Blog Archives

Why Policies Fail to Promote Better Learning Decisions

This week’s post is an article I wrote for Faculty Focus.  You can find the original here:

Policies are necessary. They serve as a warning to students: this is what will happen if you are absent, miss an exam, turn work in late, text or surf the Web during class, and the like. Most institutions recommend teachers spell out consequences in their syllabi. Some schools employ institution-wide policies for certain behaviors like academic dishonesty. If policies are supposed to prevent these unproductive behaviors, why do students still engage in them? Are there reasons why policies don’t work?

Policies don’t teach students why these behaviors hurt their effort to learn. Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, many students believe their learning is unaffected by technology distractions. “No screens” policies are aimed, at least in part, to minimize distractions that hurt learning (their own and peers’). But policies aren’t nearly as powerful as an activity that demonstrates the effects of distraction.

Split the class into two groups. One is allowed to text; the other turns phones off. After the lecture, students complete a short quiz. Ellis, Daniels, and Jauregui (2010) report students in the phones off group score significantly higher. Differences in points or scores will grab students’ attention and are more likely to get them thinking about their mobile technology use in and out of class than a “no screens” policy.

Policies tend to be reactive, not proactive. A student engages in a behavior that isn’t addressed in the syllabus. A common reaction is to add a new policy or rewrite the existing one for the following term. The syllabus grows by a few lines. But the new policy assumes future students will behave the same way. Different students may behave in different ways, again, not covered in the policy. And the student whose negative learning behavior precipitated the new policy may not be in future courses. Has the new policy accomplished anything for that student?

Sometimes these behaviors are one-offs. No policy fix is necessary. Generally, a “new” negative learning behavior would be more effectively addressed if the teacher talked with the student individually or thought about what may have caused the behavior, and then identified strategies to prevent it. Adding or editing policies is a quick fix, but not one that advances student learning.

Policies that attempt to cover every possible scenario encourage loophole finding. (Think IRS tax code.) The focus is on grades, lost points, and consequences, instead of on learning and the learner. Highly punitive policies may encourage fraudulent excuse-making. Meanwhile, inflexible policies often have an implied message that’s probably unintentional: “I don’t care what is going on in your life. This is the rule. Deal with it.”

Learning is personal. Harsh language and rigid rules diminish community and send a message of distrust, and generally suggest teachers don’t believe students will do work without the threat of penalties. Worse, these policies suggest faculty don’t believe the best about students. This leads to students believing teachers don’t like or care for them.

A focus on rules and policies shifts interest away from learning. One way to redirect attention is to share the learning and professional rationales that underpin deadlines and policies. Provide opportunities for students to have input about some assignment details or a few due dates. A policy students help to shape is one they own, and one they are more likely to live up to.

Policies are unsupportive of students’ efforts to become self-directed learners. Policies, especially those with harsh consequences, may reduce the number of times students arrive to class late or show up unprepared. But what happens when the policy stick (or carrot, for that matter) is removed? If students are only behaving in a certain way because of a penalty or reward, what have they learned about the value of the behavior (like reading) as part of learning?

Fortunately, there are teacher practices that help students mature as learners while promoting positive learning behaviors. Teachers can incorporate homework logs, assign learning reflections, facilitate student goal setting and project planning, and employ contract grading. Each of these strategies increases student ownership of learning and advances their development as independent learners.

Consider how a strict policy commands attendance. Instead, or in addition to policy, provide data that shows the negative correlation between the number of absences and exam scores. Or, provide the dates specific topics and concepts were covered and tell students the dates they were absent. If students see that they lost points on topics that were learned during their absence, they can see the consequence of skipping class. This kind of evidence teaches more about the value of attending class than does a policy requiring it.

Supplement course deadlines with a conversation about learning behaviors like procrastination and time management. Share your own strategies for juggling multiple responsibilities and meeting short- and long-term commitments. Could students share their successful and not-so-successful time management experiences? Have students been asked what would help them get the work done in a timely way? Discussions about punctuality, procrastination, and time management advance students’ understanding of how they work and learn.

Policies are necessary. It’s important for students to understand what is expected of them and the consequences when they fall short. But to develop students as independent and mature learners, teachers need to go beyond policies and employ strategies and practices that allow students to learn from their behaviors, not just suffer the consequences.


Ellis, Y., Daniels, B., and Jauregui, A. 2010. The effect of multitasking on grade performance of business students. Research in Higher Education Journal. Retrieved from:

Content Slavery: Causes & Solutions

Content Slavery: Causes

Why is managing content so challenging? Just when I think “I’ve got this…” Boom! I end up drowning a class in too much content. I think the problem has roots in love for our discipline. Here’s an example. My husband, working with a friend and mentor, is building a strip canoe. The boat is still in the early stages, but already it’s a thing of beauty. It’s also a magnet, attracting curious boaters and neighbors who’ve spied, through our open garage door, a 16-foot creation slowly taking shape. Like a Field of Dreams moment, “If you build it, he will come…” neighbors have been making the pilgrimage to our garage to chat with the boat builder. Each time, the conversation stretches for 30-60 minutes as my husband explains the intricacies of the process, what he’s learned, who’s he’s working with, etc. Dinner has been late several times because of engaging discussions and lengthy answers about the canoe.  Is it any wonder that we lecture too much or answer questions in excessive length? If you love something, you are more than happy to share what you know.

Another reason our courses are overloaded with content is many teachers don’t really believe there’s such a thing as “too much content.” In some cases, we rationalize by disciplinary expectations. Nurses: Which system of the body do you suggest we not cover: Circulatory? Renal? Pulmonary? Engineers: ABET accreditation requires it. Technical fields with licensing: We have to teach all of this for our students to be able to pass state boards.

In other cases, we just haven’t spent enough time carefully considering how much is appropriate. What’s necessary? What’s nice to know? What’s unnecessary? All content isn’t equal. Not to mention, just because we cover it, doesn’t mean students have learned it. I’m not suggesting necessary content should be cut, but rather that teachers should be really thoughtful and intentional about depth and breadth of content.

Sometimes teachers use content as defense. A class period crammed full of content leaves little room for students to think, let alone ask questions. The period follows a script; the teacher is in control. Applying this strategy, the teacher can claim the content was “taught” or “covered.” But that line of thinking leaves out learning, or perhaps just assumes that learning has occurred.  Or worse, this view reduces teaching to content delivery, as if presenting information and teaching are the same thing.


Content Slavery- Solutions

What can we do to break the chains of content slavery?  I recently covered too much in accounting.  My response was to follow up with an apology and a few changes.  I thought about how our class got overwhelmed and what I could do to get us back on track. Damage control in this case, included a very early morning email to the class. I apologized for the tidal wave of content presented at the expense of their understanding. Then, I backed up that apology with some changes in the next homework assignment. I cut out some new material, postponed some, and revisited some of the work that was rushed.

Preventing content overload is a better strategy than trying to recover from a bad class. One strategy I’ve used relates to Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo asks us to gather all similar items and then question each one: Does this “bring joy?”  This is her criteria for deciding what to keep or purge when de-cluttering.  Items that don’t bring joy get donated or thrown away.

This concept can be adapted to teaching and is particularly helpful in course planning. Ask “Will this content develop students professionally/personally/academically?” Purging joyless topics makes space in the course for the most important content.  Identify content that can be eliminated (purging from the course) or donated (adding them to recommended reading, or making them extra credit assignments).  Clearing out clutter is liberating.  Imagine the teaching power and confidence that comes from focusing on the most academically vital material.

What if your content simply can’t be cut? Then consider delivery. In what areas is lecture optimal? What about video? Are guest speakers an effective strategy?  Can some content be explored independently? What needs to happen in class?  What doesn’t? How might students be included in some of the decisions about delivery? About content?

Going forward, I want to continue striving for balance between adequate breadth of coverage and deeper understanding. Some folks speak of “uncovering content” with students, as opposed to “covering it.” Others remind us “telling isn’t teaching.” In my case, I’m going to try to follow “more isn’t always better, sometimes it’s just more” (paraphrase of Sabrina Fairchild, in Sabrina).

What are your thoughts on the crush of content? How do you manage the balance between quality of learning and the quantity learned?

Learner-Centered Syllabi

This is reprint of Mary Bart’s Faculty Focus article summarizing an interview I gave in the spring.  Enjoy!

At its most basic level, the syllabus is used to communicate information about the course, the instructor, learning objectives, assignments, grading policies, due dates, the university’s academic integrity statement, and, in some cases, an increasingly long list of strongly worded admonitions on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in the college classroom.

For some faculty, the syllabus is a contract between them and their students, complete with a dotted line where students sign their name indicating they consent to the terms of the agreement. Lolita Paff, an associate professor at Penn State Berks, is a reformed syllabus-as-a-contract believer.

“I will confess, as a former business professional, I did view the syllabus as a contract,” said Paff. “But when you really think about a contract, and you have someone sign a contract, that, by nature, sets up an adversarial relationship. The implied message is, ‘I don’t expect that you’re going to live up to this unless I have it in writing.’ That used to be the tone in my classroom—it’s not the tone anymore. That approach doesn’t foster a good learning environment.”

What is a learner-centered syllabus?
Today, Paff takes a more learner-centered approach to her syllabi. A learner-centered syllabus can take many forms, but it often includes one or more of these features:

A rationale for course objectives and assignments. A syllabus can be used to set the stage and the context for the course and where it sits within the discipline. Paff encourages faculty to be intentional about what is and isn’t included in the course, and then share that with students. Why are these assignments a part of the course? Why are we studying this particular topic?

Shared decision making. In some cases, a learner-centered syllabus means allowing students to have some say in course policies and procedures. Depending on the course and the students, Paff allows some flexibility in decision making for assignment weights and options. While first-year students typically won’t have the maturity to make these types of decisions, juniors and seniors can often thrive when given some choice in how they will demonstrate their learning.

Warnings of potential pitfalls. There are often certain components of a course that students find more difficult than others. Giving students a heads-up of what to look out for or behaviors that could impede success (e.g., “You really want to look out for X, and here’s a strategy so that it doesn’t happen.”) can go a long way. “That advice is going to be well received by students,” said Paff. “It sets the stage that the teacher really cares about them, not just what’s going to be covered and what’s expected of them, but that you’re in this together.”

An opportunity for students to set teacher expectations. On the first day of class, as Paff goes over the syllabus and outlines her expectations for students, she asks what they expect of her. The students break into groups to discuss past learning experiences and offer up one or two policies that they think will help them learn, which Paff types into a document during the exercise. Throughout the semester, the class revisits the students’ recommendations. “I might say, ‘See, you asked me to provide review sessions, so I’m extending my office hours before the next exam,’” Paff explained. “It’s another opportunity to talk about what we are learning, where we are in the course, what our expectations were for the class, and how are we progressing.”

Recommendations for staying on track. Every syllabus includes a course calendar, but a learner-centered syllabus could also provide guidance on how to tackle specific projects—from how much time something will take to strategies for gathering the necessary resources, Paff said. In addition, students might also need help in evaluating and monitoring their progress throughout the course.

“When it comes to a learner-centered syllabus vs. a traditional syllabus, it’s not really a difference so much in content as it is in tone,” said Paff. “There’s a shift in emphasis from ‘What are we going to cover?’ to ‘How can the course promote learning and intellectual development in students?’ So it’s going to contain roughly the same information, but the language used to convey the policies, procedures, and content is different in order to foster a more engaging and shared learning environment.”

How long should a syllabus be?
One of the big questions faculty have regarding their syllabi centers on length. While there is no hard-and-fast rule about the optimal length of a syllabus, there is often a tendency for policy creep to push the page count higher than necessary as faculty try to anticipate every possible scenario that could occur throughout the semester.

“My syllabi started off at two to three pages, and then as I tried to close every loophole that would develop, it grew, and grew, and grew to the point where I had an entire page on nothing but classroom policies and procedures for missed exams and absences, and how I wanted homework submitted, and it grew to this five-page detailed tome,” said Paff. “Now there’s nothing wrong with a four or five page syllabus, if it serves your purpose and it’s the kind of document that you revisit with students, and it’s one that sets a framework for learning.”

Rather than worry about syllabus length, Paff encourages faculty to think about the tone of the syllabus and the order of the content they’re presenting.

For example, consider the following course description she used in a syllabus years ago:

Econ102 is an introduction to microeconomic analyses and policies. Microeconomic deals with the behavior of individuals and firms and how the behavior is influenced by government policy. The principal objective of the course is to enable students to analyze major microeconomic issues, clearly and critically.

Now compare that to the description she uses now:

Why should you want to study microeconomics? Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of people in the ordinary business of life. Every choice you make, from what time to get up … whether or not to go to class … how long to study, or work, or how much to eat, or where to go on Thursday nights … ALL of it incorporates microeconomic principles. Microeconomics helps us to understand how people and firms make choices, how markets are organized, why and how markets behave differently, and the effects government interventions have in market outcomes. I LOVE this course, and I am hoping that by the end of the semester you will develop a deep appreciation for the subject.

“A lot of times I feel that students think that a course happens at them and they’re not truly engaged and a part of the learning experience,” Paff said. “If the syllabus is structured in a way and the content is delivered in a way that they’re an active part of what happens in the class, and they have some control over how they learn and what they learn, then the random arbitrariness of learning is minimized.”

With a new school year about to begin, take some time to reflect on how you would characterize the tone of your syllabus and what you could do to make it more learner-centered.

Link to the article, “A Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning” published, July 29, 2015.