Syllabi and the “Inevitable”

Over at one of my frequent reads, the Community College Dean, he asked for advice on how to deal with students that leave their groups hanging high and dry on presentation day. My response was a simple “What’s wrong with just simply giving the absent student a “ZERO” for the presentation?”

After reading many of the other comments, I find that the readership over there is quite a creative bunch! I enjoyed much of what they wrote, but the discussion reminded me of something else I have noticed of late. Syllabus Creep.

It seems as professors and instructors face the wide range of situations students present, we have added more and more to our syllabi. No, not content about the course–that would be reasonable. We are adding more and more about expectations of behavior, how not to cheat, when to attend class, what you will have to do if you don’t attend class, and the like. Lately, I have gone for the more minimalist approach: DON’T CHEAT, OR YOU WILL BE CAUGHT.

I had read a syllabus where there was not only a list of items to bring for an exam, but an extremely long list of what not to bring. No hats. No music players. No scarves. If one could write on it, one couldn’t bring it.

I have gone a slightly different route: I now allow the students to bring any personal music device that they wish. iPod, CD Player, Radio (with headset.) Whatever helps get them through the exam. Why? I know many people focus better with some “controlled distraction” rather than the random noises of other test-takers, and the opportunity to listen to something familiar may help overcome test anxiety.

I know what you’re thinking. “What if they cheat? What if they dictate notes into the MP3 player? What if they include text?” Hmmm… interesting. I almost hope they do. Why? Because they had to actually read/review the material to put it into their device. Learning occurs, if only through repetition.

“Ahhh,” you may ask “but what if one person does it, and then gives it to the others?” Another interesting question. The way I see it, you need to be fairly familiar with the material to be able to move quickly and accurately to the material covered in the question. Students never quite realize just how difficult an open book exam can be if you don’t already know the material well enough to quickly/efficiently move through the chapters to find the answers. Those that have understood the material best are those that are best able to find the relevant information.

My goal in my classes are to encourage students to learn the material. I think this helps get there.