Making a Syllabus - What Course Policies Should You Include?

Making a Syllabus - What Course Policies Should You Include?

In creating your college syllabus, what course policies should you include? These tips may help you write a syllabus that clearly communicates your policies to your students.

In my last post, I offered some things to consider when writing your syllabus. Perhaps, you have all the basics down. What about the course policies (aka “student responsibilities,” “instructor pet peeves,” etc.)? Whatever your policies, at least adhere to two rules: (1) be very clear, and (2) follow your own policies. Making a lot of exceptions is a recipe for trouble. Below are a few course policies that may be helpful to you. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are things that I wished someone would have told me before I taught my first class.

Contact Policy
Not having a contact policy is an invitation for students to email, call, or hunt you down at all hours of the day or night. I prefer the 24 hours rule, but I don’t want to be bothered when I’m away from the office. So I tell students that I will respond to emails within 24 hours only during office hours.

Late Work
Regardless of a clear late work policy or not, be prepared to have students test your boundaries. Let’s say that you don’t accept late work. If a student asks you for an extension the night before an assignment is due, don’t stress. Ignore the email, show up to class, and kindly sympathize with their situation. Then say, “Dang, I don’t check email when I’m out of the office, the assignment is due today, and I don’t accept late work.”

 

Disclaimer
Always have a disclaimer in your syllabus that states that the schedule and course policies are subject to change. If you do change something in the syllabus during the course, make sure to provide this change to students in writing (in addition to making a general announcement in class). It’s always good to have your bases covered.

Details and Expectations for Assignments
Some professors balk at the idea of having a 7+ page syllabus, but I found that including an assignment page in the syllabus itself was really helpful. For example, I assigned a large term paper that was 25% of the total points in the course. I knew that many students had never written a paper like it before, and I wanted to prepare them in advance (way in advance—like first-day-of-class-in-advance). I had problems in the past with attendance and people regularly checking the online portal for announcements. So if I waited until later in the semester, not all of the students would have received the assignment sheet (not my problem, I know). The only way I could ensure that 100% of students would receive the assignment sheet for the paper was to put it in the syllabus. Also, it’s a good way to weed out people during drop/add week. If you don’t want to include the entire assignment sheet, at least consider adding a rubric for huge projects to your syllabus. This will explain to students exactly how their grade is calculated, and will avoid questions like, “How much of my paper grade is formatting?”

Grade Calculation Worksheets
Because my grading policies are so straightforward and I update everything online, I don’t do this. However, I’ve seen professors who had less simple grading and this worked great for them (e.g., 75% of total grade is exam grades—super complicated, I know). Create a worksheet (kind of like on tax forms) that allows students to insert graded items. Then, direct students to the numbers that need to be calculated and how to perform those calculations. The final result is a total grade, complete with letter grading information.

Web Portal Log-in Screenshots
For underclassmen and/or transfer students, students may have trouble accessing certain accounts. If they need to access an online account as part of their grade (e.g., research participation, etc.), consider providing screenshots for how to log in. 

Appointment URL
If you have a lot of students who need to make appointments, I found a useful website that links directly into Google calendar: YouCanBook.me, and it’s free. Just be sure to create bookable time (e.g., Office Hours) that shows you as “Available” in your Google calendar. Give students your url link (e.g., https://gmailname.youcanbook.me), and voila. Whenever they book an appointment, it goes directly into your Google calendar. 

Proof of Reading the Syllabus
You might consider adding something that requires a student response as proof that they read the syllabus. For example, some people add a signature page on the syllabus that simply says, “I have read this syllabus and understand the course policies.” Some may state there will be a quiz the following week over the syllabus. Either way, it’s good to obtain some proof that students read your syllabus. 

Make-up Exam Policy
There are always plenty of excuses for missing an exam. The question is what are you going to do about it? Whatever you do, make it clear. If your policy is to be heartless and have no make-up exams, be heartless! If you do opt for make-up exams, my tip is to make the make-up exam as prohibitively inconvenient for them as possible. After a fiasco first semester with 20+ students requesting make-up exams, I enacted the policy: "make-up exams will be essay only." The next semester my make-up exam rate was 4 students. It worked beautifully, I didn’t feel bad about crushing dreams, and grading the exams was a breeze.

Any veteran university teachers out there? What are your tips and tricks?

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