Three things to leave off of your syllabus

Three things to leave off of your syllabus

For many profs, it's a matter of days until the new semester starts. That means that if you are like most professors, you are either getting your first-day materials finished and printed, or you're putting it off. (Being on sabbatical, I do not miss the chaos of the days before classes start, but I remember the feeling well.) The syllabus is especially problematic: You have to construct this document so that it is complete, organized, and readable, and God help you if you should leave anything important out of it, because you have to cover all imaginable bases in the syllabus. Right?

Maybe not, actually. While it's important to make a syllabus that has all the important information students may need fully fleshed out in it --- the grading system, the means of evaluation, your office location, information about accomodation of disabilities, etc. --- I think we often put information into a syllabus that has no business being there on the first day of classes, because we are in the habit of putting it in. Specifically, information that is best determined collaboratively with students, should not be prescribed by the professor on day 1. There is more of this kind of information in a typical syllabus than you might think, and we can make our courses better on day 1 by leaving it out.

Here are three examples of items that you can leave out of your frantic syllabus preparation this week:

Office hours. Of course, you need to hold office hours at regular, accessible times. But what times? Usually we set office hours by looking at our schedules and deciding on a few time blocks that work for us. But we are not the only ones attending office hours (or at least, that's not what we hope for). You wouldn't want your dean or department chair to set up faculty meetings by using only times that worked for her without taking your schedule into account. So, why should it be OK to set up office hours without taking students' schedules into account? So, don't decide on or set office hours in your syllabus.

Instead: Get student input on what times work for them that also work for you, and select office hours from the times that work best for everyone. Put the following in your syllabus regarding office hours (go ahead, copy and paste, I don't mind):

I will hold 3-4 hours a week for office hours during which you may come and get help. Specific hours will be determined collaboratively as a class during the first week of class, then posted.

(Change the "3-4 hours a week" part to whatever makes sense for you.)

I've been setting office hours collaboratively for several years this way. The process goes like this: First, I select several 1-hour time blocks that work for me. These are between 9am and 4pm (because I am only on campus from 8:30 to 4:30) and don't conflict with class times, meeting times, or recurring blocks of time I set aside for my work. I take those time blocks -- usually there are at least ten of them -- and put them on a Google Form as responses to the single question, "Which of the following time slots work for you, for office hours? Select all that apply." (On Google Forms, use a "checkbox" question type to allow students to select multiple responses.) I set a deadline of 2-3 days, then look at the results, and select 3-4 of the top 6-8 time slots selected. Then I post them prominently and remind students of them often.

This method still will result in a few students who can't make office hours, but it's a lot less than if I made office hours myself. Students will be more likely to attend, because they helped set the office hours in the first place. I'm also often surprised by what students pick. Last year, 85% of students in one class indicated 2-3pm on Fridays as a top choice for office hours. I never would have picked that time myself, and it ended up being one of the most well-attended office hours I've ever had.

Technology policies. We've heard a lot about banning laptops lately, and those articles tend to pop up cyclically 2-3 times a year. It may seem natural to put some kind of detailed policy about laptop and smartphone use in the classroom into your syllabus. But I advise against it for the same reason I advise against office hours in the syllabus: You just have no idea what students' needs are before you meet them. Michelle Miller wrote a fantastic article about this and how laptops are the only way that some students, like Michelle when she was in college, can cope with the class. So, don't include any prescriptive policies about technology.

Instead: Start with a permissive policy that gives students freedom. I liked this:

However, it does make sense to have some boundaries around what's acceptable use. These, like office hours, should be co-constructed with students. One way to do this is as a first-day-of-class activity. Ask students: Are there any situations where we should not have laptops and smartphones out? Then let students discuss and present their own ideas. Working with them, you can come up with a reasonable acceptable use policy in which students have buy-in (and are therefore a lot more likely to follow).

Attendance policies. Of course, we all want students to attend class. There are a lot of good reasons to do so, and it seems odd that we should have to argue in favor of it. But all of us have experienced absenteeism on at least a small scale, so should we make attendance mandatory and set up a policy for this --- either to punish excessive absenteeism or reward low absenteeism, or both --- in the syllabus?

I would say no, and I have not had an attendance policy in my courses for several years. In my experience, such policies create more problems than they solve, again because we just cannot know ahead of time what the needs and experiences of students are going to be. Some students may miss class because of protracted illnesses or injury; and sometimes those injuries are difficult to report, like depression or an undiagnosed illness. Do you really want to dock a student's grade for that? Or, here in west Michigan, the months of January and February are notorious for bad winter weather. What if a student is commuting in from 30-40 miles away, but there's a blizzard that doesn't shut the university down but it's difficult or dangerous to make the commute? I certainly don't want to create a situation where a person puts his life at risk to make it to class to earn points.

Another reason not to have a detailed attendance policy is that attendance, while we may argue is a necessary condition for academic achievement, is not itself an indicator of academic achievement, and therefore it should not be taken into account in the course grade. Showing up for class does not provide information about the mastery of the course.

Instead: As with tech, start with a permissive policy that emphasizes freedom. The word "Attendance" actually doesn't even appear in my syllabi from last year, but if I had to put in a blurb about attendance, it would say something like:

Please make every effort to attend and actively participate in each class meeting. However, you are free to choose not to attend a class meeting if the circumstances warrant. Only realize that you are responsible for classes you miss. If low attendance becomes a persistent issue, a more restrictive policy may be put in place.

Policies for missed exams and other timed assessments are different --- those have to be in the syllabus on day 1 and spelled out in detail for students to have and understand. But for attending class in general, keep it simple and open.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't take attendance. Go ahead and take it -- just don't grade it. I take attendance (usually by giving one-minute papers in class and collecting the names) but I don't grade it; I use the data instead to look for patterns and red flags. If a student suddenly stops attending and stays gone for a week, I will reach out to them to see if I can be of help.

Note the last sentence in my blurb above. I've had a permissive attendance policy for several years now, and absenteeism has only been a problem once. In that case, I gave students warning that if attendance didn't pick back up, I would institute a punitive policy. It didn't pick up, and I put the policy in place. As I recall, it didn't really help much. Probably what I should have done is tell students to come to a special class meeting set aside for determining the more restrictive policy, then let them have a voice in hammering it out.

I wish you all the best in your upcoming semester, especially getting everything ready for Day 1. If you act with the best interests of students in mind and work with them like adults, you won't ever go far wrong.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.