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Using the Syllabus as a Learning Tool

One of the most important introductions to any course and, by extension, any instructor is the syllabus. The syllabus should be utilized as a tool to acclimate learners with the course, familiarize learners with the instructor, and convey expectations, goals, learning objectives, and other significant aspects of the course. The learner-centered syllabus focuses on these traits, with the overarching goal of fostering a strong relationship between learners and instructors; it is typically handed out on the first day of class to introduce the course and instructor, and qualm any learners’ trepidations. However, beyond checking the course calendar for assignment due dates and exams, learners and instructors alike rarely refer to the syllabus after that first day of class. Despite this, the syllabus can be a useful teaching tool throughout the semester. Requiring learners to learn from and consistently refer to the course syllabus helps them become more independent, autonomous students, which enhances the learning experience.  

The Syllabus Quiz 

The syllabus quiz can be an engaging way to implement the syllabus beyond the first day of class. The quiz can be assigned as “take-home,” open note assignments, or as in-class, closed-book quizzes. In either case, syllabus quizzes help to familiarize learners with the syllabus, which catalyzes learners revisiting the syllabus as the semester continues. Asking learners to read the syllabus after the first day and come prepared to the second day with knowledge of the syllabus helps learners to become more self-sufficient in navigating the syllabus and course as the semester continues. Additionally, syllabus quizzes can provide a preview into the format of future exams, preparing learners for their instructors’ styles of assessment. Because syllabus quizzes are often low-stakes, these quizzes show learners how they will be assessed in the course—without the stress of an exam. To learn more, read "Graphic Display of Student Learning Objectives" on the Chronicle of Higher Education's website.

Living Syllabus 

Through technology, instructors can continue to engage learners in the syllabus by creating a “living syllabus.” Essentially, a living syllabus can be updated as often as the instructor would like, which creates a dynamic, living document for students to interact with. Instructors who create living syllabi can add “links, images, alternative perspectives…, and other information on a weekly basis” (Nilson, 2016, p. 105). Having a living syllabus continuously refamiliarizes learners with class policies and learning outcomes, as well as previously learned content, when they return to the syllabus for new or updated content. This is especially useful in online courses that require a significant amount of self-directed learning, as the living syllabus provides the resources that learners need to be successful; likewise, the living syllabus is a source of answers for learners to refer to when their instructor is not accessible. 

Knowledge Guide 

The syllabus can also be used to guide learner knowledge. Reminding learners to “check the syllabus” when they have questions throughout the semester encourages them to use their available resources and pushes them toward autonomy. This can be done by explaining to learners that the syllabus is a knowledge guide, not a knowledge repository; presenting the syllabus as a place that stores learners’ knowledge, not guides it, removes the syllabus’s agency. The information that the syllabus presents should help learners become more independent and better understand the goals of the course, which can improve learning throughout the semester. Similarly, the syllabus can include an index of recommended websites and resources for learners to utilize. This encourages learners to build accountability in their learning and engages learners in “consulting reputable online resources” (Crossman, 2014, para. 3). 

Day to Day Operations 

Instructors can integrate the syllabus into the beginning of every class period in some capacity. The syllabus can include daily agendas and learning activities, which instructors can preview at the beginning of each class. This is especially useful for student-athletes and learners who may be otherwise unable to consistently attend class; beginning each class by reading the syllabus keeps the instructor accountable for covering the content that is laid out in the syllabus and keeps the learners accountable for identifying the work that they are missing. Integrating the syllabus into the day to day operations of a course also reminds learners of the value of the syllabus as a tool for success, which will encourage them to refer to the syllabi in their other courses.