A recent column in Inside Higher Ed offers 19 “Lessons Learned” about college teaching. The list includes a number of worthy observations about students and teaching strategies. One item in particular, however, struck me as potentially unhelpful:
8. Have everything covered in the syllabus.
I tend to have a syllabus that is at least six to seven solid pages of text. Much of this is “common sense.” But given the nature of colleges and universities today and the nature of students (especially the “classroom lawyers”), it is helpful to carefully articulate all expectations, rules, and any exceptions. I have a “master syllabus” on my computer that I will add things to during the semester so the syllabus will be better for the next time. A detailed syllabus can also save time and stress, as students can consult the syllabus for course information.
Six to seven solid pages of text? What kind of message does an ever-expanding legal contract send as an invitation to learning? Consider an alternative approach from a post in Faculty Focus:
Be thorough with the syllabus but not exhaustive. This in an area in which many faculty members make mistakes. Since they correctly view the syllabus as a contract, they want to include everything that the student should or should not do. This quickly becomes a list of prohibitions, such as “no hats in class,” “no talking,” and “no tardiness.”
However, this approach undermines a sense of trust in the student. In spite of concerns the instructor may have about the youth and inexperience of students, they quickly understand how to behave in the course. Think like a student: how would you want to be treated if you were taking a course? Write a syllabus with that perspective in mind.
Certain variables matter here: the students at any particular institution, and also the level of the course being taught. What is your approach to the syllabus, and why?