This comic perfectly sums up the frustration that instructors often encounter in regards to answering routine questions from students. Long ago, some brilliant instructor probably came up with an ingenious method for dealing with the questions that he kept getting asked over and over.
“Ah ha!” he said as the light bulb flashed over his head. “I will write down the answers to all of these commonly asked questions, and give them out to students at the beginning of the term. That way they will have a simple way to get the information, and will never bother me with questions again!”
And so the syllabus was born.
[Well…actually… According to A Brief History of The Syllabus with Examples by Jeffrey Snyder, the syllabus first made its foray into academics in the eighteenth century and was little more than ledger list of topics to be covered. It was not until the twentieth century that the syllabus emerged in its current form.]
Regardless, unfortunately, as many of us know, even the most detailed syllabus cannot save an instructor from being deluged with the same questions from students over and over.
This is because, of course, even the most detailed information is useless to a person who does not take the time to read it. And few things are less read than the average course syllabus. There are obscure scrolls from the Middle Ages that have had more eyeballs on them than the average freshman year syllabus. This thought should not discourage instructors; instead it should motivate to think about the overall purpose(s) of a syllabus, as well as the creative and effective ways of constructing a syllabus.
But what is it about the syllabus that makes it such undesirable reading?
I believe you could sum it up with one pithy cliché: ignorance is bliss. What could be more demoralizing to a student than to take in with one reading all of the work and expectations they face for the entire semester? It’s a page or two of text that can fill the student with dread, a daunting to-do list that, well…they’d rather not even know about if they don’t have to. And so they take it day by day, getting by as best they can without peeping at the syllabus.
Until something comes up. A question…They can’t proceed until they get an answer. They dare not gaze upon their mortal foe. And so we hear the knock on our doors, and a familiar refrain: “Professor, I uh…have a question.”
And then we must summon our most saint-like patience, as we calmly say the words that have exited our lips a hundred times before: “It’s in the syllabus!”
If most students do not get it, that will be the instructor’s responsibility to help them understand it better. Only students should not be blamed!
A solution that has helped bridge the communication gap, particularly in online teaching settings, where it may be more challenging for an instructor to speak to his or her students directly, is the implementation of a required, but ungraded, syllabus quiz.
The purpose of the syllabus quiz is to give students the opportunity to digest rules and expectations pertaining to academic work, and to help them identify areas they may not understand about the course. At the same time, the quiz can also be a tool to convey a learning-focused approach to teaching, by allowing students and instructors to better understand how the syllabus (and course) have been designed around learning.
A syllabus quiz won’t guarantee an end to repeated questions about the syllabus, but at least now the students will know: IT’S IN THE SYLLABUS!
What do you think? Have you ever used a syllabus quiz? What other methods have been helpful for you in facilitating your students’ understanding of course expectations?
Muveddet Harris is the program associate for faculty programs at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. She also teaches graduate level online courses in the Master’s Program in Medical Informatics for Northwestern’s School of Continuing Studies.