We spend so much time and care crafting our syllabi...how can I make sure students actually read it?
Dear Syllabus Reader,
Getting students to read the syllabus is a difficulty many instructors face. And, while we as instructors know about all the important things a syllabus can hold, it can be daunting for students to face reading a 5-page (or even longer) document full of formal language and policies…especially if they aren’t even sure what a syllabus is for. Here are some ideas on helping get students informed, interested, and engaged in reading the course syllabus:
Make it interesting:
Provide students with a visually appealing syllabus! Just adding visual interest to an otherwise rather boring document means that students are more likely to check it out. You can start out simple by using a variety of document templates (like newsletters in Word or Publisher). Or take it to the next level by creating an infographic version using Canva or Piktochart. I (Ciara) love creating a “visual” version of my syllabus that allows me to be creative in displaying information to students using graphs and clip art to get the major points across. I then include links to more detailed policies and/or a plain-text syllabus, introductory videos, useful resources, etc.
Make it engaging:
If design isn’t your strong suit, you can also get students to read the syllabus by incorporating engagement with the syllabus in your class. You can lead activities in class to get students to learn what’s in the syllabus. For example, syllabus speed-dating is an activity that gets students talking with one another and diving into the syllabus to answer questions about the class. A syllabus scavenger hunt activity similarly asks students to find specific information within the syllabus in order to complete it.
If you don’t have class time to devote to getting students engaged in reading the syllabus, I have found that creating assignments related to the syllabus is useful. A syllabus quiz is an effective way to make sure students are at least aware of the most important information contained within it. In many Learning Management Systems (e.g., Moodle, Canvas) a teacher can restrict access to other course materials until a student earns a specific score on a syllabus quiz, demonstrating their understanding of important policies and what information is within the syllabus. If that’s not your style, the syllabus can also be used as an introductory or practice assignment, particularly in a class that uses new tech or repetitive weekly assignments. For example, in a class where students are asked to annotate readings each week, the first week’s assignment could be to annotate the syllabus. This serves as both a way for the student to become familiar with the task they will be doing throughout the term as well as a way to ensure that the syllabus is carefully read. Similarly, if the students write weekly journals or reflections, the first week’s assignment could focus on the syllabus.
Make it informative:
One thing I have noticed over time is that syllabi, and syllabi-language, are passed down from instructor to instructor within an institution. This is a great time-saver, but it also means that sometimes the language and structure of syllabi is formal and does not serve today’s students. We have to remember that most of our students are first-generation and from more diverse backgrounds than the students of the faculty who came before us. By changing up the language used in syllabus, it may make the information contained in it easier to read and understand, thus making students more likely to read it!
One idea to help you make your syllabus more informative is to use guided questions as headings for information. For example, instead of the formal terms related to attendance or late policies you can use questions like “Do I have to go to class?” or “Can I turn things in late” to make it very clear where students should find the answers to those questions. Similarly, you can translate the formal academic language in describing policies, assignments, etc. by adopting a “conversational tone” that not only demonstrates the care and warmth of you, the instructor, but also makes it easier to understand the information within it. Some policies are carefully written by others for inclusion into syllabi across campus, definitely include them as written, but it may also be appropriate to provide your own explanation of what is meant by that policy or provide examples. Have a plagiarism policy? Accompany that policy with a list of what plagiarism looks like in your class so it's clear what you as the instructor see as plagiarism so students can see how it applies to your assignments (this is particularly important in cases of group work, or students working together on non-group work assignments which can vary a lot from instructor to instructor).
Another idea to help make your syllabus informative, is to provide the “formal” longer syllabus but to also give a short 1-page syllabus synopsis/cheat-sheet that highlights the most important/relevant information. This is particularly great if you want to give students something tangible in class that first day, without printing off your super long syllabus. Even better, include page numbers of where more information can be found. This synopsis could include information like your email/office hours, major due dates, study suggestions, course materials, attendance/late policies (in plain language with reference to the page of the complete policy), and whatever else you think is super vital for students to know. You could even come up with a “blank” version for students to complete as part of the earlier mentioned “syllabus scavenger hunt” activity for students to complete during class and have as a cheat sheet throughout the semester!
There are a lot of ways to encourage students to read the syllabus and part of that rests in making sure students understand the purpose of the syllabus in your class and the information that it holds. Syllabi serve a different purpose to different instructors and if we want our students to know what it is for us, we have to tell them.
Your STP Early Career Psychologists Committee
Courtney Gosnell, Ph.D.
Albee Mendoza, Ph.D.
Janet Peters, Ph.D.
Ciara Kidder, Ph.D.
Christina Shane-Simpson, M.S.W., Ph.D.