives
  2. Easter eggs – some students will have read the syllabus closely, while others may have simply heard about the Easter egg and thus found a way around actually having to read the syllabus; limited shelf-life (can’t be recycled term to term)
  3. Syllabus quizzes – if it’s not graded, students may not take it seriously
  4. Syllabus scavenger hunts
  5. Reading through syllabus
Why don’t these approaches work?
They rely on students taking initiative
They may seem punitive, rather than essential for student success
They aren’t engaging (e.g. reading the syllabus to students)
They don’t encourage the actual retention of important information and resources
They are typically “one off” activities, done on the first day or week of the course

Innovative approaches

  1. Co-creation
  2. Aligning learning objectives with activities and assessment
  3. Remind students of how they can reach you

Co-creation in learning and teaching

In order to be effective, co-creation in learning and teaching requires a significant mindset shift on the part of instructors.

Instructors who want to employ this approach in their classrooms need to be willing to relinquish the deep-seated belief that they have all the power in the room. They must be open to being guided by student interests and concerns, which requires that instructors take students seriously, a prerequisite for creating effective learning relationships. 

When instructors are more flexible and open to student perspectives, this sets a tone of collaborative learning from the first day of class. 

It also gives students more power in the development of class policies and assignments, which in turn enhances participation and student ownership of the class.

According to Bovill (2020, 1025), co-creation in learning and teaching might involve negotiation of the:

  1. Content or subject matter
  2. Purpose of their work
  3. Teaching approach
  4. Many ways in which students and instructors can work and learn together
  5. Preferred approach to evaluation

Co-creation in learning and teaching can be applied to just about any part of a course. Indeed, scholarship on the subject has focused on a wide range of topics, from course rules (DiClementi and Handelsman 2005) to discussion guidelines (Sensoy and DiAngelo 2014) to assignments (Hudd 2003).

Aligning learning objectives with course activities and assessments

A few weeks ago, one of my friends reached out to me for advice on what activities to do in their course this term. When they provided me with a few ideas, one of the first questions I asked them in response was: what outcomes are these activities working towards? 

In other words: what do you want your students to be able to do? 

This question is closely related to the learning objectives for your course. 

When a course is designed with intention (that is, with activities and assessments aligned with course goals), students are “more likely to feel that course strategies have been designed to help them reach their goals, rather than merely as busywork, or worse, to torture them” (Slattery and Carlson 159).

“Why are my students so lazy?”

The underlying reason for many common complaints about student behavior is that course assessments and activities are misaligned. It is this misalignment that negatively impacts student motivation and learning. 

Students may not be engaged because they do not understand what the purpose of an assignment is or how it might benefit them in the long run.

They may cheat because they are hard-wired to believe that grades matter more than the process of learning.

In Habanek’s (2005) analysis of twenty-five course syllabi from a midwestern university, two did not address course outcomes at all. When I conducted a survey of thirteen syllabi from my own department, I found that three of these also did not include any course goals or objectives.

A similar issue I’ve noticed in my own syllabi is that of simply copying and pasting the same learning objectives into syllabi for different courses.

As Habanek points out, “with the common use of technology to update and copy syllabi, it is especially easy to change some dates and times without thinking through the semester’s goals and the additional information that will help students achieve them” (Habanek 64).

Especially now, we need to be more intentional about considering the particular outcomes that we’d like to see our students achieve. And not just regarding course content. We also need to think about skills that are more broadly applicable and useful to students from all walks of life. 

The latter approach is critical for making our courses more equitable and inclusive.

Facilitate better instructor-student relationships

Instructors play an important role in promoting a positive and supportive classroom environment. This process begins with syllabus design, which can sometimes provide a window into what an instructor is like before students meet them.

As Slattery and Carlson (2005, 159) observed, “syllabi differ widely in the tone they adopt: warm and friendly, formal and condescending, or confrontational. Warm syllabi explain expectations in a clear and friendly fashion, encourage and motivate students, and anticipate positive student outcomes, rather than merely attempting to prevent problems.”

Instructors adopt a similar range of tones in the classroom.

Negative tones, such as those which are condescending or confrontational, are borne out of deep-seated beliefs about student behavior, which develops into a strong desire to prevent potential issues. 

For example, Habanek (2005) conducted a survey of twenty-five syllabi from a midwestern university, analyzing course outcomes, materials, schedule, respect for individuals, details on how to be successful in the course, and the instructor’s model for organization and enthusiasm.

Significant for this point, of the syllabi in her study:

  1. Five gave rules about situations that would affect a grade, such as late assignments or missed tests. 
  2. Two gave the same types of rules, as well as general advice about how to be successful.
  3. Ten gave advice only.
  4. Nine gave details about assignments and tests that would lead to success; two of these also gave rules.

In addition to these, only three of the syllabi included language that modeled enthusiasm for the course and/or addressed collaboration between instructor and student around learning throughout the semester.

The tone an instructor takes toward students does not end with syllabus design. In order to facilitate a sense of connection in the classroom, instructors must also employ communicative behaviors that exhibit warmth, caring, support, and inclusiveness (Frisby and Martin, 148). 

When instructors develop meaningful relationships with their students, they build rapport, or “a mutual, trusting, and prosocial bond” (Frisby and Martin 147), with them. This can have positive effects on student learning, including higher grades, greater satisfaction, frequent classroom participation, and increased likelihood to continue learning in the future.

Why are these approaches more effective?
They rely on cooperation between the instructor and student(s)
The benefit to students is inherently good
They are more engaging because they involve active learning
They encourage students to remember important information because that information is frequently revisited and reinforced
They are syllabus-related activities that are integrated or have effects that last throughout the course, rather than concentrated at the beginning and forgotten about

How can an instructor choose the right approach?

The primary goal of this challenge is to help you identify approaches that you feel capable of implementing right now. These are typically smaller, and thus more manageable approaches.

In terms of the amount of time and energy each of these approaches requires, if can be broken down this way:

Co-creation in learning and teachingAligning learning objectivesInstructor-student relationships
LowPutting students in charge of developing course assignments, rules, discussion guidelines, etc. and agreeing upon the final list(s)
Reminding students of guidelines or rules throughout term
Existing course objective > existing activityRegularly remind students of where to find your contact info, student hours times, email etiquette, etc.
This could be supplemented by including that info in powerpoints or other course materials
MediumInvolving students in the process of developing the above, but presenting them with finite options for rules, guidelines, assignment types to choose fromExisting course objective > new activity/activitiesFacilitate small group review sessions around big papers and/or exams
HighLeaving class periods or entire portions of the term open to student inputNew course objectives > new activities (or vice versa)Set up add’l channels for student questions and/or course feedback

If you are not currently teaching but planning to in the future, or if you’re feeling especially ambitious, feel free to try out some of the approaches that require more time, thought, and energy. 

Question of the day: Which of these approaches do you think would be best applied to the course you are currently teaching (or teaching in the future or taught in the past)? How would this approach benefit your students?
Comment below or share your thoughts on social media by tagging @ApothekeBlog or #SyllabusShakeUp!


Sensoy and DiAngelo 2014 “Respect Differences? Challenging the Common Guidelines in Social Justice Education”

DiClementi and Handelsman 2005 “Empowering Students: Class-Generated Course Rules”

Habanek 2005 “An Examination of the Integrity of the Syllabus”

Palmer et al. 2014 “Measuring the Promise: A Learning-Focused Syllabus Rubric”

Frisby and Martin 2010 “Instructor-Student and Student-Student Rapport in the Classroom”

Creative Strategies to Get Students to Read Your Course Syllabus

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