Syllabus by Design: Writing With the Student in Mind

– Ellen Foster

Ellen Foster

Ellen Foster

Teachers of writing emphasize the importance of audience to their students. But do we teachers pay enough attention to audience when we’re writing our syllabi?

Our syllabi, of course, have multiple audiences: our students, our peer evaluators, our administrators. Too often, however, I think I have not thought deeply enough about that first audience: our students. For this semester, I approached my revisions to my syllabi with the student in mind:

  • How can I avoid “professor-ese”? Is the language I use accessible to students?
  • How can I make the syllabus more meaningful to students?
  • How can I show my students that we are working together to achieve specific goals in this course?
  • How can I show my students they have an important role in creating our classroom’s success (or failure)?

Ultimately, the revisions were not all that challenging from a writing point of view, but I think that they do a better job of making the syllabus accessible and meaningful to students and of showing students that we are indeed in this together to learn and find success.

Change 1: Answer the questions that students might have.

I think that part of working as a team with my students means considering and responding to the questions they come to class with. One frequent question? What is English 110—or any course—about? Similarly, course titles may not be all that meaningful to students. Phrases like “student learning outcomes” and “course objectives”: those are for some other audience.

Here, I explain what WE will do in English 110 (See Figure 1):

 Figure 1. Explaining what students might want to know. Text in red indicates edits made.


Figure 1. Explaining what students might want to know. Text in red indicates edits made.

Change 2: Why are we doing this work?

It’s a reasonable question! See Figure 2.

Figure 2. Why are we doing what we're doing?

Figure 2. Why are we doing what we’re doing?

Change 3: Draw attention to important points.

Let’s face it: We scan rather than read a lot of the time.  The required books and materials are important … but would a student necessarily recognize a full edition from a brief edition based on standard documentation formats? See Figure 3.

Figure 3. Draw attention to the important points.

Figure 3. Draw attention to the important points.

Change 4: Using my syllabus as an opportunity to develop guiding principles for the course – with my students.

For quite a few years, I’ve asked students to develop a set of guiding principles for the course; I’ve called these “course promises” and “codes of conduct,” and students and I have worked together in the first days of a course to set these expectations.

This time, I’m asking the question in the syllabus, and I’ll ask students to consider their  responses between Day 1 and Day 2 of the course. Students will submit their hand-written (yes, writing by hand is important here!) decisions about the actions that we will take to achieve our own success and contribute to others’ success. I’ll then collate and share these with the class.

And note that I do expect my students to have expectations of me. See Figure 4.

Figure 4. Asking my students to take ownership for their learning.

Figure 4. Asking my students to take ownership for their learning.

Change 5: Making my syllabus student-reader friendly.

Blah, blah, blah. So many words packed together in tight lines when our syllabi explain important policies … eyes may glaze over.  How can we draw students into reading these policies and understanding why they matter? See Figure 5.

Figure 5. Writing for audience.

Figure 5. Writing for audience.

Too often, syllabi are written for faculty and administrators. The syllabus should have everything to do with what professors expect of their students, and what students expect of themselves and their classmates.

Make it as meaningful as you can.


Ellen Foster is professor of English at Clarion University.  This year, she’s glad to be exploring new pedagogies through teaching an inquiry seminar (Who Might You Be If You Weren’t You?) for the first time and re-imagining her first-year writing courses (not for the first time).

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2 Responses to Syllabus by Design: Writing With the Student in Mind

  1. I have to redo mine now! 🙂 Super suggestions

    Like

  2. Pingback: Designing for Engagement: Our Students | Hand in Hand

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