When you receive your course syllabi in September, be sure to read through and make sure that all necessary information is included.
This past spring, the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) analyzed 93 syllabi from across the Faculty of Arts & Science to ensure compliance with mandatory elements of the course syallbus, as outlined in the Academic Handbook for Instructors. The mandatory elements include instructor contact information, term test dates, office hours, and assignment weights.
ASSU presented the study findings in a report released in late July. The report included a number of recommendations, including strengthening language on student requirements, increasing oversight from academic units, enhancing communication around Turnitin.com, and late penalty policies.
According to Michael Kurts, U of T assistant vice-president, strategic communications & marketing, David Cameron, the dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, encouraged ASSU to complete the report and share it with the faculty.
Kurts added that shortly after receiving a draft of the report, the Faculty of Arts & Science generated a one-page document on guidelines for course syllabi that was distributed to all academic units. The document reiterated the mandatory elements of a course syllabus.
The ASSU study found that, while most course syllabi complied with the requirement for the instructor’s office hours to be listed, 22 per cent of surveyed documents failed to include this information. Approximately 10 per cent of syllabi in the study also failed to include contact information of any kind.
Of those courses where contact information had been provided, the instructions and means by which students should communicate with instructors varied widely. 40 per cent of all the documents surveyed found that instructors included in their contact information a means to reach them through both e-mail, and phone. Only five per cent included telephone information as the means of contact.
“Faculty policy stipulates that instructors must hold office hours, and information about the location and times of the office hours must be included in the course syllabus,” said ASSU treasurer Dylan Chauvin-Smith.
Additionally, although all of the syllabi in the study included a marking breakdown, as required by the Academic Handbook for Instructors, a marking scheme on one syllabus included assignment weights that added up to 105 per cent.
10 of the 93 syllabi in the study also failed to meet the requirement that term work deadlines should not be extended into the final examination period.
While the report did not include a benchmark to distinguish between good and negative results, Chauvin-Smith called the findings unacceptable. “These policies are not arbitrary. [T]hey are put in place to ensure that students receive vital course information,” he said.
The report also highlighted other persistent problems associated with the use of language within the sampled syllabi. ASSU recommended that the Faculty of Arts & Science consider the adoption of an automatic syllabus generator that could help instructors build syllabi that included all required elements.
Kurts said that, in the long-run, the Faculty of Arts & Science is looking into creating a tool that will make the mandatory elements of a course syllabus digitally accessible to students.
The report also looked into compliance with voluntary components of course syllabi, including information on Turnitin.com and late penalties.
According to the report, just one in 15 syllabi indicated that the use of Turnitin.com was voluntary.
The university’s policy on the use of Turnitin.com states that students who do not wish to use the plagiarism detection service must be provided with an alternative means of verifying the originality of their work.
Instructors are also required to inform students if they intend to use Turnitin.com.
Kurts urged students to remember that each course syllabus remains the intellectual property of the course instructor. “The faculty expects and insists that each syllabus include the required elements, but in no way intends to mandate a common or uniform syllabus. Instructors must be left free, beyond the required pieces, to design the syllabus they think will best suit their needs in their courses,” said Kurts.
Chauvin-Smith expressed optimism that the report would increase student awareness of academic issues. “While most students are unaware of the myriad of policies which govern the academic function of the university, students must be informed and reminded of key issues to ensure compliance, and deal with issues of non- compliance,” he says.
ASSU has submitted its final report to the Faculty of Arts & Science, and is working with the faculty to make instructors aware of the mandatory elements of a course syllabus.