Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

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.

Other strategies

  • Plan your course carefully so that it includes all the readings, lecture content, activities, and assignments that students will need to learn the material. If you want students to do outside work, specify that on your syllabus.
  • Provide students with ample practice (problem sets, homework, low-stakes writing assignments) and early feedback. There are ways to do this that give students the practice and feedback they need without overwhelming you with grading.
  • Find out whether students in your class are accustomed to a syllabus, and (if they are) how they have used it in the past: as a suggested list of readings and activities? As a contract specifying course requirements? On the first day of class, go over your syllabus, and explain how you expect students to use it in relation to their previous experiences and assumptions.
  • When students ask you questions during the semester that are answered in the syllabus, direct them back to the syllabus rather than answering yourself. This helps to reinforce the syllabus’ purpose.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.