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02 Aug Professors – Syllabus Focus Group Questions & the Answers From University Students

When I was the Director of the Excellence in Teaching Program at our university, I wanted to know what students on campus thought about the various course syllabi that they had received – and what they really wanted. So, I held a series of focus groups with both undergraduate and graduate students. The questions, some selected responses, and a synthesis of what students said are included in this article.

1. What is a syllabus, from your perspective?

  • Schedule
  • List of assignments and due dates
  • List of books
  • A contract (which they don’t mind signing, by and large); they understand that there are students that need to be held accountable and that this is one way, even if they don’t ink they need it to be so “legal.”)
  • A way to “empower” students (Grad group)

2. Do all of your professors use a syllabus? When do you usually get it? When is the best time to get a syllabus, from your viewpoint?

  • Nearly all use a syllabus
  • Students receive it the first day of class
  • That is the best time to receive it – except students would like to know what books to buy ahead of time so they can buy them on-line and save money.

3. Is the syllabus paper-based or web-based? Do you prefer one over the other, in general?

  • Students are receiving both kinds and there was not an overwhelming positive or negative feeling about either kind. Generally, the students liked having an on-line syllabus to refer to and think it is easier for the professor to make changes, BUT, they essentially all print out the on-line syllabus because there are times they need to be carrying it around with them.
  • They want a syllabus that is ORGANIZED, regardless of whether it’s paper-based or web-based. They need this and they want it and they appreciate it when it is.

4. What is the first thing you look for in a syllabus? Why?

  • Schedule
  • Workload:
  • Number of tests/exams
  • Number of assignments
  • Grading scale/percentages
  • Ways to contact the professor (Note: Students made it clear that they think office hours are a joke; email is the way to go).

A cogent quote from one of the focus group participants was, “Most people just want to know what they have to do – just the facts, ma’am.”

5. Last year we held focus groups with students about the instruction they were receiving at the University. They told us that they make decisions about some of their classes based on the syllabus. Is that also true for you? And, how do you make those decisions?

  • Yes, to an extent; but mostly if the class is an elective. If the class is required, most students figure that they will eventually have to take the class, and it won’t change much from semester to semester. If the class is an elective and the workload appears to be extreme, students indicated that they would drop the class.

6. What are you looking for (or what do you hope NOT to see?)

  • A confusing syllabus
  • An inconsistent syllabus
  • The statement “this is a hard class.”
  • Philosophy of the department/college (they know this is required but students think it’s a waste. Basically, they read through the B.S.”).

7. What components of a syllabus (of whatever type) is the most important for you as a student?

  • Schedule
  • When tests and other assignments are scheduled
  • How to get an A (this was a strong theme through every focus group)

8. What components of a syllabus do you think your professors think is most important for you as a student?

  • Schedule
  • Assignments/Tests
  • Attendance Policy

Interesting, most students feel like their professors do a syllabus because they have to – and that they then just do whatever they want. One student said, “…but sometimes the course turns out to be like the syllabus.” The other students laughed as if they knew just what this student meant.

9. When you are talking to your friends about a particular class and trying to convince them to take a particular class, do you ever use the syllabus to help you make your point? Be specific.

  • No, not really.

It was clear that students are making decisions about classes (staying in or out) based on the professor.

10. What makes you read the syllabus? What makes you want to read it? Or want to refer back to it?

  • “If the syllabus is important to you, let the students know that. If you spend time on it, it tells the students that it’s important.”
  • “If you want us to look at it everyday, then you need to look at it everyday to make sure stuff is right.”
  • If it’s easy to read and follow
  • When it’s broken down by weeks; it helps students do the planning

11. What do you want professors to know from students about what you want to see and/or need to see in a syllabus? Imagine, the semester is over. You can now tell the professor what you liked or didn’t like about his/her syllabus. What do you wish had been included or what do you think was a waste to include. What would you say that would help him/her do a better job for next semester?

As one student said, “The worst thing in the world is not to know what is expected.”

These students’ ideas came across clearly and I hope you hear the ‘ring of truth’ when you read through their statements and the synthesis of their responses. There are some minor changes that you could make that would have a significant impact on your students’ success. And that’s the point, of course, of an excellent syllabus.

Meggin McIntosh

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