Higher education serves a lot of purposes. One is to disseminate knowledge. Another is to offer a set of structured interactions for students to experience, so they can grow in a safe place. Still another is to forge meaningful relationships with mentors and intellectual figureheads. I’ve observed something strange when I talk to and observe faculty: they want all of these things to happen, but their actions seem to push students towards only the first – the transfer and “consumption” of of rote knowledge.

We spoke with a professor at a university who, at the urging of her department head (and in what she perceived as compliance with Texas legislation), included very verbose descriptions of her policies and procedures in the syllabus, and viewed this document as a contract between herself and her students. She explained to us that “…you want to make sure there are no grey areas. In terms of attendance, participation; you have to be very explicit in how your grades are assigned, explanations of projects have to be in there. The student knows fully what they are entering, and knows all your dates, knows exactly how the grade structure is. You even need to say an 89.7 falls here in the grading scale. It’s part of the legislation.”

For her, this level of explicit detail takes a long time, and adding it to the syllabus is a bit of an annoyance. But she feels that it makes clear the value exchange (and expectations) between her and her students. Having this type of verbosity in the syllabus lets her substantiate her actions, and she can point to the policy and tell the student that they are all being held to a fair and overtly stated set of policies and procedures. She explained that “I think it works well. Because at the end of the semester, if someone’s missed an exam, I have a policy around it here. And it was laid out in the beginning.”

Yet the same professor told us that, if she could change one thing about education, she would “get rid of standardized testing; allowing students to be creative, to have more creative thought. I feel like by the time I get them in the classroom, they have been so boxed in to how they think and approach learning… I would go back to when they are going through the education system, and do away with standardized testing, and allow more creativity in the classroom.” There’s a disconnect between the way she wants to mechanically run her classroom (planned, rigid, and objective), and the way she wants and expects learning to occur (organically, creatively, and with more intrinsic motivation and passion). We heard and saw this disconnect over and over from a variety of professors.

There’s another academic construct that exhibits this disconnect. Office hours are set hours that a faculty member agrees to be available for students to pop in and ask questions. When we talked to professors about student motivation and personalized attention, we heard things like this:

  • “I had office hours, but nobody ever came to them. Students don’t go to office hours. I don’t know why.”
  • “Students don’t come to visit that often. I’m generally here every day of the week. But much more information is exchanged through email.”
  • “I tell the students – have you ever gone to the office hours for your professor? No? Go. If you just show up with one or two questions, they want to get to know their students. I point out that professors have been in your shoes. They know you need a recommendation for anything you want to do in the future – how do you get that recommendation? You don’t just get an A in the class. You show up in office hours and come up with some questions, have a conversation, and they’ll talk about your plans – what your goals are.”

I’ve written about the syllabus in the past, and described how problematic it is. It seems that, in an effort to objectively define the parameters for learning, we’ve backed students into an expectant corner by calling the syllabus a contract – as if it outlines (and should outline) the only necessary and available learning opportunities. Consequently, students see their learning experience in black and white, and prioritize their time (often exclusively) on items that fulfill the letter of the contract. Yet we also expect and desire our students to build relationships with professors, to learn soft skills, and to exhibit broader, more liberal interest in our subject matter. We need to back off of calling the syllabus a contract (and treating it like a legal document) if we want to encourage students to approach their education less as a legal quid pro quo and more as an experience for growth.

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