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Building a Better Mousetrap: The Syllabus, the Student, and You

While a syllabus reflects both the content of the course and the personality of the professor, most importantly it provides a road map for the student (and teacher). At any given time, the syllabus for any class acts as a contract, a record of events, and a learning tool for students (Jay Parkes and Mary B. Harris 2002). Departments and Colleges routinely use faculty syllabi for accreditation, evaluation, and nomination.

Often overlooked, the course syllabus has received increasing scholarly attention. Recent research argues that a well constructed syllabus helps students learn more effectively and creates more productive student/faculty interaction. The syllabus is, as Sharon Rubin notes, “a small place to start bringing students and faculty members back together” (56). The syllabus is, quite frankly, the students’ first impression of both the class and the instructor. This relationship, combined with course topic, course execution, and the physical environment, influences both student satisfaction and performance (J.M. Curran and D.E. Rosen 2006).

Syllabi and the initial discussion of the syllabi set the tone for the class (Applebey 1999; Littlefield 1999; qtd in Slattery). A clear syllabus provides structure and direction for both student and faculty. Importantly, J.M. Slattery and J.F. Carlson (2005) note that “Students who cannot predict . . . their professor's expectations and behavior may give up and display typical signs of learned helplessness.” In other words, a poorly designed syllabus can increase student passivity.

Certainly, there is not a one size fits all syllabus. However, research consistently shows that effective syllabi

  • Include clearly stated course objectives/learning outcomes;

  • Include a schedule identifying specific reading assignments and due dates;

  • Offer clear statements regarding make-up dates, attendance and grading standards;

  • Provide faculty contact information, including office hours, e-mail, available hours in

home office, etc.

  • Provide specific information regarding technical needs and support services.

Kristina Kaufman, Project Director for 4Faculty.org, notes that research into learning centered education suggests that syllabi should also “accomplish certain basic goals:

  • Define students' responsibilities;

  • Define instructor's role and responsibility to the students;

  • Provide a clear statement of intended goals and student outcomes;

  • Establish standards and procedures for evaluation/assessment;

  • Acquaint students with course logistics (a particularly important element as we include

more group work and out of class experiences);

  • Establish a pattern of community between instructor and students;

  • Include difficult to obtain materials such are readings, complex charts, and graphs.”

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