Online course syllabi would help students choose courses

Two SU Senators, junior Jake Novick and sophomore Joseph Marcus, are currently attempting to gather course syllabi in an online format that would allow Wash. U. students to gain deeper insight into the content and format of potential courses before registration. Though Novick and Marcus have gathered approximately 400 syllabi to date, they view their current work as a “test case,” and will need the support of professors and academic departments to make the project a reality.

We believe that the ideas behind this initiative should be cause for faculty support. Currently, many Wash. U. students treat the first two weeks of the semester as a course-shopping period, sampling several classes before they decide on the ones they most prefer. While the University has rightfully chosen to allow students to drop classes during that time without penalty, there are other negative consequences to the prevalence of course shopping.

Over-registration, encouraged by uncertainty about course content, causes long waitlists that discourage truly interested students with later registration times from signing up for a particular course. Moreover, the need to return books from courses dropped during the shopping period can prevent students from seeking cheaper alternatives, such as the Lock and Chain book sale and online providers.

Perhaps most importantly, students who sign up for multiple courses during the same time slot disturb the academic lives of both themselves and their classmates. They often start the semester behind because of the classes they inevitably miss. Professors often waste valuable class time redistributing syllabi, adjusting the class roster and even delaying the instruction of important material until class attendance stabilizes.

Finally, these hurdles prevent many students from course shopping in the first place and, as a result, many students feel forced to take classes that do not meet their expectations. Posting past course syllabi online would be a much-needed alternative.

Students who wish to experience a class or professor in person before deciding on their final course schedule should still have the option of doing so, but those who wish to avoid unnecessary course shopping should have access to as much information as possible in order to make better decisions.

While we know that syllabi change from year to year, past syllabi still give a helpful—if incomplete—picture of what students can expect. Course descriptions are often too short and too unfocused to provide much insight into the content of the course. Syllabi contain course outlines, reading lists, and information about expectations that can prove much more helpful in making a decision. Making this information available earlier would make it easier for students to take classes that truly interest them. Reading lists in particular could help students avoid classes that repeat material they have already learned.

Access to past course requirements would also better help students manage their course loads and strike the right individual balance between tests, papers and other projects. Although we do not believe students should choose classes based solely on the workload, more realistic expectations about coursework would allow students to concentrate their time in the areas they care about most. We believe that the quality of student work would improve as a result.

Course descriptions are too short; course evaluations, while helpful, do not fully describe course content or requirements; and sources like ratemyprofessor.com and student gossip are notoriously subjective and unreliable. Professors should support granting students more information to better enable students to take the classes that interest them most.