Stop stuffing the syllabus

A woman screaming because of the amount of paper she has to write

Note: I’m specifically talking about the UK context, I’m not qualified to talk about other contexts such as the US where the differing nature of how Universities operate might make stuffing a good idea. 

A Woman carrying a lot of folders stuffed with paper and screaming!
I’ll just read these ten conflicting syllabus.

So it’s at this time of year, I see people posting about what they are including in their syllabus for the courses/modules in the New Year. A recurring theme is all of the additional support material that they are going to include that is not directly related to the module. –information about mental health, student finance etc. 

On the face of it, this seems an excellent idea to help students and who could be against it? 

Well… me.

I’ve come to the conclusion (from working with multiple Business Schools and students across the UK) that this type of practice causes more confusion than clarity and it is likely to cause information overload that prevents students getting the help they need and other negative outcomes. Individual academics feel they have done something and this method surely helps some students in some circumstances but is suboptimal to help the maximum number of students.

Let’s talk a little bit about information overload (my PhD was in Information Seeking Behaviour). In simple terms, when presented with a document (say a syllabus) there is a point at which people shift from not overloaded to overloaded and there are certain factors that will increase the likelihood of hitting this tipping point and others that will decrease it – some are to do with the information itself and it’s presentation and others to do with personal factors. 

For our purposes, let’s just say that ‘not-overloaded’ is when the reader can handle the quantity of information they are required to process. 

Problems with stuffing – Duplication

The first problem is that at the start of the semester, students are absolutely bombarded with information. They will receive multiple syllabus and each of these syllabus might include or not include this information in multiple different (and often conflicting!) ways.  

They will therefore be trying to read multiple overstuffed syllabus in a short period of time while often juggling a part-time job, caring responsibilities, health issues etc. The more we bombard them with potentially duplicate information, the more we reduce the novelty of the information and the more likely they are to skim it or simply not read it.  We already know that a significant portion of students never read the syllabus – how can making it longer help? 

Therefore a syllabus should always be unique and it’s unique because it contains only information about that module/course itself and does not duplicate information provided elsewhere.  As a result, it should also be really short (There are far more effective ways to provide things like reading lists at the point of need). 

Problems with stuffing – Domain expertise

Most academics are not mental health professionals or indeed experts in anything outside their own field.  I’ve read many course syllabus that contain a range of helpful non-academic material and it often:

  • Simply wrong
  • Slightly right but out of date
  • Differs from current best practice in the University
  • Differs from current best practice as provided by actual specialists
  • Provides URLs that are bust and go nowhere

This is all done with good intentions but it is a outcome of the ‘academics should be specialists in everything’ mess that academia is currently in. We might be the right people to point students in the direction of the information, we generally aren’t the right people to write it. There are always better placed people with specific domain expertise who can provide this. 

This can add to the student of information overload because the presentation or complexity of the language we use might be inappropriate for the message we are trying to convey. 

Even if you individually provide information you are happy with, how do you know that your fellow academics are doing the same? How does the student determine if the information you provide is correct or the information they provide is correct? 

Alternatives to stuffing

So if we aren’t stuffing – what are we doing? Well the answer is – academics should facilitate access to useful information but they not create it and they should not own it. Individual academics acting as information silos is a terrible idea.  This requires a bit of joined up thinking from Universities.

  • Each important bit of information (say Mental health) should have an owner – they provided the canonical source of information. 
  • This information should never be provided as a word document and never provided in an email – as soon as you create a word document, you create drift and some student somewhere will be provided with out of date information an academic has saved on their desktop.
  • You need the help of good web-designers, buy-in from support teams to provide a very simple top level portal which provides this information.

The role of the  *individual* academic is then to facilitate access to this information. The role of the *department/University* is to work out the best way for this to happen.  Stuffing the syllabus is to me the wrong level of abstraction.  It also creates uncertainty (another aspect of information overload) because students become unsure about the ‘purpose’ of documents – are they academic documents, support documents, administrative documents?  

At the moment (and this shift overtime) – my preferred method is to have a tab at the top level of the VLE on each individual course. Students might not read everything but they will see this each time they log-on. All the tab does is redirect to the portal.  

In this method, I’m happy that students always have the correct most upto date information and also new staff also have the most update correct information rather than receiving what might be out of date information second-hand from other staff. 

There is also an issue of staff workload that I’m only going to touch on briefly – this system to me is more equal because it stops a syllabus creating the impression (because staff have stuffed their syllabus with ‘helpful’ stuff) that THIS staff member is about serious academic stuff because they don’t include this information and THAT staff member is the likely candidate for emotional labour because they do.  Changing how and where this information is provided enforces that this is a collective not individual responsibility. 

 

Some quick thoughts on being an academic manager

So on the 1st of January I became an academic manager – my rather grand sounding title at Edge Hill University Business School is Associate Director – Student Experience. Now the interesting thing is that while academics will discuss pretty much anything openly the only conversations I can find online are reflections about academic managers not reflections from academic managers. That is a shame because there are excellent peer networks on places like twitter for ECRs and others but absolutely nothing for academic managers. 

With that in mind, some early thoughts:

  • Your email traffic as an academic is out of control. As an academic manager, I think the volumes of emails I received went up four-fold in the first week. My response to that has to be try and move staff away from round-robin emails to shared online documents. It’s early days but it’s making some difference. 
  • You suddenly get copied into everything. See above.
  • Your peer group shifts around you. The peer I recognised as my peers now don’t see me as their peer and people I didn’t now do. It’s a shift and I’ll write more about this.
  • I only work monday to friday, 9am-5pm. This one has been hard but so far I’ve held the line. You just have to accept there you cannot do it all.
  • Your diary becomes a fiction. No matter what you plan, in a Business School with thousands of students, stuff happens and stuff happens that you have to deal with now
  • Your diary is no longer your diary. Things just appear in it. 
  • People think you have awesome power. Actually you have awesome responsibilities and how to work out how to do it.
  • You have to learn to say “I’ll think about that”. 
  • You never read your emails after 5pm. Just don’t.

Is this a whine? Not at all, I’m enjoying the job greatly (and let’s not lie to each other – the extra money) and it’s been obvious for a while that my career was going this way. However it would be great to see some more networking for us academic manager types. I have already developed a good network in my own University but it would be great to see that extended outside in the online space.