Think like a Professor! — or, how to defeat syllabus boredom

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

It’s the beginning of the semester for most university professors. Do you dread having to stand in front of your students reading from your course outline? Do you feel it’s a futile gesture, knowing that many of them will forget or ignore the information in the syllabus? In order to defeat the boredom of the syllabus run-through, I’ve devised an exercise called “Think Like a Professor!” that I’ve been using with my first-year classes for several years now. It gets students reading, analyzing, and applying information from the very first day of the course while giving you insight into their attitudes and values. It enables students to become more aware of how their actions are perceived by faculty and to understand the reasons for various course policies. And it should model for students the kind of collaborative and respectful interactions that you are aiming for in your course.

My discussion of this exercise was published in the 2010 Atlantic Universities’ Teaching Showcase Proceedings. I reprint the first 3 paragraphs here; if you want to read the rest of the essay, follow this link and scroll to page 55 in the pdf.


Anna Smol, “Think Like a Professor!: Student and Faculty Perceptions of Course Policies.” Atlantic Universities Teaching Showcase Proceedings 2010. Vol. XIV. Ed. Shannon Murray. 55-59.

It’s the first day of class, and we all know the drill. The course outlines, with requirements, expectations, and policies detailing how your course will be run, must be handed out. You need to get your students to read what must look to them like the fine print of a long contract – one of several outlines they’ll be collecting in the first couple of days. Especially for first-year students just out of high school, course outlines may present a confusing array of do’s and don’ts: all assignments must use APA, or was that MLA? No late papers will be accepted, but sometimes late papers will have points deducted. You must have a note for absences, but some profs don’t take attendance. You have to write all the assignments to pass, but didn’t someone say that you could do extra assignments for additional credit?

For the course instructor, the necessity of going over the course outline can deflate the liveliest of introductory classes. You may find yourself standing in front of the class on the first day, plodding through each requirement and every policy statement, declaiming against errors and misdemeanours while your students’ eyes glaze over. Or, you can hand out the course outlines and tell your students to read through them on their own – in theory, not an unreasonable expectation; in practice, one that seldom works.

To enliven these introductory classes – both for my sake and my students’ – I present an exercise that pulls students out of their passive role as receptacles of course information, puts them in my place, and asks them to apply my course policies in various scenarios – in other words, to “Think Like a Professor!” Their task is to imagine that they are the professor of our course and have written the course outline, including all of its policies, expectations, and requirements, and that they will now be faced with various situations, all based on actual events, in which they will have to apply the rules of the course. The exercise serves many purposes: to introduce students to each other; to start developing constructive, collaborative discussions among students; to encourage them to read a text closely; to direct them to a knowledge of the rules and regulations of the course, and to gain some understanding of academic life. The benefits of the assignment are reciprocal: as the instructor, you gain insight into some of the beliefs and practices of your students. Sometimes, you may realize that you have to explain issues or revise requirements that you thought were clear and complete; at other times, your students can advise you on ways to deal with difficult problems. You may be asking your students to “think like a professor,” but this exercise also gives you access to
thinking like a student.


To read  more about this exercise and the issues that it raises, please follow this link and scroll to page 55.

If you have any other suggestions for overcoming syllabus boredom, please add them to the comments!

4 responses to “Think like a Professor! — or, how to defeat syllabus boredom”

  1. I wish I had read this a few days ago! Alas! I was the professor at the front of the room, deeply surprising my urge to mumble “Yes, I know, I’m bored too” as I droned through my policies. What a great idea, thank you for sharing it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: