Death to the Syllabus?

I recently read an article called Death to the Syllabus , which discusses syllabi that “… carefully lay out the rules for attendance, punctuality, extra credit, grades, and penalties for missing deadlines, as well as detailing writing assignment requirements…”. This was a very interesting article, because I find myself swaying between agreement and disagreement depending on the stage of the term and any specific experiences I might have had with a cohort.I don’t think the syllabus should have bolds, underline and exlamation marks that depict shouting at at student. However, details on assignment length and assessment requirements are useful. I have found that students feel comfortable if they know in advance what the expectations are. Sometimes they want to know the bare minimum to get them through, others like to know the requirements to maintain a high GPA. Spelling these details out saves time in large questions by not having to answer the same question multiple times about the length of assignment 3, or what layout the essay should be. A stitch in time saves nine!

I do admit that my syllabus (Course Profile in CQU speak) could be found guilty of “syllabus creep”. Whenever I get asked a question on a particular topic, I will add it into subsequent course profiles so that the question doesn’t come up again.

On the other hand, the point that syllabi often omit any mention of learning, or why the subject is worth studying is a valid one. With a constructivist approach to teaching becoming more popular, we need to explain the meaning or significance of the concepts that will be taught and why they should be learnt; not just how they are being assessed. I find that I tend to do this in the first week of teaching, but it should also be outined in the “learning contract” that we form with our students.

The other deciding factor would be the stage of study for a particular cohort. First term, first year students would be particularly freaked out by an approach like this. I have had substantial feedback from students at this stage of their tertiary studies that they find it difficult even having make the choice of an essay topic. It is interesting to note that the most recent Tomorrow’s Professor Blog states that providing novice learners with procedural instructions (which I think a lot of the material in my course profile is, rather than the shouting and legalese), is an effective method of scaffolding.

The majority of students at the early stage of their university career, particulary school leavers, appreciate a structured syllabus while they are finding their feet in a new environment. However, this doesn’t mean the syllabus needs to be a legalistic document that doesn’t explain the motivations and justifications for the course, topics, readings and assessment.

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Danya Hodgetts

Dr Danya Hodgetts is a Sport Management consultant, educator and researcher with more than 20 years experience in the sport industry. Danya specialises in developing and implementing innovative education, training and professional development programs for national and state sporting bodies, TAFE and University.

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