Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What a Student Can Do When a Prof Miscommunicates: The Late-Breaking Syllabus Change

I'm already breaking my own header restriction and blogging about the current quarter. It's only my third post!

I'm not "outing" any students, but rather, myself: 

"Hello, my name is Ellen, and I'm the miscommunicator."

Is it fair to solely focus this blog on student-committed communication errors when professors have their share of them, too? Hardly. So, here's my confession:

I'm teaching Public Speaking this quarter. I've taught it a zillion times in a bunch of different formats:  daily, twice a week, one evening a week, part-televised, fully online (won a national teaching award for that model--woo hoo!)... in a boat, with a goat.

(Just kidding about that last part).

I've never taught Public Speaking, once per week, for exactly two hours and thirteen minutes. 

When I put this schedule together months ago, I thought, "Hey, I taught my Interpersonal Class in the  2:13 time format. No problem!"

Here's what I failed to catch before my syllabus was in the hands of my students: 

-The other course was writing-heavy. This course is speaking-heavy.
-I have a total of 10-11 class sessions.
-I have 29 students.
-I need six speaking days for that many students.
-This leaves very little time to actually teach public speaking.

I. Screwed. Up.

I'm guilty of unintentionally miscommunicating the required assignments in the syllabus... because I'm now going to have to add to them. In my mind, adding more assignments and points outside of the syllabus is somewhat of a BPS:

Big Professor Sin.

Now, I'm hardly the first educator to make a late-breaking syllabus change. You've probably seen those  strategic "disclaimers" throughout profs' syllabi: "planned schedule," "tentative plan," "tentative assignments."

Professor translation: "In case I made an error of gargantuan proportions, I reserve the right to say, 'But it was just my tentative plan!'"

So what am I doing about the problem? 

I am deferring some of the in-class work to our online environment:  I'm adding a series of smaller assignments, related to more major assignments that students already have to do for my class. The assignments will have points attached. Why? Because, historically, students will not do work "just for fun." (Students reading, I totally welcome your rebuttal or thoughts on this!).

My oversight is actually a good thing: Students are going to have far more personalized attention from myself and their peers in the online environment. The new points will also be fairly easy to earn.

But I don't deny my students' perspective:
"Crap. She's giving us more work to do and now there are more points involved."
"Crap. I have to do more reading/writing on my own."

I explained my error to my students, both in an e-mail and in person. Hopefully, they understood. Many of them completed the first not-on-the-syllabus online assignment, which was due yesterday. I'm thrilled!

What's the communication lesson here?
Even long-time professors slip up when it comes to planning a class--for a number of reasons. The key is open communication about any changes that occur.

So, if your professor suddenly makes a major syllabus change, you have the right to question it if the professor's explanation is confusing, unclear, or unfair.

You have the right to know:
a)  Why the change was made and its purpose.
b)  In the case of new assignments, how the new assignments affect the grade weighting in the course and the overall points.
c)  If the change has any serious negative impact on you--I was taught in graduate school that syllabus changes should never negatively impact students.*

*Example: If a professor suddenly takes out all the written work and you are only graded on multiple-choice quizzes and a final exam. Obviously, unless you are a strong test-taker or you know the material well, you will have no other way to "show what you know" than to ace those quizzes/exams. Your grade could take a huge hit.

Here's what you can say:
Ask either in class--I bet five other students will be glad you did!--or talk to the professor privately, but be sure to use a questioning, rather than accusatory or angry tone:

"Professor, I understand you are adding some new assignments. I want to be certain that I'm clear on why these are being added and how they will help with what we're already studying/working on. What is the goal for these new assignments?"

You can also ask:
-"How will the points be counted for this additional work?"
-"How will this work be graded?" Sometimes, when professors add smaller assignments, they are meant to support major assignments. This means that they may not be subject to heavy grading, but instead, pass/fail (as in, if you turn in the assignments, you will get the points).

If something seems very wrong about the change being made, try to get further clarification from the professor.

If the answers still don't seem right (not as in that you just don't like the change, but that it actually doesn't seem fair or clear), you may have no choice but to meet with the head of your professor's department and see if that person can help. I know this isn't easy for students to do, but asserting yourself in college when situations seem realistically unjust will only give you good practice for other areas of your life where you need to do the same.

As for my situation, this wasn't the first curve ball caused by me or by forces outside of me. I've gotten thousands of students through this course successfully. History tells me that I will do so again.

Of course, my students have only known me for three weeks. I blubbed some assignments. They may not be so sure.

I'll do what I always strive to do:  Keep the lines of communication open. Listen to student concerns. Provide solid feedback. Encourage students through quarter's end.

I'm on it.

Are you wondering what to do about a professor's miscommunication? Have you experienced a syllabus game-changer? Comment about it or e-mail


  1. The problem one of my classes faces isn't the addition of work to the syllabus, but cutting back of material. The course is British literature for non-majors, and the original plan was to read and discuss a book or collection of smaller works each week of class (three credit hours split into an hour and fifteen minutes). My professor had admitted that it's almost too much material to cover in such a short amount of time. That reasoning, along with a few short-notice absences, meant we didn't get to everything he wanted, cutting back on our learning, though also lightening the workload a little bit (making for an easier A).

  2. Michael, thanks for the comment! Hmm... If the professor admitted that the material was too much to begin with, I wonder if he/she is the one putting together the required work for that course? Or, I wonder if it is a departmental requirement? Or, maybe that prof is new and has to work out some scheduling kinks?

    Of course, when the prof then has unexpected absences, this definitely requires a modification in workload (However, if the prof had online support for his class, students can conceivably keep going and you could have "processed" what you were reading in a discussion forum, etc.). I was taught that any changes should NEVER negatively adverse a student's grade, but what you note is a good point: It definitely affected learning, and that is not to be overlooked. Bravo to you for caring about that!

    Have you talked to this prof? Expressed your concerns about what your class missed or that what was planned wasn't realistic with the number of weeks? I would make sure this is noted in the course evaluation, also. Thank you for writing!!!

  3. To further give you an idea of how the class worked, our homework is to respond (jn a few paragraphs) to a prompt in a discussion board on Blackboard. This ordinarily could take place every week regardless of whether we have class or not, but for several weeks when class met as planned, he hadn't put up the forum topic by class time, and then simply said that it's time to move on to the next topic.

    I do think the professor is good; he helps open up the material to a new light and encourages us to think more and read more analytically. He understands that the class needs better planning, so I think not all hope is lost for future sections of the class that he teaches.

  4. Thanks for the context. That does make sense. Sounds like the prof has a handle on the content, but just needs to work with the scheduling. Sometimes a discussion forum can get quite overwhelming to grade, particularly if a prof wants to offer substantive comments. A few paragraphs would warrant a focused response from the prof, and that definitely takes some time. I've had to cut discussion forum work back, as well, so I could go for quality, rather than quantity :-).

  5. My professor changed the syllabus after the class was over. He said lab was worth 300 out of 850 in the syllabus, then after the class was over he changed the lab to 170 out of 720 because the average lab score was a 96% and he wanted to lower grades. This dropped me from a C to a D+ and now I'm not passing and will have to re-take the course. Also, right after the exams he told the class that he was adding 5 points to test 1 and a few points to test 2 because scores were low and then after the class was over he said he decided not to curve the tests afterall. I went to the head of physical sciences and the dean of math and science and they both told me they were siding with the professor and if I filled a formal grade challenge the same people that turned me away would be the ones deciding the final grade in the formal challenge process. This is happening at College of Marin in Kentfield, CA. What can I do?

    1. Hi, Joe,

      I'm going to respond to a version of this on my new blog site (this blog has moved, by the way...). But I'll also respond here.

      First of all, and I will give the disclaimer that I can only go by my own experiences and what I have been taught when I was in graduate school (and what I know from my 14 years of teaching):

      -If the syllabus had a particular points structure, the professor cannot change that to where it will do harm to students. If the points are too high and students did too "well," then the prof typically needs to just learn from that and know that maybe something was wrong with the instrument for the next term. However, without knowing the background of the whole situation, it's hard for me to say for certain, but as a general rule, a prof should not change a syllabus in a harming way, points-wise.

      -Secondly, if a prof agrees to curve a test, then I would say that just like any agreement, the prof should hold to that agreement, and not go back on his/her word. Did you inquire as to why the prof decided not to follow through? What was the reason for not curving the test?

      -When you went to the head of physical sciences, what was their rationale for "siding with the professor"?

      I would go back and say, "I hear that you're saying you feel the professor was correct in his actions, but in my understanding, the professor changed the syllabus and this deeply affected my grade. (You could mention the fact about the curved test, but this wasn't something that was 'required'--you have a stronger argument about the syllabus change). Can you please explain why I have no recourse in this situation?"

      Once you hear the department head's response, if you are still uncomfortable, I would say, "I respect what you are saying, but I respectfully disagree and would still like to file a grievance. Who is next in the chain of command?

      Likely, your next stop is going to be a dean. You are going to need to bring all of your documentation with you and have everything very clearly written out--all of the information regarding the syllabus change, your grades, etc.

      Your biggest argument is the syllabus change that affected your grade. I would see about going higher, if at all possible, but first, try to get some reasonable answers from the department head.


    2. PS. How did you find out that the prof changed the syllabus after the class was over? Did you get the D+ and go see the prof and ask what happened? Have you talked to other students from that class? I would definitely have them report out individually if the change affected their grades, too. Individual voices have a lot of power in a case like this. I wish you tremendous luck.

  6. I emailed the professor and he did not reply for a couple weeks so I went to the head of physical sciences. That professor talked to my instructor and then the head of physical sciences told me what my scores were and how many points they were out of. This information did not match the syllabus, so I pointed out this discrepancy in a reply email and he replied saying he was simply siding with the instructor. After emailing the head of math and science, I got a blanket email saying he was siding with the instructor as well. I also got an email from his secretary saying that I could pursue a formal grade challenge if I wanted to, but it won't help because the same 3 people would be the only ones looking at a formal grade challenge and respond the same way. I had a 71% in the class with no curve and the syllabus says a 70% or higher is a C, but I got a D+.

  7. I feel completely powerless to get the grade I earned.

  8. Joe,

    I'm going to respond to your comments here over on the other site:, but it's going to be a bit later today. I also want to tell you that we can correspond via e-mail: if you want to ask some more specific questions, too. I do have some feedback, but I didn't want to leave you hanging!


  9. What if, as a professor, you aren't changing the assessments, but shifting grade weights around? I am trying to ascertain if a professor who changed the weight on a 'final project' from 25% of final grade to 50% of final grade after the projects were submitted and after the final class was completed has done something I should report. This negatively affected many students, as the project universally got low grades.

  10. What if, as a professor, you aren't changing the assessments, but shifting grade weights around? I am trying to ascertain if a professor who changed the weight on a 'final project' from 25% of final grade to 50% of final grade after the projects were submitted and after the final class was completed has done something I should report. This negatively affected many students, as the project universally got low grades.

    1. Kylie, if there has been a deviation from the syllabus that harms the student, then, yes, that would be grounds for something to report. The syllabus is not a legal contract (but in some circumstances could be viewed as such); however, it is a "contract" in the sense that the percentage set forth is the percentage that student-professor agree to. A prof cannot suddenly decide that everyone did poorly, so they will change the percentage to cause more harm to a student's GPA.

      I had a term where students were missing my class a fair amount. I don't have a concrete attendance policy, though there is a participation grade. I couldn't suddenly implement an attendance policy just because I was concerned about student attendance. I hope this helps and I wish you luck! Ellen