How Do You Get Students to Read the Syllabus?

I sent some resources to the new instructors in my division. One of them wrote back with a question, “how do you get students to read the syllabus?”

I tried googling it: how do you get students to read the syllabus?

Apparently, I am not up the latest “Easter Egg” techniques: hide a request for a visible action (e.g., email me a picture of Alf) in your syllabus.

Instead, here was my response to the instructor.

I am a realist: I assume they are NOT going to read it. Or, in the very best case, a few will read it at the beginning of the semester, but none of those will internalize the details. They have several new syllabi every semester, and dozens over their academic lives. What boring sheep we would be creating if we expected them to memorize that our midterm was 20% of the grade and not the 25% from Professor X’s class.

So why write the policies down? Clear policies help us operate consistently and fairly. Committing to policies in writing increases the chance that we have thought through contingencies. Plus, with a written and distributed document, we then have something concrete to point to to show that we are operating consistently and fairly.

Try your hardest to suppress your exasperation with their ignorance of your syllabus. When I look out at a sea of undergraduates with their computers open in week 9 of the term, I start class by politely (even cheerfully, if I can) reminding them, “You don’t need your computers today, so go ahead and put those away.”

Recalling how little I read every agreement (e.g., EULAs for apps you download) that comes my way helps me summon my patience and do my impersonation of a cordial person.

The well-known secret to happiness: low expectations. Don’t judge your teaching success on whether the students have read the syllabus!

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