One strategy to encourage students to engage with the course syllabus is to ask them to annotate the document together or individually. Creating an assignment and writing instructions for how to engage with the syllabus provides structure and expectations for how students should think about and use the document.
In addition to guiding students in reading the syllabus, such an activity can also build students' skill at close reading (see references below) which will benefit them throughout college and in their careers. Inviting students to ask questions to clarify their understanding of the syllabus also turns the syllabus into a living document that will help to set expectations and guide the class through the semester.
In a group assignment, students can view each other’s annotations and may spend more time reading the syllabus and have a deeper understanding because of the questions others ask. They may also learn the answers to questions they may not have thought to ask or were afraid to ask, especially if they are first generation college students or are newer college students, so this sort of activity can create a more equitable learning environment as well.
Before you select an annotation tool, think about how you will prompt your students to annotate the syllabus through an announcement, assignment, or discussion in Canvas. As you write these instructions, here are some items to include:
- the reason you want students to annotate the syllabus and how you hope it will benefit the class
- the type of comment that is acceptable (no private questions, since the document is shared)
- the duration of the annotation exercise (for example, if you will not be checking the document after the first week)
- how or when you will respond to questions (in the document vs. in-class or via discussion/announcement)
Next, select the type of annotation you will use.
Option 1: Shared Cloud Document
A shared cloud document (for example, a Google doc) allows students to comment easily but will not allow automatic grading. If the instructor wanted to assign a completion grade, they would need to check to see which students had engaged with the document and then assign points.
Option 2: Perusall Assignment
A syllabus can also be annotated using the Perusall learning tool which is integrated into Canvas. It is up to you whether you want this activity to be required/optional or graded/ungraded, and Perusall can assign points based on its assessment of student's engagement with the document.
Option 3: Individual Assignment
If an individual assignment is preferred, simply create an assignment in Canvas and ask students to download a copy of the syllabus (syllabus will need to be a document or PDF), add their own comments and questions, and then submit their annotated syllabus. It is now also possible to create an assignment that allows students to annotate directly in Canvas. For an individual annotation assignment, it may be helpful to make a list of common questions and then answer these via a recorded announcement or during class, responding individually only to students' unique or personal questions.
References and Additional Resources
- Annotated syllabi:
- Annotate the Syllabus Activity, Remi Kalir:
- Annotated Syllabus, Remi Kalir: This series of blog posts about syllabus annotation explains many of the benefits of this activity.
- Syllabus Annotation Exercise, University of Wisconsin Madison
- Close reading:
- Perusall instructions page, UF Instructional Tools
- UF Syllabus policy
- Center for Teaching Excellence Syllabus Resource Page