The course syllabus gives students powerful information about the upcoming semester: learning goals, assignment schedules, grading policies, academic resources, and so much more.
But it just looks like a stack of paper.
Unfortunately, in my experience the students who need this resource the most are the ones least likely to recognize and understand all it provides.
In my opinion, the single most effective way to get students to realize what is in the syllabus and see how it can help them, is to have them use it.
Here are several activity ideas:
On The First Day
When you write the syllabus, leave prompts for students to write in personalized information.
“A classmate’s name and contact info: ___________________________”
“Dates I know I’ll have to miss class: ___________________________”
Take it a step farther and go for some metacognition:
“Which of these technical skills do I need help with? ___________________________”
“Is it better to go to the writing center or fail the class? ___________________________”
“What will I do if I get less than 75% on a major assignment? ___________________________”
Turn the syllabus into an information gap activity. You can do this with the whole thing or just one or two sections.
Make three different versions of the syllabus:
- one complete master document
- Version A (see below)
- Version B (see below)
Name the files abundantly clearly.
In Version A, blank out 5-10 key pieces of information. Leave space for the students to write in the information during class.
In Version B, blank out 5-10 different key pieces of information. Double check that the information missing from Version A is present in Version B and vice-versa. Again, leave space for students to write in the information.
When you print them, be sure to label the cover of each. Color code, call them “Complete,” “A,” and “B,” etc.
Have students circulate and ask each other for the information they’re missing.
Note: Specify that the purpose of this activity is to practice conversation AND to be familiar with the syllabus.
Good question: “When is the midterm?”
Bad question: “What is the third word in the second paragraph of page 2?”
This is the most advanced suggestion on this list.
During class, use the syllabus as the basis for a jigsaw activity.
Have small groups become experts in one section of the syllabus. Suggested activities: within each group, take turns reading a paragraph out loud while the others follow along. Then each student take a few minutes to develop a comprehension question on each paragraph s/he read aloud. The students quiz each other, closed-book. They share their opinions about how important their section is, and when it’s most useful. Last, together they put together a one-minute summary of their section that they will share with the others.
Then, these small groups break apart and form new groups with at least one representative from each original group. Within the new groups, students each share their one-minute summary. Then they give their opinion about how important their section is, and when it’s most useful (e.g. the grading policies section is very important, especially useful if you’re worried about your grades; the school closing section is important, but only if it’s snowing out).
After The First Day
Make Sure It’s A Relevant, Living Document
When you talk about grading or policy issues come up, refer back to the syllabus. Open up the document online or in your hands. Or both.
When you “complete” a course objective or a major assignment is handed in, graded, corrected and thoroughly finished with, take a moment during class to check it off on your syllabus. Use a document camera if you have one. Encourage students to check off accomplishments on their copies as well.
If your syllabus includes a schedule, and that schedule changes (e.g. Unit 5 needs another week), update the master copy of the syllabus. Ask students to put an X through their latest version of the course schedule, and then hand out updated (and labeled) hard copies.
Assign It As Content
Sometime in the second week, have the students complete a basic take-home assignment using the syllabus as a reference. Depending on your style, some might call this an open-book “quiz,” but others would simply say “homework.”
Ask straightforward questions that highlight what you want students to be most aware of.
“What happens if homework is late?”
“How much of your grade is your midterm worth?”
Use It As A Text
Going over coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS)? Highlight them in the course objectives in the syllabus and discuss why each one was chosen.
Learning to paraphrase? Why not paraphrase some of the syllabus section on plagiarism?
Practicing intonation? Use the syllabus! There are certainly statements, lists, dependent clauses, and so on.
Wishing students and teachers everywhere a wonderful semester!