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Syllabusters Are Outdated

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Todd Zakrajsek, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Director of the ITLC-Lilly Conferences



Key Statement: Much can happen on the first day of class—only if we avoid the dreaded syllabuster.


Keywords: Syllabuster, First Day, Learning-Centered Environment



Introduction


It’s been nearly 20 years since I dropped my daughter off on the first day of middle school. The first day of class is exciting! I couldn’t wait to hear about the learning odysseys on which she was about to embark. After school I eagerly asked, “How was your first day?” Looking rather bored, she said “It was a syllabuster.” Although I was sad for her experience, as a teacher, I loved the word she created: syllabuster.


There are many things you can do on the first day of class—choices to be made, tones to set, and content to sell. The good news is that there is a plethora of tips and strategies to help you get started on the right foot. Nearly every teaching center has extensive advice on its websites (e.g., Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center; Depaul’s Teaching Commons). There are research articles (e.g., McGinley et al., 2014) and extensive material in books dedicated to meeting your students and getting the course off to a good start (e.g., Zakrajsek & Nilson, 2023). Books exist to help you think about the syllabus as a motivational lever in the course (Harrington & Thomas, 2018). There is no end to the tips on what you can do the first day of class. But the piece you are currently reading is not about tips; it is about how you think about that first day.



Image courtesy of Unsplash.



First Day Mindset


On the first day of class, many faculty read a syllabus and issue dire warnings about not following the course dictates within. Their refrain, from day one to the final exam, is, “It’s in the syllabus!” Their thought is likely that instructors need to read the syllabus to the students to ensure students know what it contains. Then there is frustration when students appear oblivious to the syllabus contents. The mistake here is that just reading something to someone does not guarantee they will hear it. (Note: If you are reading to me about late policies just before lunch and I am hungry, what I will walk away with is the thought of…bacon.)


This is where I think some educators have the first day of class wrong. It is certainly fine to briefly discuss the importance of the syllabus. That discussion is a reference for many aspects of how the course will operate and provides students with a document to help foster mutual understanding and their success. The goal, though, is not to fill up the entire class period with exhaustive recitations of the document your students are holding or looking at on your screens. That approach is a syllabuster, and it isn’t a good way to spend your first meeting with the students with whom you will spend the next three months. There is plenty of time to interleave course policies in class, closer to when they matter and will stick. You can talk about late policies for papers when you assign the paper and when reminders are sent about due dates, along with restated resources and options for assistance. You can talk about the importance of exams during the time of class you build in for exam prep starting a week or two before the exam. (As a side note: If we don’t want students to cram for exams, we shouldn’t model cramming by cramming everything into a single exam prep review.) If you focus exclusively on rules the first day of class, you will set yourself up as the person who punishes those who don’t obey. That is not an environment conducive to learning.


Instead of hammering in what you want the students to do in this course, or convincing them that what they will be learning is important, think of the first day of class as a learning adventure, for you and for them. How will you all work best together? This is not a student-centered approach, or a faculty-centered approach; it is a learning-centered approach.


A Learning-Centered Environment


What does this all mean for the first day of class? Approach that first day with “learning-centered” in your mind. Focus on learning. Learning is all about curiosity and desire. Desire to know, to figure things out, to be surprised, all getting that dopamine flowing throughout the brain: That is what learning-centered is all about. An exam is best thought of as feedback, showing whether students are learning, not a date to cover on the first day and dread every class period in the meantime. An exam should never be the reason to learn, it should always be an indication of learning. Don’t spend your first 45 or 85 minutes focused solely on exams, term paper deadlines, and attendance policies. That moves teaching toward an artificial transactional arrangement where students learn in exchange for points and grades. Yes, by all means—share that this information is important and available. But focus also on the fact that you will be available, too, to provide feedback and discuss queries and treat students as whole humans, with the expectation that they will extend that ethos to their classmates, the learning material, and you as the teacher. Focus on learning and being excited about the adventure. Papers will be written, and points will be amassed, because students are learning.



If Not a Syllabuster, Then What?


The first day of class is the first day of an adventure of learning for your students—and for you. I strongly believe that some faculty burn out because, in their minds, they have been teaching their content for many years and students still haven’t learned it.


I taught my first course in 1987, and I still get excited when first meeting any group of learners. That is because I have carefully crafted an initial meeting so I also learn something new. How do I learn something new about psychology after teaching it for many decades? I lecture for a few minutes about the importance of what we are about to learn. I share my interest in the topic, and I hope my flames of passion for my subject result in a few sparks of interest in the learners. I tell them on day one that they will be active participants and not passive recipients. I note that I am there for them when they struggle, and I hope they are there for me when I need them. We discuss equity and what it means to be a community of learners.


On that first day we, as a class, do learn what is in the syllabus, but I don’t read it to students. Instead, they work in small groups. Each group is instructed to formulate an question to ask me about the syllabus content based on what they decide are the important sections. This is done to show students that it is appropriate and encouraged to talk to me about the structure of the course, and for them to read the syllabus. On that first day, students also work in small groups to address a challenge I have presented about the course content. By having them report out on what they discovered, I show that learning is a shared experience, and I tell them that I appreciate what they have taught me that day about how to interpret new perspectives I have not had the chance to encounter in my own life experiences. As a result, next semester I will have new knowledge to take into the classroom. This also shows students that they can teach me on any given day and that the learning environment is their responsibility as well. I am also a learner on a journey. That keeps my interest in the course and my disciplinary flame burning.



Conclusion

This is a bit of the essence of learning-centered teaching. It is important to note that although we are on a shared journey, it is not the students’ classroom. It is mine. I bear the responsibility for what happens in the course. Talking about the way we will build our class community, why our subject matters, what students already bring and will teach the instructor (and maybe a mention of exam dates and a promise to cover policies and questions next class)—that is a lot of responsibility for the first day, but it is also the stuff of endless possibilities. Much can happen on the first day of class. However, none of that can be accomplished by a delivering a syllabuster.



Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the best first day of class you have ever experienced. It may have been a course you taught or a course in which you were a student. What was the teaching strategy that day, and why did it work so well for you?

  2. Time for a WebQuest! Set a timer for 15 minutes, and find at least two good sources for strategies to help you succeed on a first day of a course that are not “read the syllabus.” Why did you select the resources you landed on for this quest?

  3. Considering the first day:

    1. Version A: If you are teaching a course at present, ask the students for five minutes of class time to discuss what they find most useful the first day of class. Tell them you are constantly working at finding ways to improve learning for your students. What did you learn from this discussion with your students?

    2. Version B: If you are not teaching a course at present, ask five to seven friends what worked best for them on the first day of class. Summarize their results and consider whether their responses were similar to what you, as a student, most liked to have happen on day one.

NOTE: If students or friends say they liked it best when they got out early ask them, why they liked that, aside from not being in class. You may find that for some students, a bit of extra time to find their way around is helpful. First days can be stressful for them as well. Given this, an argument can be made that the first class period could end a bit early.



References

Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018). Designing a motivational syllabus. Stylus


McGinley, J. J., & Jones, B. D. (2014). A brief instructional intervention to increase students’ motivation on the first day of class. Teaching of Psychology, 41(2), 158–162. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628314530350


Zakrajsek, T. D., & Nilson, L. B (2023). Teaching At Its Best:A Resource-Based Resource for College Instructors (5th edition). Jossey-Bass.



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