Once course registration opens, Penn students immediately scramble. Double count and GenEd course lists are scoured as we try to find classes that balance interest and difficulty. Crafting the perfect schedule is an art, and any course information is essential to making the best choices for our academic careers.
Currently, Penn students mostly rely on Penn Course Review and word of mouth to make decisions on which classes to take. While certainly useful, they reduce classes to a series of numbers and quick takes that amount to a caricature of a semester’s worth of work. Penn students deserve more. As the College Dean’s Advisory Board, we call on Arts & Sciences faculty to upload class syllabi to Penn InTouch to provide students with the information they need when choosing classes.
As you might expect, this is not a new idea. More course-related information was the catalyst for Penn Course Review over 50 years ago. But besides Course Review, the only other official information students have about a class is the one-paragraph description posted on the InTouch listing. Since calls for syllabi to be posted online have remained relevant, DAB decided to survey the undergraduate population on their perspectives on syllabi.
While we didn’t expect this to be a controversial issue, the data we collected is startlingly clear: 96.6% of us said we would be more likely to register for a class if there was a syllabus posted on Penn InTouch. 82% said we have chosen to not register for a class because of insufficient information. 93% said stress levels would be reduced if a syllabus was posted on Penn InTouch. Our survey illuminated a statistical consensus: syllabi would be extremely helpful to College students.
Unfortunately, other questions also bring to light the current state of online syllabi at Penn. Students estimated less than 20% of classes they see on InTouch have syllabi and over 55% of students felt the information currently provided on InTouch informed them very little on prospective classes.
Our survey also highlights the importance syllabi already play in students making final decisions on classes. Nearly all students who responded, over 1500, reported at least an attempt to access a class’ syllabus. Over half, 814 students, said they made final class decisions – to stay or drop – after getting access to and reading the syllabus through Canvas.
One may ask, “what makes syllabi so important?” They include a general semester outline, grade breakdowns, the number of readings and assignments per week, assessment dates and formats, attendance policies, and course costs. And in the middle of a pandemic as students struggle to solidify their housing and academic plans for the fall, access to syllabi is more important than ever.
Harvard, whose instructors have posted class syllabi online for years, cites the syllabus as a way to “discover new courses” and encourages students to use their online syllabus explorer to see “how similar topics are taught across departments.” Duquesne University says syllabi are “an instrument to get students and faculty starting on the same page for the semester … when [faculty] make explicit such information to our students, they become better learners.” These sentiments are also shared by Northwestern.
In defense of professors, asking for course syllabi is not always simple. For new courses or ones that undergo heavy revision from year to year, a syllabus might still be in the draft phase weeks before a semester. Yet, even some of the College’s most popular courses, including Intro to Experimental Psychology, Intro to Biology, and Intro to Microeconomics, do not have syllabi on InTouch. As introductory courses, they likely do not undergo major revisions year-to-year and are foundational to their respective departments, but they are still limited to a one paragraph description on Penn InTouch.
Receiving access to syllabi was always important, but now it’s necessary. With the first-ever intentionally online semester, instructors are spending significant portions of their summers reworking classes for online instruction. In the same way that the pandemic is forcing professors to rethink classes, students are equally as confused and looking for answers. For students, earlier access to syllabi means giving us a chance to prepare for these changes. Getting a heads-up now for the fall semester may prove vital in our decisions on course load and housing.
Penn students can jump through hoops to find some syllabi, such as by asking older friends or searching third-party websites, but this presents issues of unequal access. For new students, it’s unlikely to have enough Penn contacts to find people who have past syllabi. For all students, many external websites, like CourseHero, make syllabi available only after students either pay a fee or upload documents related to another class. Why should high-tuition-paying Penn students pay even more to access essential course information about their classes?
What can instructors do now? The most important action is to upload course syllabi now to Penn InTouch. Even if readings are not set in stone or a few classes’ foci diverge from the syllabi, giving students some idea on how the semester will be taught must be the first priority.
In 2009, former Provost Vincent Price predicted that faculty would “rapidly pick up the practice” of uploading syllabi on Penn InTouch. In fact, Penn’s administration recognized the need for syllabi so much that InTouch’s upload feature was rescued from a Great Recession era budget and made a priority because of its necessity. Now, in the face of COVID-19, it is up to our professors to take the necessary step and hit upload.
JOSHUA KIM and ZACH ZAMORE, rising junior and rising senior, are Co-Chairs of the College Dean’s Advisory Board (or DAB). They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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