Many faculty dread spending time on the first day of class going over the syllabus.  That’s OK, because students usually hate hearing professors read the syllabus to them too!  But, what if the first day of class could be different?  What if instead you could have a different scenario, one in which students are deeply engaged with your explanation of the syllabus?

We all know what a syllabus is, but we too often forget that your syllabus really is a vitally important foundation for your class.  Sure, the syllabus provides a course description (important for transfer students who need to get credit for your class), the required textbooks (important to demonstrate both the level of the class for colleagues and to let students know what materials they will need to purchase), and provides your course policies on office hours, attendance, plagiarism, and equal opportunity statements.  Your syllabus serves as a contract-like agreement with students about what they need to do and how they need to perform in order to earn an A, a C, or, whatever.  No wonder students and professors alike find reading through this to be boring.  Although some faculty have found some success by implementing ‘syllabus scavenger hunts’ and giving ‘syllabus quizzes,’ it seems like there really should be a way to better engage students.

SyllabusWhat if instead you thought about your syllabus as the scholarly and intellectual design of how you intend to coach your students through demonstrating mastery of the course topics?  Unfortunately, when dealing with human beings, one size definitely doesn’t fit all.  And, as with any collaborative team you are responsible for coaching to top performance, your players will have varying strengths and weaknesses.  The best coaches know how to leverage what players do well and compensate for players’ weaknesses in order to build a winning program.  In other words, if a one-size-fits-all plan doesn’t work to bring out the best performance of a collaborative team of individuals, why would a one-size-fits-all syllabus work for your class?

Consider instead of using a one-size-fits-all syllabus, to adopt a ‘negotiated syllabus.’  A negotiated syllabus still lays out your overall intellectual plan to help students master your course topics, but provides critical flexibility to account for your students’ academic (or pragmatic) strengths and weaknesses.  Compare the two hypothetical syllabi grade calculations below:

Traditional Grading Scheme Negotiated Grading Scheme
Attendance – 20%

Homework – 20%

Term Paper #1 – 10%

Term Paper #2 – 10%

Exam #1 – 10%

Exam #2 – 10%

Final Exam – 20%


Attendance – 5% to 20%

Homework – 5% to 20%

Term Paper #1 – 5% to 15%

Term Paper #2 – 5% to 15%

Exam #1 – 5% to 20%

Exam #2 – 5% to 20%

Final Exam – 10%-30%


Tips & Tricks

In the case of a negotiated syllabus, students can tweak their grade calculation to play to their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses.  Imagine a student who has trouble with consistent childcare->they should reduce their grade’s reliance on attendance.  Consider a student who believes they are a strong writer but a lousy test taker->they could reduce their grade’s weighting on exams and increase it for homework and term papers.  Because most of us calculate student grades in a spreadsheet or online course management system, it requires surprisingly little time to create a specific grade-calculation-formula for each student based on their choices.

It is important to emphasize that this negotiated formula is to be agreed upon during the first month of class, and not allowed to be revisited later in the semester.  Otherwise, this approach is nothing more than an optimized grading scheme students. I recommend repeated announcements that the negotiated syllabus cannot be renegotiated after the first month.

The goal here is to enhance students’ buy-in and build their ownership in the course and, in particular, to encourage them to understand the course requirements in the syllabus from the very first day of class.  One could also imaging giving students some choices about precisely which foundational chapters and homework sets all students must read and master and which additional chapters and homework sets students can trade in and out, based on their personal interests. Used in this way, the negotiated syllabus can build a cooperative team mentality emphasizing that you want every student to be successful in your class.

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming,

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