Monday, October 10, 2011

Have you read the syllabus?

Many students never read the syllabi for their courses.  I have discovered both in teaching my three elective law classes and in talking with law students about academic success.  Not only do they not read syllabi as a natural tendency, but they often don't even read them after prompted to do so by the professors.

My syllabus always includes course objectives for the course, the learning outcomes for the course, details on attendance and participation, details on the graded assignments, details on the final, tips for success in the course, reading assignments, and the usual university/law school policies: accommodations, attendance, religious holidays, cell phones.  In short, I try to include everything that my students need to know about what they will be learning, how to succeed in that learning, and how they will be assessed.

Like many of my colleagues, I give my students a "tour" of the syllabus the first day of class.  I point out the highlights and ask them to read the syllabus in detail before the next class.  I tell them that I will take questions on the syllabus at the beginning of the class.  There are rarely any questions.

Yet over the semester, I will repeatedly get questions from my students on things that were in the syllabus.  The questioner will often start with "I was wondering if you could tell me" or "a group of us were wondering about" or "when will you tell us about."

In my academic success work, I regularly ask students questions about their final exam formats or project details or weighting of grades.  Sometimes they will not know the information because the professor has not supplied any information.  However, most often it is because they never read the syllabus. 

When we look at the syllabus (often carefully filed in the front of their class folder or binder), we discover lots of useful information.  They often looked surprised (and a bit sheepish) when we find each informational point that we need to strategize how to do well in the course.

Here are some things in many syllabi that can help students plan their studying and exam strategies:

  • What is the range of pages for reading assignments during the semester?  This information allows the student to build a routine time management schedule for reading and briefing for a course with a more realistic estimate for the amount of time.
  • What are the deadlines or other dates important to the course?  Any dates for paper outlines or drafts, assignments, midterms, or other items should immediately go into a daily planner or monthly calendar.  Now the student is ready to "work backwards" to include the steps or study topics that must be completed to meet that deadline.
  • What details are given about the papers, projects, or other assignments?  The information in the syllabus will alert students to page-lengths of papers, group or individual participation on projects, possible re-write opportunities, Honor Code warnings, or other information that helps the student accurately gauge the assignment difficulty and logistics.
  • What weighting is given to each graded portion of the class?  If participation is 20% of a seminar grade, then the student better start participating!  If the mid-term is 50% of the grade, then the student should take studying for it equally serious as the 50% final exam.  If the advanced writing requirement paper must be of "B or higher" quality, then the student needs to distribute enough time throughout the semester to guarantee reaching that standard.   
  • Does the professor recommend any study aids or other supplements for the course?  Any recommendation is likely to be a study aid that matches the course content and is considered reliable.  Although the student may use other study aids as well, the professor's recommendation should be "a first stop."
  • What will the exam formats be?  Whether essay, multiple-choice, true-false, short answer, or some combination, the format tells the students the type of practice questions to do throughout the semester in preparation for the exam.
  • Does the professor give any additional study tips for the course?  Professors often know the pitfalls for students and make suggestions to assist them. 

A careful read of the syllabus at the beginning of the semester can garner valuable information for the student.  Misunderstandings of the expectations and requirements can be easily avoided.  (Amy Jarmon)

 

       

 

 

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