How to Get Students to Read Your Syllabus

By Alicia Russell, Associate Director, CELT

Much has been written about how to write an effective syllabus. But how do you actually get students to read your scintillating work after you put all that time and thought into it? A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Is Anybody Reading the Syllabus?  suggested ways faculty could make the syllabus more compelling to comb through by “burying hidden gems.” Many other suggestions were offered in the comments section following the article. A few of these are summarized below.

Set up the syllabus as an FAQ

I've set up my syllabus in an FAQ format and it seems to work. In fact, one student wrote that it was the best syllabus they've read. Here are some examples:

  • Under the question: How many classes can I miss before it starts to hurt my grade? I put the attendance policy.
  • Under: What do I need to get an A? I have a series of bullet points reflecting all of the required assignments and a link to the grading scale.
  • Under: My roommate wants to hurt himself, what do I do? I put down contact information for the school's mental health services.

I taught freshmen so I tried to include all of the stuff freshmen don't know and are afraid to ask.

Hide an “Easter egg” in the syllabus that asks the students to do something, like email a photo to the teacher with a particular subject line.

Give students a quiz on the syllabus 

In week 1 I give the students a 1-point (1% of their semester grade) syllabus exam. They can take it as many times as they want until they get 100%. The questions are aimed at the 25 most important parts of the syllabus: deadlines, paper formatting requirements, grading policies, late work policies, where to find information, how to contact me, etc. It has helped significantly. I get almost no questions about things that are in the syllabus. And when I do, I simply copy and paste from a draft in my email "Read the syllabus.”  This saved me a great deal of time and frustration.

Finally, you might consider making yourself into a walking advertisement for your syllabus. One instructor said that he wears a t-shirt printed with the words “It’s on the syllabus” and points to himself whenever a student asks a question that is addressed in your syllabus. The first person who reads this line and emails CELT with the subject line “It’s in the Syllabus” will win a t-shirt saying exactly that!

How do you get your students to read your syllabus?


References: Is Anybody Reading the Syllabus? To find out, some professors bury hidden gems. Suggestions listed in the Comments section.

Writing a Syllabus:

Photo Credit: Inside Higher Ed.