For private schools and colleges, retaining students is an ongoing challenge. This is particularly true of schools and colleges who cater to minority and “first time/first in college” students; students without strong support structures or realistic expectations about the educational experience. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues by forcing students and faculty into online classes with little or no training or preparation. In this post, we explore the value of an inclusive syllabus in helping retain students.
Student retention has been studied extensively over the last 50 years (McHanon, 2021). Retention is important to institutions for financial stability and to students, as graduates will earn more and benefit from a completed educational program. Yet for all the research, students continue to drop out for a variety of reasons. Among these are low academic skills and low family income (Braunstein and McGrath, 1997), poor social networks (DeBerard, Spielmans and Julka, 2004) and poor integration into the college community (Tinto, 1975). Schools have attempted numerous fixes to address the retention issue, often at great cost. These include college sponsored tutoring, first year experience programs, improved advising, improved orientation programs and the hiring of retention coordinators (McHanon, 2021). Yet one simple solution may lie in a document that every teacher and student is familiar with: the course syllabus.
For many students, and particularly for online students, the syllabus may be the first interaction that they have with the course materials and the instructor. Unfortunately, many syllabi are part of the “hidden curriculum”; those unwritten norms, messages, rules, and hidden biases biases that are implicit in the syllabus (Weimer 2012), but not well recognized by minority and “first in family” college students.
Research shows that a learning focused syllabus positively impacts student motivation and improves course engagement. However, most syllabi end up not as guides to successful learning experiences, but as highly contractual, litigious, rule based documents that often define the student-faculty relationship in adversarial terms. (Weimer, 2012).
As you consider the syllabi that you create, what are the messages that you are sending to your students? Take for example this passage from a traditional syllabus:
“I only accept work that is turned in by the deadline. Late submissions are NOT allowed. If you have a medical excuse for missing an assignment, then you must complete the makeup work in a timely fashion in order to receive credit. Late work receives a 40% penalty.”
Now, reflect on that statement for a moment. If you were a first time student, how would that make you feel? Do you feel like a valued member of the academic community or a rule breaker?
In considering the reaction to this policy, students are likely to feel pressure to submit their work on time or get zero credit. A student with limited internet connection may decide it is too risky to stay in this class as they would not be assured of getting all assignments turned in on time. Likewise, a student with unreliable transportation may be more likely to drop the class because they may not feel confident about getting to class every day. Dropping classes puts their financial aid at risk and makes the whole experience of attending college difficult. Additionally, students likely consider the 40% penalty for being sick unfair, particularly at risk students who are least likely to have access to medical care.
In this case this seemingly innocuous and very common “late penalty” policy, is actually a possible trigger for a retention problem. But, what if you could re-phrase the late work concept to be a learning moment, and make the student feel welcome and a valued member of the class. Perhaps it could be rephrased as follows:
“Timely submittal of work is important as deadlines are an Important aspect of working life. To better prepare you for the workplace I have set up a late policy for assignments. In general you will have at least two weeks to work on every assignment. There is a deadline for each assignment; but late work is accepted. Once the deadline has passed a late penalty of 5% per day will be assessed up to 40% of the grade. You are encouraged to turn in work even if it late.
If you miss an assignment owing to illness, please provide a physician’s note and late penalties will be waived and a new deadline created for you.
If a situation arises that prohibits you from completing assignments for an extended period of time please contact me so we can set up a conference to discuss your particular situation.”
A course syllabus plays many important roles, but the traditional syllabus tends to be content focused stating what the course will accomplish, what the instructor will teach, with lengthy explanations of all the rules the student must follow. Instead, consider drafting an inclusive syllabi; one that integrates the student more firmly into the course, and is learning focused. A learning focused, inclusive, syllabus will 1) clearly identify what the student will learn 2) identify what the class, collectively, will accomplish and 3) identify what the student should do to be successful. The focus is on learning and participating rather than on penalties for non-compliance.
As you consider creating your syllabus for the next term, ask yourself, “is my syllabus a tool for student success or an anti-retention time bomb waiting to be set off?” A careful review of your syllabi will likely identify numerous policies that can be modified to create an inclusive and learning focused document that welcomes and motivates students and leads to more successful outcomes.
For assistance with creating inclusive syllabi or for inclusive syllabi training, contact us 407-949-2431 or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Angley is the managing partner at Cole Middleton Group. Dr. Angley is a professor and former administrator and school owner with more that 30 years of experience in higher education.
Braunstein, A. & McGrath, M. (1997). The retention of freshman students: An examination of the assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions. College Student Journal, 31(2), 188–200. Retrieved April 4, 2009 from EBSCO online database Academic Search Complete: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9708155384&site=ehost-live
DeBerard, M., Spielmans, G., & Julka, D. (2004). Predictors of academic achievement and retention among college freshmen: A longitudinal study. College Student Journal, 38(1), 66–80. Retrieved April 1, 2009, from EBSCO online database Academic Search Complete: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=12844795&site=ehost-live
McMahon, M. (2021) ‘Student Retention’, Salem Press Encyclopedia. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=ers&AN=89164477&site=eds-live (Accessed: 12 July 2021).
Tinto, Vincent, Dropout from higher education: a theoretical synthesis of recent research,Review of Educational Research; Winter75, Vol. 45, p89-125, 37p
Mary Ellen Weimer, You Tube Presentation, https://youtu.be/EgES0_pZRAg. Nov 12, 2012