You’d think that only an idiot would agree to a contract without reading it. But students do it all the time.
My wife and I recently purchased a house. If you’ve ever done that, you know they make you sign an insane number of documents in the process. And, like most people, we didn’t read them. Sure I skimmed a few to make it look like I meant business, but for the the most part, I simply scrawled my name at the bottom and hoped I hadn’t just agreed to trade my youngest child for a worn-out llama.
I’m sure it’s no problem, after all, they’re standard contracts that everyone signs when they buy a house–which, of course, is just another form of the “But everyone’s doing it” defense. But still, I’ve just agreed to something and I don’t know what. That can’t be a good idea.
But every semester I see students do the same thing. They sign up for a class and launch into the semester without reading the contract. Then they get frustrated when their grades don’t turn out the way that they expect. If you don’t bother to read the contract, you shouldn’t be surprised when things don’t work out the way you expect.
Your Educational “Contract”
At this point, you may be wondering, “What ‘contract’ is he talking about? I don’t remember getting a contract.” You did. You get one every semester. It’s called a syllabus.
That’s right, your syllabus is a contract. It’s an agreement between you and your teacher in which the teacher agrees to provide certain goods (often called learning “outcomes” or “objectives”) if you will undertake various responsibilities (readings, attendance, papers, etc.). That’s the heart of a contract. I’ll provide X if you do Y. But every semester I see students agreeing to do Y without paying close attention to X or even bothering to figure out what Y really involves. Big mistake. If you get burned at the end of the semester, it’s your own fault. After all, you “signed” the contract when you agreed to take the class.
Fortunately, this mistake is easy to avoid. Here are six things to keep in mind when you receive your your educational contracts (i.e. syllabi) for the new school year.
6 Tips for Not Getting Burned by Your Syllabi
And, by the way, this is not “6 Tips for Burning Your Syllabi,” although that might be an interesting topic for a different post.
1. Read the Contract Carefully
Again, you’d think this would be obvious. But sometimes it seems like these are the people least likely to read my syllabi, in order of decreasing likelihood:
- My mom
- The dog next door
- Somebody who just died
- Somebody who just died and then turned into a zombie
- My students
I’m sure that’s not really true. But sometimes it feels true. And that’s basically the same thing.
Read your syllabi. Then read them again. If you have questions, ask. If you don’t understand something and you don’t ask, it’s your own fault.
2. Know What’s Being Promised
Most syllabi begin with a crucial, but often neglected component: the promise. I routinely skipped this section as a student, and even as a new professor, I didn’t pay enough attention to this part of my syllabi, assuming that most students would just skip it anyway. But every syllabus makes a promise, and you need to know what it is.
The promise is what you’re supposed to get as a result of your hard work.
So start reading every syllabus by paying attention to the section usually called “outcomes,” “objectives,” “goals,” or something similarly purpose-oriented. Together, these statement paint the target. With this section, your professor is basically saying: “If you walk with me through the entire semester, invest yourself in the class, and follow the instructions, this is what you should walk away with.” That seems kind of important, doesn’t it?
So take the time to understand the promise. What does each “objective” tell you about the class? Do they make sense? Can you see why it might be a good thing if you walked away have accomplished those goals? Can you see how they fit with what you’re learning in your overall degree program? If you’re not sure about the answer to any of these questions, or if the answer is no, then it’s time to dig further.
Don’t skip the promise. That’s the part where you find out what you’re getting in return for your investment.
3. Know What’s Expected of You
Most students skip right to this section: the assignments. And I at least appreciate a student who reads the instructions and expectations for each assignment carefully at the beginning of the semester. That’s much better than the all-too-common student who pops into my office halfway through the semester just now realizing how much work that research paper is going to take or how many pages they need to read in the next week.
Know what’s expected. I know it seems like that’s so obvious that I shouldn’t even have to say it. But apparently I do.
And two more pieces of advice here. First, don’t hesitate to ask questions about the assignments. Teachers aren’t perfect, and syllabi often contain mistakes, unclear statements, and, every now and then, complete gibberish. So don’t feel bad about clarifying anything in the syllabus. After all, you’re the one making the investment.
Second, take the time to think about how the assignments are connected to the promise. Remember, the assignments are only there to help you accomplish the promise/outcomes. So, once you’ve understood the details of the assignments, go back and look at the promise again. Understanding how the assignments contribute to the course’s learning outcomes will give you a better feel for what the class is about, will help you put together better assignments, and, in the end, it will help you learn more.
Bottom line: know what’s expected of you and how it relates to what’s been promised to you.
4. Know How You’ll Be Graded
It’s always tough to take a class from a teacher for the first time. You usually don’t know what to expect. That first exam rolls around, and you’re not sure what he/she looks for in a good essay, or whether you should spend time memorizing details or thinking synthetically. You ask other students and get generally vague input, leaving you unsure and insecure. That’s a little like a gymnast who’s been told to go out there and score a 10, but has no idea what the judges are looking for.
And I have to admit that as a new teacher, I hated it when students pressed me for specific details on how I’d be grading their assignments. To be honest, it wasn’t because anything was wrong with the question, but because I hadn’t put enough thought into the assignment to have a good answer. I didn’t know how to explain what I was looking for because I didn’t know!
That’s not acceptable. As a teacher, I’ve told you that if you perform certain activities well enough, you will achieve certain goals. For that arrangement to work, I need to be able to tell you what “well enough” looks like. I need to give you the target. And, once you’ve shot at the target, I need to give you good, clear feedback on whether you hit the target, why you missed the target (even if only slightly), and what you can do next time to improve your aim.
Done well, that’s what grading is all about. Grades aren’t there to serve as some kind of point system in an academic video game. Grades are there to help you make progress toward the promise.
So, at the beginning of the semester, know how you’ll be graded. Get a clear picture of the target and how you’ll get feedback about whether you’re hitting the target along the way.
5. Know When Everything Is Due
We’ll talk more about this in a later post, so I won’t say much here. But the concept is pretty simple. Know when things are due. Write them down and keep track of them. Due dates are like ants. From a distance, they’re just little dots, incapable of causing any real harm. Let enough of them pile up on you, though, and life gets unpleasant quickly.
6. Keep Track of Changes
Finally, although syllabi are like learning contracts, they’re not immutable. I’ve never taught a class without making at least a few changes to the syllabi along the way: due dates that got changed as we fell behind in the lectures, assignments that needed to be clarified or modified, mistakes that didn’t get caught earlier, and whatnot. Keep your copy of the syllabi current. If at all possible, get an updated copy from the professor whenever a change gets made. At the very least, make notes on your own copy. Whatever it takes, keep track of those changes. If nothing else, when you’re professor gets confused later after making too many changes, you can help keep everyone on track.
That’s it. Six ways to make sure that your syllabi work for you and not against you. Keep them in mind as you get this school year off to a strong start.
[This post is part of our Back to School series, exploring a variety of things we can do to get the new school year started right. Follow along and let us know what you think.]