Blog Post

The Path from Minimalist to Comprehensive Syllabi

In the third part of her series on “How Do I Get Started?  A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom,” Cathy N. Davidson comments that “I find that a syllabus is a great tool for arming myself against the skeptical.”  I had not considered that comprehensive syllabi are a tool to counter skepticism whether that skepticism comes from students, colleagues, administrators, or the general public. 

Initially, I viewed the syllabus as a mere formality.  I was required to prepare one so I simply adopted the common syllabus developed for the courses I taught.  I filled in my name, office hours, and class meeting time but used the rest of the document unmodified. 

My approach changed after my second semester teaching at Schoolcraft College.  A student used the ambiguous language in the common syllabus to argue that she ought not fail the class for academic dishonesty.  The student argued that her reading of the syllabus made her believe that she would only fail the assignment.  She was being both disingenuous and correct.

The next semester I tightened the language in the syllabus, but, for the most part, kept my minimalist approach.  I put the syllabus in the course management system and pretty much ignored it.    

However, I began to be concerned about “Crafting Quality Syllabi.”  Therefore, I changed the language in the department’s common syllabus to reflect what I actually do in the classroom.  For example, in the section on “Method of Instruction,” I stopped listing all possibilities and included only those methods that I actually used.  Later, I created a narrative in which I describe both the activities as well as the pedagogical justification for those activities.  In addition to insuring that the syllabus better reflected actual classroom practices, I made it more personal by using “you” and “me” instead of “the student” and “the instructor.” 

Although I was paying more attention to the syllabus, I kept the minimalist approach.  For many years, this approached worked—until students started to change.

As I discussed in “The Syllabi are Coming (But They Will Change),” students raised under No Child Left Behind found the minimalist syllabi problematic.  In an environment of high stakes testing, these students had been taught to avoid experimentation and risk taking.  They needed more than I was providing.   I began to include lists of specific assignments with a short explanation of them.  While flexibility was maintained, the concrete examples gave students comfort.

I now send students a welcome message about a week or so before classes began.  Then, two or three days before the first day of class, I send them a copy of the syllabus.  However, I encourage them not to read the syllabus; a pedagogical approach that I explain in “Not Reading the Syllabus.”

One of my fears in moving away from the minimalist approach to syllabi was that I would become locked into a set of requirements that would make it impossible to maintain the flexibility that promoted the quality student work that results from student-centered learning.  These fears did not materialize and, over the years, I have continued to expand my syllabus. 

Unfortunately, flexibility remained a problem for some students.  In “Speaking of Failure,” I cite a student who complained to the Dean that “I don’t want to think. I want Dr. Berg to tell me what he wants.” She was too afraid of failing to even take the first step toward success.  To help counter such fears of failure, I incorporated a series of revisions in my syllabi which are detailed in “Speaking of Failure.” 

One of the key changes I made was raising participation points—which include homework as well as being prepared for class activities—to 70% of the course.  This means that students who attending regularly and do their homework are essentially guaranteed a 2.0/C in the course.  For some courses, I now have participation at 80% which is a 2.8/C+. 

During the past year, I have continued to add materials to my syllabi which now run approximately 50 pages and doubles as a course pack.  Instead of distributing handouts such as how to use Google books or the college’s on-line databases throughout the semester, I put them in the syllabus.  Students appreciated having all of this information all in one place where they can easily locate it.

Today, my minimalist syllabus would—to use an old cliché—not be worth the paper it was printed on.  I now have a syllabus that has become a dynamic document that we regularly consult; a document that provides both the structure and flexibility to promote student success.

--Steven L. Berg, PhD

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