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“5 page minimum, 12 point Times New Roman, double-spaced, one inch margins, with 0pt spacing between paragraphs and your name in the upper right-hand corner of the first page.”

Teachers go to great lengths in their syllabi to ensure that students are actually doing course work rather than (ab)using loopholes to meet the minimum requirements. At its worst, students might try to skirt class rules and point to the syllabus as justification. However, students also receive syllabi from a number of professors every semester (each with a different set of policies), so clarity is essential even for students simply trying to succeed in the course. Aside from serving as a contract between the teacher and student, having a syllabus void of loopholes, pitfalls, and ambiguity just reduces headaches and confusion for all. This post points out five common sources of ambiguity in course policies and offers tips on how to fix that ambiguity, short of having a syllabus that is a legalistic tome of 50 pages.

  1. “Assignment is due at midnight on…” If you are having students turn in assignments in the middle of the night, make a slight change to specify 11:59pm instead of midnight, which students could interpret as the morning of or the morning after the due date. Whenever your assignments are due, consider offering instructions as to how students should turn them in (by email, in class, online, etc.). If you are accepting electronic assignments, will you accept work delayed by incorrect attachments, computer malfunctions, or other technological excuses? Also be certain to clarify whether reading assignments are to be completed before class on the day they are listed on the syllabus or are assigned for the next class period.
  2. Assignment length. Teachers have seen everything: 2.5 spacing, making punctuation larger, anything to get over the page minimum (or under the page maximum). If you want students to be able to write papers of a certain length, consider specifying a word minimum/maximum instead of a specific number of pages. (As a loose guideline, one double-spaced page is approximately 250 words.) If page length is less important to you then content, you should also communicate that to your students.
  3. Makeup work and rewrites. Will you accept makeup work if a student misses class on a particular day? If so, when is that makeup work due? If they are going to miss class on the day an assignment is due, how should they submit it to you?
  4. Attendance. If you have an attendance policy, when during the class do you take attendance? How long does a student have to be in class for their attendance to “count?” Consider counting attendance as part of participation to reduce the emphasis on merely showing up.
  5. Grading. Some of the stickiest points involving grading include: whether/how you will round grades, whether you will grade on a curve (and how that curve is constructed), whether students need to complete certain assignments to pass the course, and whether/how students can ask for a re-grade of any assignments. Grading is one of the largest sources of anxiety and ambiguity for students; in your syllabi, assignments, and rubrics, try to be as clear as possible, even if it seems unnecessary to you.

With these and other potential loopholes, it may be tempting to fill your syllabus with rules for every possible scenario. While it is wise to write clearly in your syllabus, include the policies that are most important to you, and leave out any policies that you are not comfortable enforcing or that can be addressed in other course handouts. Furthermore, allow room to expand on the syllabus by including a statement reserving the right to make changes if they will benefit the student. Finally, have a trusted friend or advisor look over your syllabus for potential loopholes or sources of ambiguity.

What should you do if a student finds a loophole?

Amber Comer suggests that, as in the legal system, teachers with students who have exploited a loophole in the syllabus should “(reluctantly) set the students free” and fix the loophole before the next semester. You can also open up conversations about the syllabus with your students to determine the appropriate course of action or get students involved in forming course policies. Syllabi are consistently changing, so treat each semester as a learning experience to reduce loopholes, pitfalls, and ambiguity in the future.

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