It's On The Syllabus, But The Syllabus Is Boring: Promoting Student Engagement With Your Syllabus

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.



For many years in my role as a professor at Community College of Philadelphia, I would dread “going over the syllabus” with students. I value the syllabus as a space to share expectations, desired outcomes and, of course, the assignment schedule. However, students were always bored when I read them parts of the syllabus, and I was bored too. Reading the syllabus to students did not help them retain information either. I know this because students would routinely ask about information covered in the syllabus all throughout the semester. There had to be a better way to present syllabus content.

I tried having students present parts of the syllabus to their peers during the first class. There was nothing terrible about this, but trust was not yet built among students. As a result, presenting was a challenge, and many students felt anxious. It also took up too much class time to define presentation expectations and have students present their work. Back to the drawing board. Literally. I started to research ways to make the syllabus itself look more visually engaging. There are some amazing ways to do this, from font selections to infographics to cartoons! However, when I tried it, I couldn’t pull it off. For example, indicating the location of my office via a map with stick figures was now maybe more “fun,” but the overall document was less readable. Third time’s the charm? I created a scavenger hunt where teams of students would look for pertinent syllabus information to win stickers—college students love a good sticker. Unfortunately, this activity started to become more about trying to win than learning content. Students bonded, but they remembered very little about the class requirements.

The activity that works for me now happened purely by accident. I sent the wrong version of the syllabus to our copy center and decided not to pass out a syllabus until I could get students the correct version. So on one first day of class there was no syllabus. On the fly, I asked students to pair up (or work individually) and write down three questions they had about the class. I gave examples. This could be anything from “what’s your attendance policy?” to “what are three topics we will study?” to “do we have a lot of group work?” or “how much homework is there?” Then students shared their questions with me. Did they ever share! I learned a lot about their main academic concerns and emotions about taking the class in addition to questions they had about the syllabus. Some I didn’t know the answer to, but their queries forced me to reflect about my teaching. Am I a hard grader? I wondered. Is this my favorite class to teach? Like my students who had to be courageous and vulnerable in asking questions, I too had to be courageous and vulnerable in answering. The shared experiences connected us. And because students didn’t have the syllabus in front of them, there was no shame in asking about something that may have already been on it. Furthermore, when students are the ones asking the questions, their brains are ready to receive and integrate the answers. This phenomenon was definitely at play. Students listened eagerly to what their peers wanted to know as well, which resulted in a foundation of safety and trust among students. And, importantly, no one was bored.

I’m a professor who has always been attracted to complex, multisensory activities. However, 15 years into teaching at the collegiate level, I have found that sometimes relatively simple plans like this one can be the most engaging.  Now on the first day of class, I complete this syllabus Q and A activity with students, and only afterwards do I pass out the print syllabus. We take five to seven minutes to address any content that didn’t come up during the activity. This also works in the online format; I simply open a discussion board about class expectations and the syllabus before I post the course syllabus for students to review. Students are equally communicative in the discussion board for this activity, and in addition to receiving my responses, they often will receive syllabus information from their peers. As the semester goes on, it’s a very rare occasion that someone asks me something I’ve already defined in the syllabus, and starting with day one of class, my students are more prepared and a lot happier.