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Three key pieces of syllabus information students seek before enrolling

We published an article based on a Fall 2023 survey about syllabi explaining why it’s important to make syllabi available on the Stanford Syllabus website: 57% of students look at syllabi to inform their enrollment decisions and the lack of a syllabus can negatively affect a student’s decision to enroll in a course. 

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A flyer advertising in 2016, Courtesy of Rosemary Knight.

While most courses do publish syllabi, many don’t post one before enrollment opens. According to 1,228 respondents, the most important factors students review syllabi for when they consider enrolling in a course are:

  1. Does this course match my goals?
    • Topics and learning objectives 
    • Required books and equipment
  2. How will this course affect my schedule this quarter?
    • Day of week homework is due
    • Due dates of major exams or assignments
  3. Can I be successful in this course?
    • How is grade calculated, grade and absence policies
    • Evidence of support (office hours, attendance policies)

These results largely correspond to CTL’s recommendations for optimizing the syllabus, but provide some details about the particular items that are important to students prior to the start of the course.

While students would no doubt prefer a full syllabus, if you haven’t worked out the details by the time enrollment opens, you might consider at least sharing a provisional one with this enrollment-relevant information, along with your contact information and the date by which you plan to post further detail.

Does this course match my goals?

Course content (e.g. topics, materials, interest, skills, concepts covered) and course objectives were cited most often as something students referred to in enrollment decisions. Students want to see learning objectives and topics in more detail than the standard course description to see if they match their own academic, research or career goals. 

Takeaway: If you don’t think you can finalize the full details of your assignments until just before the start of the quarter, consider sharing a few key details earlier such as 

  • Topics of lectures and discussions 
  • Skills students will gain 
  • Required books and/or equipment 

While a full list of readings is helpful, all required books or equipment should absolutely be included on the syllabus as early as possible so students can comparison shop online or plan on borrowing books from the library or friends.

How will this course affect my schedule this quarter?

Students indicated that anticipating the flow of their workload is important to planning their term, so a rough schedule and key dates is important. They aren’t afraid of work, but they want to anticipate or avoid situations in which they’d become overloaded at a particular time, such as having homework from multiple classes due on the same day, or too many major assignments or exams in the same week, or too many heavy courses in the same quarter.

Takeaway: If you don’t have the details of your assignments and readings, share what day of the week assignments will generally be due and when exams or major assignments are scheduled for. 

Can I be successful in this course?

Many respondents want to know your course’s grade policy and weighting as well as how much support they can expect from the teaching team through office hours. They also need clear course policies, especially around attendance which would especially help students with accommodations and athletes. A few also mentioned that the vibe or tone of the language in the syllabus can influence their decision to take a course or not.

Takeaways Let students know what the course grade will be based on, ideally with percentages, and how much flexibility they will have, for instance around attendance. Let them know how much support they can expect from you and your team, by including your and your TA’s office hours. Use supportive language.

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