Stories from
the trenches

Why don’t students follow the syllabus?

International faculty member, CMU-Pittsburgh

Like all instructors in the U.S., I provide my students with a syllabus that spells out my assignments and due dates. I expect my students to follow it. But last semester, I had a problem I didn’t anticipate. There were 5 students in my class from the same country. They attended class regularly and seemed to be doing fine, but I realized when I was computing my mid-semester grades that none of them had done any of the assigned homework. I called one student into my office and told him he was already seriously behind in the class. I expected him to be apologetic or make excuses, but instead, he was aghast. He said he had no idea that the homework was required.

As we talked, I came to realize that my student had a different set of assumptions about the syllabus and its contents than I did. In his country, he explained, the only thing that mattered was the final exam and students made their own decisions about how to prepare for it. If instructors gave practice problems or interim assignments at all (which they rarely did), it was understood that these assignments were optional. He’d assumed that the same rules applied in the U.S., and treated the syllabus assignments as suggestions rather than requirements. Talking to him, I realized that in future semesters I’m going to have to teach students how to use my syllabus, and not assume they know what I intend.

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