Around an image of Yoda’s face, block letters urge, “Read the syllabus you must.” This meme represents a common complaint among college instructors, particularly those who teach online classes: that students do not follow syllabus instructions. In many on-campus classes, instructors devote at least several minutes of the first class to reviewing the syllabus. Such a review, however, is much less common in online courses. The instructor may encourage students to read the syllabus in an introductory message, but most of the time the course plunges directly into teaching content rather than devoting time up front to orientation and logistics.
Once the course gets going, the online instructor often learns that many students did not read the syllabus, get the most salient information out of it, or retain what they read. Students do not follow directions or are caught off guard by grading policies. Sometimes this is a result of students not knowing how to find the syllabus. Even when they read the syllabus, there is no face-to-face class at which students can ask clarifying questions about it. They either forget the question or assume they will understand it once they get into the course content. Some students may not know what questions to ask or even that they are doing something wrong until they make a mistake or get an unexpected bad grade.
For these reasons it is useful for online instructors to adopt a strategy for not only encouraging students to read the syllabus but also walking them through its main points and assessing their comprehension. One simple way to ensure student comprehension of key syllabus information is to make the first assignment of the course a quick, multiple-choice quiz that asks basic questions about the syllabus.
I begin by asking students to print out a hard copy of the syllabus. Printing out the syllabus not only makes it easier for students to find the answers to the quiz but also ensures that they have the physical document available to refer to throughout the semester. Then I ask five questions that are easy to answer for students who are looking at the syllabus. These questions direct students’ attention to important class information while also familiarizing them with the layout of the syllabus, enabling them to locate answers to other questions they may have over the course of the semester.
From semester to semester, I modify the five questions or add other ones depending on which aspects of the syllabus are most important for the course. Typically, the five multiple-choice questions look something like this:
The possible answers to this last question are as follows:
The question is intended not to be particularly tricky (the answer is d) but rather to communicate the most important piece of advice I give to online students, which is to stay in close contact with their instructor. The questions about the class logistics challenge students to find the answers to common questions themselves, an enterprise that promotes their intellectual independence and saves me from having to answer a lot basic questions.
In online learning platforms these kinds of multiple-choice quizzes are self-grading, meaning that they require no extra work on the instructor’s part. They can also be set so that students can retake the quiz as many times as they need to in order to identify the correct answers, which allows students to evaluate their own success and coach themselves toward achieving a perfect score. I have found that the syllabus quiz also provides an early opportunity to identify students who may need extra support in navigating the online learning environment.
Breathe easier Yoda will when online students review the syllabus and locate the answers to routine questions. With this out of the way, he can get on with the more exciting work of expanding minds and saving galaxies.
Randy Laist, PhD, is an associate professor of English at Goodwin College.