Thanks to Student Assembly, syllabi are now available online

A Student Assembly resolution has led to a substantive improvement for students: Faculty can now make course syllabi available online before students enroll in classes.

The new syllabi feature became available June 16 on Cornell’s official Class Roster website, More than 200 syllabi have been uploaded to the site, with the hope that many more will be added throughout the summer.

“I think the students made a valid request in their Student Assembly resolution requesting this, and I am very pleased that we are now able to make this information available to them to help them plan their schedules and achieve their academic goals,” said Rebecca Stoltzfus, vice provost for undergraduate education.

The syllabi will help students decide which courses to take. This is likely to be most useful during pre-enrollment and add/drop periods, when students make most of their course decisions.

Previously, students had only one-paragraph course descriptions on which to base their enrollment decisions, said Gabe Kaufman ’18, who chaired the SA’s academic policy committee when it wrote the resolution.

“If professors upload their syllabi, students will read them,” said Kaufman, who now chairs the University Assembly. “Students at Cornell really care about taking interesting courses. The more information professors give, the more likely they’re going to get engaged students who are really interested in what they have to offer.”

The website includes a feature that allows users to search all the syllabi by keyword. “You could type in ‘oceans’ or ‘Carl Sagan’ and it will pull up all the syllabi that have those words in it,” said Ethan Stephenson, who worked on the syllabi project as director of faculty living-learning programs in the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. The search feature may help break down disciplinary boundaries, he added.

The website will also include prominent notices saying syllabi are the intellectual property of faculty members and are subject to change; faculty are free to alter the syllabus as their instructional needs dictate. Faculty may choose to upload a previous year’s or draft syllabi for pre-enrollment and can upload additional drafts later. Each undergraduate college, in a manner determined by the college dean, will establish requirements regarding faculty providing syllabi, Stoltzfus said.

Access to syllabi may cut down on students’ tendency to enroll in more classes than they need and drop one or two once they see what the class is like. This tendency has meant students have sometimes been shut out of a required class – but in reality enrolled students have eventually dropped the class, Stephenson said, noting, “The impact on the system can be great.”

The Class Roster syllabi feature is the result of several years of student activism.

It began with Joseph Fridman ’17, an SA representative who spearheaded a resolution in the 2014-15 academic year. He also met with academic leaders throughout campus and participated in a working group, which helped to create the momentum behind the project.

In February 2016, the SA passed a revised resolution recommending that, where practical and appropriate, professors upload a digital copy of the course syllabus to the information section of the Class Roster website before the pre-enroll period begins.

In response, Provost Michael Kotlikoff and the deans of the undergraduate colleges approved a project to create an enhanced version of Class Roster to include course syllabi.

During the 2016-17 academic year, a small team of staff from Student Services Information Technology, the Office of the University Registrar and the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education developed, tested and refined the new version of Class Roster. It was tested by faculty, staff and students, including SA members, Stephenson said.

“Most professors would welcome the opportunity to explain more about their classes,” Kaufman said. “Most students would welcome the opportunity to learn more. This is an opportunity where both parties can gain.”

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John Carberry