Mayo's Clinics

Dec 17, 2017, 13:35
Mayo’s Clinic: Using the Syllabus

Mayo’s Clinic: Using the Syllabus

Dr. Fred Mayo discusses strategies of keeping your syllabus alive (and referenced) throughout the term.

Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT

Last month, we discussed honoring the syllabus, recognizing its importance, reviewing the contents of a comprehensive syllabus, and providing advice about writing one. This month, we will talk about ways to make it alive and real for students.

Syllabus – Alive or Dead
A sad fact for many of us is the imbalance between the time and energy we spend on creating a friendly and comprehensive syllabus and the infrequency with which students read and consult it. How many times have we had questions that students could answer for themselves if they only looked at what the syllabus says? They keep asking us questions in class about information that is mentioned – and often explained in detail – in the syllabus. It is almost as if they read it during the first week of the term and then ignore it from that point forward. To save our sanity and to make the work of creating a syllabus more productive, it can be helpful to try some of the following strategies to keep the syllabus alive.

  • Test students on the syllabus on day one. Send them a copy of the syllabus and a welcome note using your campus learning management system and indicate that they should read and study the syllabus and bring it to the first class session. Then give them a short quiz on the syllabus to see if they read and remember it. The quiz can be included as part of their grade or not; just giving it – and telling them ahead of time – makes them study the syllabus carefully.
  • Use an oral quiz in class, every so often, to make sure the students remember and understand the syllabus. One way to do that involves asking one person about an element of the syllabus. Easy questions are, “What are my office hours?” or “What assignment is worth 40% of the grade?” or “What is the date that you have to submit your projects?” Then ask a different student if the answer was correct. It holds all of the students accountable to know the material and keeps them alert.
  • Refer the student to another student. If someone asks a question that is answered in the syllabus, say “It is in the syllabus. Anyone have a syllabus with them?” or “Can anyone answer the question? It is in the syllabus.” Then let other students answer the original question. I rarely answer a direct question about information in the syllabus – not because I am mean but because I want them to learn that they can find the information.
  • Refuse to answer questions about information covered in the syllabus. When asked about due dates or the details of an assignment simply say, “It is in the syllabus.” It means they have to look up the answer and find it for themselves.

Sometimes, these strategies offend some students; more often, my behavior causes them to look at the syllabus in their notebooks or on their laptops and answer the questions for themselves. Some students are proud of being able to answer the question; others find that as they look it up, they reread about the assignment. In this way, they refresh their knowledge of the assignment and improve their chances of doing well. In either case, I push them to use their minds and not take the lazy route of asking me the answer to a question they can answer for themselves.

You may have other strategies to use. The important task is making them read and consult the syllabus throughout the semester or quarter rather than answering their questions for them. It can be difficult if you know the answer and can easily respond. However, it does not encourage their careful reading and remembering. Therefore, try this new behavior about not answering their questions and see what happens.

Remember that sometimes, the questions are real; they do not understand something about the assignment. In that case, clarify what they do not understand by asking them to explain what they know and then fill in the rest or correct any misunderstandings. That is what we do when discussing the content of a course; we can use the same strategy when we answer questions about the syllabus – so long as they come from students who have tried to answer their own question.

These ideas may help you make your syllabus a reference tool during the semester or quarter and provide you with information you need in the future. Next month, we will discuss making creative assignments. If you have suggestions for other topics or teaching practices you want to share, send them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I will include them in future Mayo’s Clinics.

 Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, is retired as a clinical professor of hotel and tourism management at New York University. As principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe and is a regular presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide. 

Related items