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How to make a syllabus part 4: Getting it out there

January 7, 2008, 9:22 pm

This is the last in the series of “How to Make a Syllabus” articles, and I wanted to focus on an element of syllabi that I don’t hear talked about much: their life cycle. Namely, now that we know what a syllabus is for and what sorts of things ought to be on one (and not be on one), let’s talk about how to disseminate it and — very importantly — how to keep it in the game as the semester moves past day 1.

A well-constructed syllabus is a one-stop shop for all the information students should need in a course. Any question, any piece of information that pertains to the course and is not already easily available elsewhere ought to be clearly written and easily accessible in the syllabus. A well-written syllabus has the power to remove a lot of guesswork and unpleasantness from the task of course management. But only if the syllabus is itself easily available, and only if students are constantly made aware of how useful it is.

That is, there are two very important things to keep in mind about your syllabus once it is made: (1) it must be ubiquitous, being distributed in as many different formats and locations as possible; and (2) you must constantly refer to it as the main information source about course management to the students.

Making the syllabus available is usually a no-brainer — you just photocopy the thing and hand it out on the first day of class. And most teachers realize that making the syllabus available in multiple formats is important; you can post a copy on your course web site, or email it out as an attachment after the first day. So this point isn’t difficult to grasp.

The only thing to keep in mind is to carry this to extremes. Make the syllabus available in as many formats as possible: on paper, to be sure, and electronically in multiple file formats, making sure that PDF is one of those formats. For my part I usually do the following with my syllabi:

  • Print up paper copies for the first day of class.
  • Print up some more just to have on hand in the office if a student needs one.
  • Make electronic copies in PDF, MS Word, and RTF formats and post those on the course Angel site.

This way, a student in the class is going to be practically bumping in to a copy of the syllabus wherever they go. That’s the idea — make the syllabus not only logical and transparent but also easy to find, or rather hard to get away from.

In the past, I’ve also posted HTML versions of the syllabus on the web. HTML is an especially good format for syllabi because syllabi work well as hyperlinked documents. Students usually don’t read the syllabus in a linear way, starting from the beginning and working to the end; they read nonlinearly, diving in and searching for whatever piece of information is relevant to the question they have about the course. So I’ve made my syllabi before with hyperlinks to the main concepts and sections of the syllabus, allowing for nonlinear reading.

Nowadays, you don’t really need to make an HTML document to accomplish this searchability, because PDF, Word, and RTF files can be searched. But how many students know how to implement a word search in their PDF viewer? So there’s still something to be said for hyperlinked syllabi. Or you might try making a syllabus wiki instead, using Wikispaces or something similar. (Wikispaces allows for on-the-fly LaTeX typesetting which makes it an especially good solution for hyperlinked online mathematical documents.)

Now to the second point: What happens to the syllabus after day one. It’s very easy for the instructor to forget about the syllabus after the first day or the first week, and if the instructor forgets, then surely the students will too. So the instructor has to refer to the syllabus constantly when informational questions come up.

I’ve had to develop the discipline, whenever a student asks an informational question such as “When are your office hours?” or “How many points can we total in the class?”, to NOT answer these questions directly, but rather answer with “That’s in the syllabus.” Where is your office? That’s in the syllabus. When is the final exam? That’s in the syllabus. What do I need to make on the final to get a C+ for the class? Use the formula I gave you in the syllabus. To the student, I’m sure my flat answer of “that’s in the syllabus” sounds like I am brushing them off. But what I’m doing is referring them to the place where all that stuff is written down. And frankly, a syllabus is good because it is a place where it’s all written down, and you don’t have to remember any of it. (Sound familiar?) Besides, students begin to realize that any question of this sort is always going to be answered the same way, and so they simply stop asking and look it up instead. Which is the whole idea.

I don’t do this personally, but I have also heard of profs who include syllabus-related questions on tests and quizzes, perhaps as extra credit. That’s a pretty good way to make sure students are looking at the syllabus occasionally throughout the semester and come to see it as a “friendly” document, a document that is on their side and helping them navigate the course.

That’s about all I have to contribute on the topic of course syllabi. To sum up:

  • A syllabus is an information dump for all the parametric and structural information in the course.
  • A syllabus can have too little information in it, and too much information in it. Hitting the sweet spot is the challenge.
  • An item is to be included in the syllabus if and only if it is information that is relevant to the course that is not readily available elsewhere.
  • Make the syllabus readily available in a multitude of different formats and locations.
  • Refer to the syllabus constantly and explicitly throughout the semester as the main repository of course management information.

Do these, and I think you’ll find a great weight lifted from your shoulders as you teach your course. And your students will have a little more brain power to devote to actually learning things in your class.

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