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New syllabus policy sets out standards

By Molly Chiu     2/1/12 6:00pm

Starting next fall, any ambiguity about course requirements will be cleared up on the first day of classes. The Faculty Senate recently passed a resolution presented by the Student Association and endorsed by the University Committee on Undergraduate Curriculum that will require faculty to provide a syllabus to students on the first day of classes.

The policy requires that all syllabi meet 11 basic requirements, including a course outline, grading policies and overall course expectations.

The idea for creating syllabus standards originated last year with current Jones College President and then Jones Senator Steven Boswell.

"The syllabi standards project was birthed from the idea that clear expectations between faculty and students are paramount to the educational experience," Boswell said.

Boswell said he found that the lack of clarity and continuity in syllabi frustrated many students' post-undergraduate plans.

"Many students at Rice who intend to apply for graduate school are disadvantaged by our lack of a syllabi standards policy because it becomes much more difficult, if not outright impossible, for them to give the names of textbooks used in specific courses," Boswell said. "Alumni had also complained to administrators that this problem had hampered them in their efforts to pass the patent bar."

Faculty Senate Speaker Susan McIntosh said the Faculty Senate chose to approve the policy for a variety of reasons. For example, the Committee on Examinations and Standing hears a number of cases every year which involve situations for which no syllabus or a grossly inadequate syllabus was provided, according to McIntosh. In addition, the information required by the policy aligns with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools requirements and the minimal requirements already established at other universities, McIntosh noted.

McIntosh said that the Faculty Senate will work with the Office of the Provost to find the most efficient way to enforce the policy next fall. She added that it is an important step in assuring transparency in their dealings with students, many of whom have heavy course loads and need to plan their work based on schedules and expectations that are set out clearly in the syllabus at the beginning of the semester.

"I and many, if not most, of my faculty colleagues already provide this information in our course syllabi, and this policy will not require any change in what we do," McIntosh said.

According to current Jones Senator Nick Rizopoulos, who has been working with Boswell on the project for the past year, the next goal is to create an archive of past course syllabi, possibly available via ESTHER course and instructor evaluations. However, this may take some time to achieve.

"Administrative Systems has implied that this is not an easy task, and the Faculty Senate decided that the archiving of syllabi on ESTHER is not something they can mandate," Rizopoulos said. "Despite this hindrance, archiving syllabi is something that is not only convenient for students registering, but absolutely necessary for the university and its departments to be re-accredited in the future."

Rizopoulos and Boswell said the passing of the policy is the result of a group effort with help from McIntosh and the Faculty Senate, Registrar David Tenney, Committee on the Undergraduate Curriculum Chair Jeff Kripal, Associate Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness John Cornwell, former SA President Selim Sheikh and current SA President Georgia Lagoudas.

"This is a huge victory not only for students but for the faculty and administrators who work tirelessly to ensure that Rice is the foremost place to receive an undergraduate education," Boswell said.

Wiess College sophomore Jay Becton said he was glad that the policy had passed.

"I've had a class where [the syllabus] changed in the middle of the year, and it was confusing and frustrating," Becton said. "I'm for any regulation that maintains a general clarity without causing teachers too much stress."

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