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Is It Time to Improve the Syllabus?

Welcome to my class. Here's a syllabus snapshot.

Key points

  • Students rarely read the syllabus but they can be inspired to.
  • A syllabus snapshot grabs attention with the key components of a class.
  • The snapshot may make reading the full syllabus more likely.
 Regan A. R. Gurung (Art by Paige Herrboldt)
The Thrival Guide
Source: Regan A. R. Gurung (Art by Paige Herrboldt)

Imagine signing up to go on a really exciting trip. It could be roaming the savannahs of Africa, strolling the foothills of the Himalayas, or diving on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. You anticipate all you will see and do, learn and discover. You arrive to start your journey and you are given a large tome packed with legalese, warnings, and rules, together with the itinerary and some description of what you will do. Worse, you are told to leave right after you get it, and return another day to really start.

Many college classes are like that. Not only is “syllabus day” still a thing (faculty hand out a syllabus and dismiss class), but syllabi are bloated stacks of paper written in uninspiring prose, looking like every other similarly named document, and listing the same boilerplate language. Not all of this is required, nor does it have to be the only way you get the information across. Try a syllabus snapshot.

Syllabi as we know them have stayed about the same for decades. Rising to prominence after World War I, the name itself arising from a fifteenth century mistranslation of fourteenth century writing (Germano & Nicholls, 2020). Regardless of its origins, the syllabi at most universities look similar to each other. A large part of this is because universities, mostly via faculty senates, mandate that every course has a syllabus. Furthermore, each syllabus is required to have a set of information, ranging from the obvious (course name, number of credits) to the more specific (student misconduct policies, statement on resources for students with disabilities). Some universities require mental health statements such as Oregon State University’s “Reach Out Statement.”

There is a lot to love about consistency. Many people frequent Starbucks or In-N-Out Burger because each franchise is designed to be familiar and deliver the same experience. Similarly, students can take solace in knowing their syllabi contain all the key information they need to successfully navigate the course. A syllabus serves as a contract, as a permanent record, as a communication device, and as a learning tool/cognitive map (Richmond et al., 2022). We also know that there are some key ways a syllabus should be written. A sizable body of research suggests faculty should write student-centered, warm syllabi. But a multipage syllabus, especially in the hands of first year students, may be asking them to go from 0 to 60 too quickly. A "syllabus snapshot" may help.

A syllabus snapshot is a one-page document that provides the main elements of the course in an easy to digest way. Students want to get a sense of who the instructor is and what is required of them in the course. How many assignments and exams are there? Are there suggested ways to study for the course? How do they get in touch with the instructor in case they need help? Their first exposure to the course need not have all the gory details of each assignment right then. It they can get a good feel for the course, they may be more ready to read the regular or normal syllabi and take in all the details.

Because there is still a full syllabus satisfying all university minimum requirements, a syllabus snapshot provides the teacher with a way to truly try something different and pick and choose the best information that they think will be a good first introduction for the student. The snapshot can be an abbreviated version of the normal syllabus, cutting parts of the complete document, or it can be formatted and created completely differently.

A year ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I created my first syllabus snapshot. It used clipart, portions of my syllabus (e.g., a table of assessments, points, and the Student Learning Outcomes they satisfied). It also had some language to welcome students, offer my help, and provide some key ways to study, complete with a checklist of what would be due every week. This year, I took it up a few notches. A student artist (@paigeh.art on Instagram) created a highly visual, hand-drawn version, of my first syllabus snapshot using Clip Studio Paint. I created alternate text for visually impaired students, and will make both versions available on the first day of class. Students will also have the full syllabus available.

The syllabus snapshot offers the promise to give students an easy welcome to the class and may make them more likely to read the full syllabus. Many of the key components of the class are introduced in the snapshot, providing a pathway to the full syllabus for more details. Do snapshots make a difference? Time and ongoing research will have the answers. For now, the anecdotal evidence from over 350 students who saw Version 1.0 last fall is encouraging.

Our classes can be exciting trips. Let’s do what we can to build enthusiasm, interest, and buy-in for the course on Day One. A syllabus snapshot may be part of the way to do it.

References

Germano, W., & Nicholls, K. (2020). Syllabus: The remarkable, unremarkable document that changes everything. Princeton University Press.

Richmond, A. S., Boysen, G. A., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2022). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching: Model teaching competencies, 2e. Routledge.

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