The syllabus has become the “terms and conditions” of the classroom: weighty, important, and rarely read in full. What used to be a one-page document outlining major class themes and important due dates has become a catch-all, chock-a-block with repetitive and incomprehensible administrative policies and academic jargon that obscures the very real, extremely valuable, and necessary purpose of a syllabus: to help students understand what they can expect from a class, and what will be expected of them. Rather than engaging and exciting students about what is to come, modern syllabi tend to alienate students and leave professors having to contend with an endless barrage of emails and questions, the answers to most of which can be found—you guessed it!—in that neglected syllabus.
But the syllabus has the power to be much more than just an inscrutable tome: it has the potential to set the tone for the class, to empower students to understand and participate in their own learning, and to set them up for success.
Would you read your own syllabus?
Any modern syllabus has to contend with two main issues: length and format. While it’s understandable to design a syllabus that serves as a complete course roadmap, a lengthy syllabus (just one of many students will receive, most of which will contain verbatim administrative policies) acts as more of a barrier to entry than an invitation.
Research shows that when faced with blocks of text, we read in an F or Z shape, scanning the first line of text and skimming the rest. In fact, one study demonstrated that people rarely read more than 20% of the text on a given page. This problem is only compounded by the fact the answers to questions are (in theory) just an email away, a strategy that seems far more compelling than playing hunt and peck through a dry, dense document—a document that is often gated behind a Blackboard login (navigate to right course —> navigate to right folder —> download pdf —> open pdf, ad nauseam...) and inaccessible on mobile.
So what’s a beleaguered prof to do?
Build a more effective syllabus
- Consider a “liquid syllabus.” Coined by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, a liquid syllabus is “a public, accessible, mobile-friendly website” that humanizes learning by telling students that you are there to be “a partner” in their learning. A liquid syllabus should be friendly, warm, and concise; it should set the tone for the class and prepare students for success. It does away with academic or disciplinary language and instead offers students a path to inclusion. Packansky-Brock also recommends including a short video that introduces yourself to students in order to humanize their experience. Unicycle's course builder makes it easy to quickly build a dynamic, mobile-friendly syllabus in minutes.
- Make it dynamic. If an online syllabus isn’t in the cards, think about how you can create more action and movement in your syllabus through the use of color and formatting. This can help draw student attention to the most important information, like class policies and dates, and help them code as repetitive what they might already know, like administrative boilerplates. Try a calendar view for assignments and exams, and print that page on different color paper. Use bold text for office hours and grading rubrics, and make use of bulleted or numbered lists, which are less likely to be skimmed.
- Pare down. While many institutions require syllabi to contain language around official academic policies, if there’s a way to condense all that information, do it! If you’re using an online syllabus, link out to relevant policies instead of including the text itself. And for your own material, keep it simple and concise. Use key words and phrases and elaborate on policies in class with opportunities for questions and discussions. Consider breaking up your assignments and distributing partial syllabi at monthly intervals, rather than all at once. If your syllabus does need to be lengthy, include a table of contents so students can easily find what they’re looking for.
- Offer a roadmap. Students are more likely to engage with a syllabus if they understand the purpose behind it. Think about it less as a laundry-list of to-dos and more as a pedagogical guide. Try color-coding assignments by their purpose, like exam prep, critical thinking skills, or creative expression. This helps students understand the value behind the work they are doing, and can make them more active participants in the learning process.
- Make it accessible. Whenever possible, use inclusive language that isn’t overly academic or jargon-y. This is especially important for marginalized and/or first-generation students, who can be alienated and are less likely to assume they belong in an academic setting. You could try presenting the syllabus in an FAQ format, which is more casual and conversational.
- When all else fails, dangle the carrot. It might be low-hanging fruit, but including “easter eggs” in your syllabus—hidden extra-credit assignments, information about how to obtain extra points—can tempt even the most reticent student to dig in.