As a teacher or coach, you know the beginning of a new semester means covering the syllabus with your students. But, let’s be real, do we teach them how to use it as a tool and do we ever reference it with them again? 

The syllabus is GOLD for students, but often times it’s just read over and forgotten about. 

Today, let’s uncover four secrets to turning the sylalbus into a roadmap for success. I’ll teach you how to make the most out of the syllabus, whether it’s the first day of class or midway through the term. Trust me, taking the time to guide your students in their learning is always a good use of time. 

The syllabus is more than a list of policies and procedures–we can use it to model learning habits they’ll need for the rest of the semester. So, let’s dig in and make the most out of the syllabus season!

Click the image below to watch the video … or read on for the transcript!

It’s syllabus season! The beginning of a new semester means that educators across the country–dare I say the world–are spending the first day of class sharing their syllabus with students. I have witnessed this myself because I had the opportunity to sit in on a new cohort’s classes at the medical school where I’m consulting, and I have some thoughts for us because the syllabus is student gold. But no one, students nor faculty, seems to know what to do with it to mine the gold. So today, we’re going to look at four opportunities that many faculty members miss–students, you probably will want to pay attention to this, too–and what teachers can do instead to hit the ground running when you are teaching at the beginning of a semester, so let’s dig in.

Let me give you a little context. First, as we’ve been talking about on this channel a lot, I have had the blessing and the luxury to be spending some intimate time at a local medical school. At the beginning of this particular quarter, I got to sit in on the first class of a new cohort’s experience in their program, as three teachers talked about the syllabus to their students. There was so much good that was happening, but there were a few missed opportunities in that classroom, which is what inspired me to make this video.

Before we dive into the four suggestions I have, the theme I want you noticing is that there is a powerful connection between the brain and the hand. And the more we make students manipulate the information that is important, then the more likely they will remember it. The more they manipulate–“mani” comes from the Latin word “manus,” meaning hand–with their hands the information that you have for them, the better. And I don’t think faculty members take the time to do enough manipulating with students.

Now. I’m already hearing some voices saying, “it’s students’ responsibility to look at the syllabus and glean from it what they can, it’s not our responsibility.” This could be true from some perspectives, but what you do on the first day of class, and how you guide students in their learning, is a symbol of the learning habits students are going to be able to use for the rest of the semester. So take time with the syllabus, as I’m about to share with you in this video, and point out to students what you are doing: you are not just wasting time going over the syllabus, but you are instead orienting them to the kind of deep thinking they will be doing in your class and moving them from theory into action, from didactic into studying, from the thing they are learning into doing something with it. You are modeling on the first day of class exactly what you want them doing with all the content that you’re going to be teaching, so don’t waste the opportunity to do it during the syllabus.

Opportunity #1: Course Objectives
I noticed that the faculty members whom I got to witness put the syllabus up on the screen, which is wonderful to have that visual presence there. Then, they read some of the objectives.

After class, one of the students came to me and said, “You know what my biggest trouble studying is? I don’t know what to study.” And I looked at her, and I said, “Oh, but your teacher just shared exactly what you need to study.” And she was like, “Huh?” I said, “Did you pay attention during the course objectives?” Then I went and asked the whole class, “Raise your hand if you paid attention when your teacher talked us through the course objectives.” Nobody raised her hand. I was like, “Why? Oh, it’s kind of boring. It’s true. Course Objectives are boring. They’re worded in a way that just makes you not want to listen, right? But they’re so important because they direct you how to pay attention during the rest of the class.”

So the Objectives section is your opportunity as a teacher to actually take some time to work with the objectives, assign students to manipulate them, maybe even turn them into a one page Course Guide for themselves. I want to give you an example of what I mean by manipulating a course objective. This is an objective that’s on the syllabus I have for the course I teach for teachers called The Art of inspiring Students to Study Strategically; imagine me reading it out loud in an uninteresting way: Effectively communicate complex brain science in simple bite-sized mini lectures, including how learning happens in the brain, neural pathways, the Study Senses, spaced retrieval, working memory, and more.

This is one of 10 objectives on my syllabus, not very interesting, right? A lot of the details go over one’s head, but it’s jam-packed with information, though, when you take time to manipulate it. And so I would recommend a student create a “Can I?” question from this objective: “Can I communicate brain science simply? … That’s what this objective is about. Oh, and she made a list of all the things I need to know how to communicate simply: how learning happens, neural pathways, the study senses, spaced retrieval, working memory, and then she said ‘and more.’ So there might be other things we’re going to learn. So I’m going to leave a blank space here and fill that in later.” I think this would actually be a wonderful homework assignment. But you also could have it be an in-class assignment, or you could put people in groups. If you’re one-to-one with students, like in a coaching or tutoring situation, you can have yourself take a couple objectives, your student take a couple of objectives, and practice manipulating them together. But I think it’s a wonderful way to show the student “You’re going to learn so much this semester, and actually make a checklist for yourself. So you can track what you’re learning as we go through.”

Opportunity #2: Contact Information for Faculty
All good syllabi have contact information for faculty members. And that’s wonderful, I’m so glad you’re accessible by email, by phone, some of you put a cell phone where you can be reached by text or by an app for chat. But don’t just tell them, “This is how you contact me.” Instead, give them a moment to put that contact information into the tool that’s going to enable them to contact you in the first place!

One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered as an academic coach–and I had this experience as a teacher too–is students don’t want to contact you, they feel ashamed. There’s so much anxiety that comes into play when it comes to reaching out to a teacher. So reducing the friction, reducing the barriers to reaching out to you and just putting that text into the phone or putting that email into the phone is so important. And for bonus points: have everybody just send you in class on email right then and there! That way, they actually have the practice of reaching out to you–the practice of doing a subject heading and writing the email and the barrier to contacting you in the future has been lowered.

Opportunity #3: Office Hours
Again, don’t just tell the students you’re available for office hours. Instead, have them take a moment and add your office hours to their calendar, or at least write it on the front of their binder. Or, if they’re taking the course objectives and making themselves a one-page cheat sheet or checklist for the course, you could have them put the office hours there–but it’s better in the calendar.

As I’m coaching students, this is the single biggest barrier I’ve noticed: when they’re ready to get questions answered, the fact that they don’t know when office hours is, that they have to get to the syllabus or get on the online portal and look up the office hours, and then look at their calendar to see if they’re available. And then figure out where office hours are. It’s just too many barriers. I know some of you are thinking, “What the heck, students, stop being so lazy. That’s not too many barriers!” But I assure you, it is a lot of steps an anxious student has to go through. And we want to set our systems up so that the most anxious of students feel like they can easily work with us, and then the others will do fine, as well. So have them add office hours to their calendar while they’re in class with you.

And bonus points for you faculty members: roleplay various ways students can ask questions at office hours! A lot of students are like, “God, if I came, I wouldn’t know how to use it”. So you might invite students to consider how they can ask you a question and the different scenarios for how they might show up. For instance, you can let them know they don’t even have to have a question, and ask “How could you come in and initiate a conversation with me in some way? Let’s see if we can come up with 10 different ways you can approach a professor or a teacher at office hours.” This can be fun, it can be light, they can come up to the front of the room and roleplay, they could just raise their hand and say, “Hi, I actually just wanted to come and meet you, because I’m normally scared to come to office hours. But if I know you, and if I come once, I’ll come again,” and you could assure them that would be a perfectly legit way to come to office hours.

So I hope you’re seeing the theme through all of these: the powerful connection between the brain and the hand, and all the different ways we can have students manipulate or do something with the information in the syllabus, and how that’s setting them up to be active learners.

And if you want more information–the least you need to know about brain science, and how to teach it to students so that they can be better active learners–I have a special gift for you. It’s free, so go grab it. There’s a lot of really meaty stuff in there that will put what I’m suggesting here into the neuroscience context.

Opportunity #4: the Schedule of Assignments, Tests, and Readings
A lot of times teachers just show the list to the students. Of course, I’m not putting that down, that’s a good thing to do. I’m glad teachers are doing that–but it doesn’t include manipulating, and the more we manipulate now, the better follow through students are going to have later. So instead, have them analyze the assignment list with partners. This would be the least you could do because at this point, you’ve probably been talking for a while anyway. You could say, “Okay, turn to the person at your table. Take a look at the assignments together and see what patterns you can notice and how I have organized the material.” This is engaging their metacognition; it’s helping them notice your teaching style. And when we notice our teacher’s teaching style, we make better teaching choices to ourself during study time.

Then maybe if you have time, or maybe as an assignment, even have them transfer to their planner all of your assignments, if you know they’re not going to change. Now high school students or teachers, I know that changes a lot. It’s hard to do in high school, but maybe a month-by-month list, if you could even do that this would be such a value add, because too many students only look at the syllabus. If they have four different syllabi for four different classes as a college student, and they don’t see how the assignments in one class impact the assignments in another class. But if we have them put all their assignments into a planner, then they can notice patterns and make some time-management and self-care choices as a result of those patterns.

Bonus Ideas!
Do a syllabus scavenger hunt. If some of this sounded like too much work, you might have a list of things that you want students to be able to notice and do–give them that list and give them 10-15 minutes in class or have it be a homework assignment.

You might also–the academic coach in me would love to see you do this!–assign students to turn in a portfolio proving that they turned the syllabus into practical time-management strategies. For example, they could take a photo of their planner, they could take a screenshot of the contact information they put in their phone, they could add to that their one-pager that has all the course objectives broken out in “Can I?” statements with strong verbs and then noticing the different lists of things they need to know.

One-to-one tutors and coaches, you can do a lot of this yourself. You can take an entire one-hour session and just decode as many syllabi as possible with your student, or just decode one syllabus together, and then have the student do the same and report to you next week how they did it with the rest of their syllabi, as well.

There’s so much opportunity! The better we take the gold that’s in the syllabus and turn it into something usable and put it into our systems right away, the more we can hit the ground running and on the right foot, and that’s what we all want at the beginning of the semester. So good luck, take care, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas below.