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In my experience, most instructors spend a large portion of the first period in a term talking about the syllabus. This seems to serve to pass responsibility onto students:

  • Students see the deadlines. No student can claim to not know about an assignment or deadline.
  • Students see the course rules. No student can claim they did not know they were breaking a rule.

In the past, some students have tried various methods, such as skipping lessons, then claiming to not know about requirements, in an attempt to get the support of the administrators to back their case of "I didn't know".

I have lots of material to cover within the term, so do not like to waste lots of time with talking about the course and would rather get started. Is "here is the syllabus, read it" sufficient for passing responsibilities onto students? If students do not read it (many won't) is the responsibility nevertheless still passed?

33

From the students' perspective, this is similar to giving them a textbook and asking them to show up for the final exam. There are three reasons I see the need to start with discussing the syllabus.

First, talking about the syllabus is an opportunity to introduce yourself and the course, learn more about the students you will be teaching, and set the stage for the semester. It is a beginning of your semester-long relationship with the class after all. Skipping the overview is like taking a road trip without looking at the map first.

Second, it takes more than one repetition of same material, and preferably in different forms, for the material to be absorbed and comprehended. Thus, when the responsibility is passed to the students, their understanding of the syllabus will not be as good, no matter how diligently they read it. How important is it to you that they understand the syllabus?

Lastly, the students are denied opportunity to ask questions and discuss the syllabus and the course progression, if that is not covered in the class. Sure, they can email you, or ask during the office hours, but the entire class will not be on the same page.

  • 23
    +1. I think just telling your students to "read the important information in the syllabus" is a sufficient transfer of responsibility, but not of information - you put very well why it's still not a good idea. – Moriarty Sep 13 '14 at 4:23
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    At the very least, tell them why they need to read the syllabus -- that there is important information there about dates and deadlines and such. Also, a quick overview of what the class will cover -- it shouldn't take "a large portion" of the period -- may help students be confident that this class will cover what they thought it would, so they can drop it immediately if they were wrong, and can help set the term in context ("why is he teaching this? ... oh, it's in preparation for that"). – keshlam Sep 13 '14 at 13:59
18

It depends on what you mean by "sufficient".

Sufficient for passing the blame to students when they don't do what the syllabus says, and getting administrators to side with you in case of dispute? Yes.

Sufficient for actually getting the students to do what the syllabus says? No.

Sufficient for covering yourself? Yes.

Sufficient for a class that runs smoothly and that students find satisfactory? No.

  • 15
    This is very much culture-dependent. When I was an undergrad in the UK, it was certainly not the case that every (or even, as I recall, any) lecture course began with a whole lecture devoted to administrative matters. That didn't stop things running smoothly or cause students to be dissatisfied. – David Richerby Sep 13 '14 at 12:43
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    In Austria at least most professors would expect you to read the syllabus yourself and not having to babysit adults, so I agree with David. From my vantage point of 1 year studying in the US, the high student fees change the student - teacher dynamic which does manifest itself in things such as these or interactions during consultation hours. Imo if an adult isn't capable of figuring out that they should read the syllabus they should never get a degree anyhow (wait we have deadlines in a course? What a surprise!) – Voo Sep 13 '14 at 18:05
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    I very much agree with @DavidRicherby (though we did study the same course at the same time). However, I think there is an important distinction to be made between deadlines and paperwork (which I feel are legitimately endlessly repeated to feckless students), and the continual discussion of what is or is not in the exam which, at worse, can contribute replacing any genuine sense of broad engagement with a subject with an exercise in regurgitation. – Dan Sheppard Sep 14 '14 at 22:12
13

Here's my take, since I my experience disagrees with Orion's and Nate's answers.

I stopped handing out paper syllabi some 10 years ago. I put all my course information in the web page and on the first day of classes I spend less than 5 minutes at the beginning saying so, and maybe going quickly over the grading scheme and the assignment regime.

Over the semester, the number of hits on the page is proportional to the number of students in the class, which shows me that most students look at the page a couple times a week.

The last time I had an "I didn't know" issue was 12 years ago, and that same day I got an email from another student in the class saying that the "misinformed" student was cheating about it.

  • But you do spend five minutes explaining the syllabus. I don't think that the question was specific to paper vs. website. It is always nice to have up-to-date syllabus to refer to on line. To use Nate's analogy, it is your project plan where you show what was done and what's coming up next. – Orion Sep 13 '14 at 21:40
  • I wish all my students were so attentive to the material I put on-line. And yes, I not only tell them about it but their first assignment requires them to swear that they found the documents (and the instructions tell them exactly where to look). – dmckee Sep 15 '14 at 1:18
8

To add to Nate Eldridge's answer, in project management it is important that all concerned really know what is supposed to be done. If you write an instruction and have others read it, you will likely have as many misinterpretations as people in the group. To run a successful project it is therefore vital not only to share such information but actually to make sure everyone is on the same page. If you think about it, you may have an idea, you write it so that it is clear to you, someone else reads it and they say it is clear to them, but there are at least three transfers, your thought to writing, your writing to someone's reading and read text to forming an opinion about what is written, so plenty of opportunities to go wrong.

So to cover yourself, you can claim you have done what is necessary by providing a text, but in reality and to provide the best transfer of knowledge, a written paper is far from enough. So the answer depends on what is important, that students really understand or if one (just) wants to fulfill the rules.

I often think of courses as projects with myself as project leaders and students as project members. Despite much effort, it is of course still impossible to reach perfection.

6

Management roles are much more than just passing down responsibility.

Legally / ethically one way or another may be sufficient to pass down responsibility, but your goal is not that you can punish students who do not obey the rule, your concern should be that the students are following those rules.

In other words, you goal is to have them proceed according to your rules, because it produces better learning experience for them and easier workflow for you, less headache for everyone involved. Students who do not submit assignment by deadline, do not follow formats, they look for you beyond your hours or emailing you with unnecessary questions etc are generating you extra work, extra problem you don't need. It is primarily not a liability issue, it is "lets make things work!" issue.

5

I agree with Nate Eldredge's analysis. The question of whether responsibility has been successfully transferred seems to have "yes" for an answer. However, I still want to point out some tips for making sure students are aware of their responsibilities and the course structure, which is presumably a desired outcome.

Spending 10-20 minutes in the first lecture talking about the syllabus (which nowadays is normally distributed electronically) can be good to ease the students into the class, making the transition from the break a little smoother. I will often project the syllabus in front of the class so everyone can follow along. I also encourage online discussions (using Piazza) in my class, and many of these discussions turn out to be procedural. Very often a student will be confused about a policy and not know where to look for clarification, and another student will respond online with the correct information before I even know there was a question. You can also make announcements this way and remind students of exams and things. This will certainly "transfer responsibility," since students who miss class will still have access to online posted announcements. Finally, I devote a few minutes every once in a while while lecturing to reminding students of policies and upcoming events. The human brain has a physical limit on how much new information it can process at once, so breaking up lecture to give some procedural explanations can give a needed break from the material, and perhaps even increase retention. You mention not having enough time to cover all of the material you want to, but making the lectures too information-dense may end up having the opposite from the intended effect, and students may end up retaining less. For courses like this, with a lot of material, I think it's fine to keep the lecture pace moderate and assign the students to read some of the material on their own. I'm not suggesting a dramatic change of pace, just a moderate slowdown, but anyway that's not really on topic.

2

I don't take up class meeting time with a discussion of the syllabus (though on day 1, I do highlight aspects of the course that might be different from what they expect). Instead, I give an online quiz about important policies from the syllabus. The quiz serves dual purposes:

  • demonstrates that they can use the online quiz system (if not, it's early enough for them to solve the tech problem or drop the class)

  • demonstrates that they have understood key parts of the syllabus

My goal is not to transfer responsibility. As Nate said, I want them to follow the syllabus so that the class runs smoothly. Nothing a teacher does will ensure that every person always follows the directions, of course, but the more students understand what's expected of them, the easier it is to teach them.

2

While having a well-written syllabus is a very good idea, it does not absolve you from responsibility.

  • Students may have missed the first few classes (many universities allow students to register for courses a few weeks after the first day of classes) and be unaware of the syllabus, or its importance.
  • Students may forget that something was on the syllabus by the time it becomes relevant.
  • The author of the syllabus cannot predict the future. There may be events which force a change of the rules (eg. you get sick and have to reschedule an exam, inclement weather causes school to be canceled) and compromise the status of the syllabus as "always correct".
  • The syllabus may be unclear.

You should definitely have a syllabus, and tell students that reading it is mandatory and they risk failing if they don't. But it would illogical to assume that by doing so, your job is done. The syllabus is a set of guidelines, not a legally binding contract drafted with the assistance of a qualified attorney - the reason is precisely this difference in applicability and scope.

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