Standardize Syllabi


Benjamin Liou

Syllabi should be standardized to help students focus on learning and not logistics.

When students enter the job market, they are expected to have a resume. Machines and HR staff then filter through the heaps of resumes to find the ideal candidates for an interview. This is to ensure that the job market is competitive and that hired employees are well-suited for the job. Similarly, students need to make choices when enrolling in courses, and the syllabus is akin to the resume. The syllabus should be there to help students decide whether they want to take a course by providing information on what the student will learn, course load, grading scheme, contacts, and course policies.

One reason a student may need to take a class is that it is required for their major or college. Even for required courses, students often need to decide when to take them and which professor to choose. Therefore, the syllabus is important in guiding students through their college career. However, my current observation is that students rely heavily on word-of-mouth and websites like Syllabi are not used as much, making the process of enrolling in the right course inefficient. The number of course adds and drops in the first four weeks of a quarter are testament to this inefficiency. If students picked the right course in the first place, they would have stuck with it, allowing them to focus and learn better.

It can be hard for waitlisted students to be kept hanging while being reluctant about committing too many resources to a course they might not get into, meaning they likely won’t study as hard or attend classes as often. Meanwhile, someone else is hogging the spot but also commits fewer resources because they are thinking of dropping. This results in both students learning less efficiently and more work for the TA to keep track of students’ attendance and learning progress.

So why aren’t syllabi used as much as they should be? Because non-standardized syllabi are too difficult for students to read thoroughly, harder to compare with other course syllabi to make an informed decision, and also too much work for professors to write and publish timely, giving students a lag in information.

I examined the syllabi of the 40 courses I’ve taken at UC San Diego from Fall 2020 to Fall 2022 and calculated an average of just above four grading categories. For example: 25% homework, 30% quizzes, 30% project, and a 15% final would have four grading categories. That’s all fine, but on the other hand, some of my classes have up to eight grading categories. Some also have unwieldy grade breakdowns like 21% homework, 5% project, 28% midterms, 46% final — percentages that are not the usual multiples of 5% or 10%.

It doesn’t help that the format of syllabi are non-standardized. The grading section can be at the beginning, middle, or end of a long document. It can also be in a chart, written like a paragraph, or spread throughout the document.

These overcomplicated grading schemes and syllabus layouts take the emphasis away from learning and put students who know the content but aren’t so good at keeping track of assignments or don’t have the ability to do everything that is required, at an unfair disadvantage. Not everyone can get that 7% lecture attendance point or keep track of many tiny weekly assignments, perhaps because they have work or family commitments. It also burdens the teaching staff with a bombardment of grading questions, as often seen on Piazza. This is ironic since the syllabus is supposed to clarify things, but instead generates more questions, even after professors belatedly tell students “It’s in the syllabus.”

That’s because there’s a problem with the syllabus. Some syllabi are so detailed that reading it is a huge turn-off to students, and the time spent scrutinizing the syllabus would be better spent simply asking on Piazza. On the other hand, some syllabi are written unclearly. In one of my past syllabi, the grading scheme wasn’t even specified. Also, syllabi are often unavailable until the first day of class, or even later, which causes confusion and a flood of questions. I suspect the reason why many syllabi are unavailable is that it’s a lot of work for the professors and TAs to draft or update a syllabus.

Therefore, I propose that syllabi be standardized, with simplified grading schemes and logistic policies, such that syllabi can be available before classes start, so that students may choose the right course and have the time to familiarize themselves with the course.

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