August 27, 2014

Getting students to read the syllabus with a Syllabus Quiz

Posted by Laura Guertin

I would like to start with a true story… one semester, a faculty member finds an assignment turned in by a student matches word-for-word an assignment from another student.  That faculty member follows her institution’s procedures for suspecting a violation of academic integrity – having a conversation with the student, submitting a report to the academic integrity committee, etc., etc.  The student protests the charge of cheating, and a hearing is held with the committee, student and faculty member.  The committee asks the faculty member if she included the university academic integrity policy in the syllabus, as required by the university.  She answers yes.  Then the committee asks the faculty member if the student actually read the syllabus and understood the policy.

This is where I stop and say… WHAT???  Why is a faculty member being asked if a student read the syllabus?  We as faculty are required to distribute a syllabus (at my campus, a paper copy within the first ten calendar days of the start of classes), and as students are considered adults, we place the responsibility on them to read the syllabus.  Unfortunately, we know that many students do not look at the document after Day 1.  Some of us can probably count on at least two hands the number of times we email students back and forth during the semester and say, “the answer to your question can be found in the syllabus.”

Parkes & Harris (2002) state that a syllabus should serve three major purposes: (1) serve as a contract, make clear what the rules are; (2) serve as a permanent record for accountability and documentation functions; and (3) serve as a learning tool to help students become more effective learners in a course.  So how can we encourage and motivate students to read the syllabus and see if they understand our course requirements, expectations, and university policies?  Some of my faculty colleagues have students sign and return a “contract,” a simple statement where the student acknowledges that they have received and read the syllabus.  Here is an example:

I have read and understand the format of this course and the policies described in the syllabus. I acknowledge that failure to comply with the terms of the syllabus may affect my success in this class.

Print Name: ___________________________

Signature: ____________________________

Date: ________________________________

From Virginia Leonard, College of the Canyons

I personally do not use the signed contract option, as I feel it is too easy for students to sign a piece of paper without processing the information they read in the syllabus.  In addition, students in online courses will not be able to provide this paper documentation.  Dr. Mark Francek, a geographer at Central Michigan University, gives a syllabus quiz his first day in class to get his students engaged and aware of the semester’s expectations.  See the video below for how he delivers his syllabus quiz:

Syllabus Quiz from FaCIT Media on Vimeo.

I utilize my university’s course management system ANGEL to deliver an online syllabus quiz that students take outside of class.  The quiz is in multiple-choice format, and students must score 100% on the syllabus quiz in order for students to access the rest of the course in ANGEL.  I allow/encourage students to have the syllabus open right in front of them when they take the quiz, as I want them to know where items are located in the syllabus.  I especially focus my questions on laboratory readiness and procedures, appropriate attire for fieldtrips, overall safety during indoor and outdoor lab sessions, and use of university equipment (and penalties for misuse).  If you are looking for example questions, explore the SERC site listed below, as well as these resources from St. Louis Community College, Arizona State University, and College of the Canyons.

May all of our students read and recall the content of our syllabi this fall (and in all future semesters)!



Additional sources for exploration

Kirk, K., & Huff, M. (n.d.).  Syllabus Quiz. SERC – On the Cutting Edge, Teaching Geoscience Online.  (Available online)

Parkes, J., & Harris, M.B. (2002). The purposes of a syllabus. College Teaching, 50(2): 55-61.  (Article PDF online)

Raymark, P.H., & P.A. Connor-Greene. (2002).  The Syllabus Quiz.  Teaching of Psychology, 29(4): 286-288.  (Abstract online)