Syllabus Hunt

On the first day of my English 101 class, I had my students do an activity I called “Syllabus Hunt.” The goal was simple: get students used to looking for information in the syllabus.

This was the earliest possible class: 8am on the very first day of the fall semester. Every student is required to take English 101 in their first semester, and this is a community college, so I was 99% sure that all my students would be entering a college classroom for the first time the morning of my class. I asked them if this was true, and all but one student said yes – they had never been in any college classes and had never seen a college syllabus before.

Assuming students know how to read a syllabus and what kind of information they should expect to find there is always a bad idea, in any level class. But going over the syllabus, reading it section by section, is a monumental waste of precious time. It does nothing to propel the class along, it’s boring, it puts students (and professor, usually!) into a stupor.

Confession: there were at least four goals I had in mind for this activity. Yes, the first goal was to get students used to looking for information in the syllabus. The second was to set the tone for the semester, by showing students that their minds would need to be active, that they should not get used to being passive recipients of knowledge. The third was to get them talking to each other, because discussion in English 101 is so important. And the fourth was to begin giving them practice in citing, as well as using citations to find information.

The activity accomplished all of these goals.

I tried this activity in my upper-level class the next day, and it worked okay, but not as well. That might be because students in an upper-level course have all seen syllabi before; it might be because I had other groupwork that accomplished the other goals in that class; it might be because that class is a 2.5-hr evening class rather than a 1.5-hr early morning class… Whatever the reason, I didn’t attempt it in my third class of the semester the next day, another upper-level evening class.

Here’s how the activity went:

  1. First of all, I went over the course info and course description with them. We took a brief look at the reading and writing assignment schedule, and spent more time on it afterwards. This activity was really all about the policies and resources.
  2. I had prepared four scenarios and put two scenarios on each half-paper, forming two “groups.”
  3. Each student got one half-paper at random. I asked them to put their name at the top, and to add their email if they were comfortable giving their email to a classmate.
  4. They then read their two scenarios and tried to find the page on which they could find the answer. They were instructed not to write the answer, just the citation for the page where the information can be found.
  5. Once everyone was done, I asked them to get up, mingle in the center of the room, and find someone from the opposite group with whom to switch papers.
  6. With a new paper in hand, they sat back down and used their classmates’ citations to look up and write down the answers to what to do in each scenario.
  7. Finally, we reviewed the answers as a class and I took questions on the whole syllabus.

And okay, a fifth goal: They now had a classmate’s contact information, so if they miss class or are confused about an assignment, they can ask a buddy or form a study group and save emailing me for a second or third option…

The two sheets of paper, Group A and Group B, with scenarios whose answers can be found in the syllabus.

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