Get students to read the syllabus

Try these fun and functional ways to increase readership.
By Samiha Khanna

What percentage of students attempt to participate in a college course without ever reading the syllabus? Well — enough to warrant T-shirt slogans, memes, and hashtags on social media. Failing to review this vital document can impact students’ grades, and also taxes professors’ time as they spend hours each semester responding to students whose questions they have already addressed in that most logical place — the syllabus.

Accounting faculty members offer their best suggestions for encouraging students to read the syllabus:

Review it in class. Setting aside class time to review the syllabus is the tried-and-true method of conveying the importance of the information contained in its pages.

Joseph Canada, Ph.D., an assistant professor of accounting at Rutgers University, said he reviews the document during the first class of every course to explain not only his policies, but also why the course proceeds in a specific order.

“I try to give the students the road map to successful learning,” Canada said. “I believe learning should be very intentional. Students should have a gist of what they're trying to learn and why.”

Quiz students on the contents. After reviewing the syllabus with students on the first day of class, Kent State University accounting lecturer John M. Rose, CPA, CGMA, assigns a quiz on its contents.

“That quiz is weighted equally with all the other quiz assignments,” Rose said. “Basically, it is easy for students to obtain 100% on it. I want the students to know where they can go for answers to their questions.”

Make the syllabus available in various formats. For some professors, paper is passé. Rose said his syllabus has been digital since he started teaching full time in 2010. It’s available through an online learning management system.

The digital format offers a few advantages: PDFs are often harder to lose and easier to search.

Rose also uses a table of contents at the beginning of the PDF with hyperlinks to specific sections, such as “Office Hours” and “Attendance Policy,” so readers can quickly jump from section to section and easily find what they’re looking for.

Inevitably, however, students will come to the first class without reviewing the digital document, so Karen Osterheld, CPA, a senior lecturer in accountancy at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., also brings a few paper copies as backup, particularly for first-year students.

“In a freshman class, they might be overwhelmed and forget to read it or print it out and bring it to class,” she said. “Sometimes, we are seeing these students on their first day of college, so we try to keep that in mind.”

Add a link in your signature. For several years, Rose included a link to the syllabus in his email signature, so it was easy for students to find.

He did this because he teaches up to 350 students in a semester, and he inevitably receives emails asking him the same questions.

“If I were to answer every student question (for large section courses), I would spend hours per week doing so, which is inefficient,” he said. Instead, when his email reply referred to the syllabus, he could add, “(see below)” and point students to that email signature, he said.

The only drawback to this tip is that professors who teach multiple courses with different syllabuses will need to prepare different email signatures for each one, or list them separately under one signature.

Share horror stories of syllabuses unread. Inevitably, a small percentage of students are not going to read or even skim the syllabus no matter what tactics you use, professors said. To persuade that hard-to-reach group, instructors might consider sharing stories of what happened to students who didn’t read the syllabus. Canada and Osterheld offered some examples from their years of teaching:

  • Students often think they can do some last-minute extra credit to bring up their grade —only to learn that the course offers no extra credit, as was clearly stated in the syllabus.
  • Students will panic at the end of the semester about ways to bring up a low score on an exam, realizing too late that the syllabus had a long list of easy ways to improve their grade, such as turning in homework, raising their hand in class, and participating in online reading.
  • Students will complete projects early, tackling a big assignment by themselves without realizing it was supposed to be a group project, as described in that handy syllabus.

“I am not sure how a student doesn't see that it is a group project, as it is listed on the syllabus and in the learning management system, and in the instructions,” said Canada, whose students have made this mistake occasionally. “The group then notices that an assignment has been submitted and they didn't even meet yet.”

Bury treasure within its pages. Professors feeling a little adventurous might take a cue from Joseph Howley, a classics professor at Columbia University, who placed a clever “Easter egg” within the pages of a syllabus for a freshman course he was teaching.

As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Howley included a request in the middle of his syllabus that students Google pictures of the 1980s television character Alf and send them to him with the email subject line, “It’s Alf!” Though only seven students responded to him at first, by his second class, he reported an “85% Alf Response Rate.”  

The bottom line, Rose said, is that some students in every course are not going to read the syllabus and they are going to email you about questions that you have already answered.

Rose said he has an auto-reply message reminding students, especially on weekends, that the answer to their question might be found in the pages of the trusty syllabus. Often, he said, students resolve their questions on their own while waiting for him to respond.

“I do not reply immediately, and half will typically reply later that they figured it out,” he said.

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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