Journal of Nursing Education

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Major Article 

Comparison of Syllabi Expectations Between Faculty and Students in a Baccalaureate Nursing Program

Shoni Davis, DNSc, RN; Vivian Schrader, PhD, RN

Abstract

This study aimed to explore and compare expectations of syllabi between students and faculty in a university baccalaureate nursing department. Knowing what students expect from syllabi can lead to improved student success and may reduce faculty time in clarifying class policies.

Faculty and nursing students from eight semesters volunteered to complete a survey exploring syllabi definitions, pertinent content, and the importance of student involvement in syllabi development. The findings suggest there are differences between faculty and student perceptions regarding important syllabi content. Students wanted syllabi that provided the nuts and bolts of how to accomplish each assignment and course requirement most efficiently. Faculty preferred information about student behavior, such as student conduct, participation, and attendance rules. Adult Learning Theory was used to explain these differences. This article points out that faculty may not be as in touch with the needs of adult learners as they claim to be.

Abstract

This study aimed to explore and compare expectations of syllabi between students and faculty in a university baccalaureate nursing department. Knowing what students expect from syllabi can lead to improved student success and may reduce faculty time in clarifying class policies.

Faculty and nursing students from eight semesters volunteered to complete a survey exploring syllabi definitions, pertinent content, and the importance of student involvement in syllabi development. The findings suggest there are differences between faculty and student perceptions regarding important syllabi content. Students wanted syllabi that provided the nuts and bolts of how to accomplish each assignment and course requirement most efficiently. Faculty preferred information about student behavior, such as student conduct, participation, and attendance rules. Adult Learning Theory was used to explain these differences. This article points out that faculty may not be as in touch with the needs of adult learners as they claim to be.

Dr. Davis is Associate Professor, and Dr. Schrader is Professor, Department of Nursing, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho.

The authors thank the Boise State University Nursing Department; Laura Bond, Boise State University statistician; and Erin Kindberg, Boise State University research assistant.

Address Correspondence to Shoni Davis, DNSc, RN, Associate Professor, Department of Nursing, Boise State University, 1910 University Dr., MS 1840, Boise, ID 83725-1840; e-mail: shonidavis@boisestate.edu.

Received: September 14, 2006
Accepted: April 15, 2007

Poor student success in higher education may result from differences in course expectations between faculty and students (Marcis & Carr, 2003). Differences in expectations can occur in course syllabi. Although faculty tend to agree that syllabi are an important guide for how a course will be presented and graded, there is often disagreement and inconsistency among syllabi content within departments. In addition, there is also little available data on what students perceive as important syllabi information. Marcis and Carr (2003) suggested that knowing more about what students expect from syllabi could lead to improved student success and could reduce faculty time spent clarifying and repeating class policies and rules.

The purpose of this study was to explore and compare expectations of syllabi between students and faculty in a midsized urban university baccalaureate nursing department. Expanding understanding of the issue will lead to improving the function of syllabi as a useful student tool.

Literature Review

Syllabi have been defined as both contracts and learning tools (Parks & Harris, 2002). According to Habanek (2005), syllabi as contracts include course rules and guidelines. In contrast, syllabi as learning tools include preparation for course assignments, monitoring one’s progress, and explanations for how the course fits with real-life experiences (Parks & Harris, 2002).

Critical components of syllabi most often have been determined by faculty and include learning objectives, expected course outcomes, and course topics (Habanek, 2005). Other documented critical syllabi components include policies regarding class and assignment schedules, necessary course materials, assigned readings, participation expectations, attendance, late assignment policies, and statements pertaining to student honesty and mutual respect (Becker, 1999; Bers, Davis, & Taylor, 2000; Habanek, 2005).

Studies suggest there is no standardized consensus among faculty as to which syllabi components are the most critical or how to most efficiently organize the components (Bers et al., 2000; Habanek, 2005). There also tends to be confusion among faculty regarding whether syllabi are contracts or learning tools. As a result, syllabi often vary within departments and may lack important components. Failure to develop consistent and clear syllabi may result in confusion and ambiguity regarding student expectations, which may lower student success (Marcis & Carr, 2003).

Although there is general consensus among faculty regarding what defines effective syllabi, there is limited empirical data that examine student expectations of what should be included (Bers et al., 2000; Marcis & Carr, 2003). In most university settings, there are no standard practices that invite student input into syllabi development or what they perceive as critical syllabi components (Marcis & Carr, 2003). As a result, students often fail to use syllabi as the helpful tools they are intended to be. Instead, syllabi, which require a great deal of faculty time to prepare, are ignored by students, and faculty spend additional time and effort clarifying and answering student questions.

One study conducted by Marcis and Carr (2003) surveyed 194 college students about what they thought were the most important syllabi components. Their results revealed that the four most highly valued syllabi items included the number of examinations and quizzes, examination and quiz dates, kinds of assignments, and grading criteria. The four items the students thought were the least valuable included academic dishonesty statements, prerequisite requirements, titles and authors of the textbooks, and drop and withdrawal dates. Existing studies suggested that faculty and students differ in their understanding and expectations of syllabi. Differences in expectations between faculty and students regarding course criteria have been suggested to result in poor student success and negative course evaluations (Marcis & Carr, 2003).

Method

This exploratory study compared syllabi expectations between nursing faculty and students in a midsized urban university baccalaureate nursing department. Approval to conduct the study was obtained from the university review board and the investigators received a departmental grant to conduct the research.

Instrument Development

The researchers (S.D., V.S.) for this study developed faculty and student surveys that explored syllabi definitions, pertinent items to include in syllabi, and the preference for student involvement in developing syllabi. The faculty and student surveys differed, as each contained items pertinent to the respective sample. For example, the student survey asked how often students had been invited to participate in syllabi development, whereas the faculty survey asked how often faculty had invited student participation.

Both surveys collected demographic data, including age, gender, and ethnicity. The student survey included semester level in the nursing program, highest academic degree completed at the time of the study, and current grade point average. The faculty survey included highest academic degree achieved, number of years teaching, kind of courses taught, teaching methods used, and how many syllabi they developed.

Survey Testing

Both surveys were piloted in the Radiology and Respiratory Therapy departments within the College of Health Sciences. Eleven students voluntarily pilot tested the student survey and seven faculty members voluntarily pilot tested the faculty survey. According to Nieswiadomy (2002), 10 participants is a typical number to pilot test an instrument. The Radiology and Respiratory departments within the College of Health Sciences are small, with a total of 10 faculty members. Although all were invited to participate in the pilot study, only 7 faculty (70%) consented to do so.

Content Validity

Content validity was derived from the rating of both content relevance and clarity of each item on the faculty and student surveys, using a 4-point Likert scale (1 = very irrelevant or very unclear, 4 = very relevant or very clear). The researchers defined relevancy as “How relevant or appropriate is each item to measuring syllabi expectations?” and clarity as “How clear is the meaning of this item?”. Content validity was determined by the proportion of raters who gave each item, and the survey as a whole, a rating of 3 or 4. The raters were also given the option of offering suggestions for each item.

No faculty survey scores for either relevancy or clarity fell below a score of 3; therefore, no changes or omissions were made to the faculty survey items. Items on the student survey that received a low score for relevancy or clarity were either omitted or edited on the basis of feedback received from the pilot test participants. This strategy has been used by other researchers when addressing content validity. Prasopkittikun, Tilokskulchai, Sinsuksai, and Sitthimongkol (2006) made editorial changes and deletions to questionnaire items on the basis of feedback they received when developing a psychometric scale for infant self-efficacy.

To maintain equitability between the faculty and student surveys so comparisons could be made, student survey items were not omitted for low relevancy scores if they received a mean clarity score of 3. The final faculty survey contained 35 multiple-choice and Likert scale items and 1 open-ended question. The student survey contained 31 multiple-choice and Likert scale items and 2 open-ended questions.

Data Collection

The researchers recruited nursing students from all eight semesters of the nursing program to participate in this study. Of the 410 nursing students enrolled in the nursing program, 199 (49%) voluntarily agreed to complete the student survey. Students completed the survey during the final 20 minutes of didactic classes.

Faculty members were informed of the study at a department meeting, and surveys were distributed to all full-time faculty members via their mailboxes. Twenty-seven of 35 faculty members (77%) voluntarily completed the faculty survey. Student and faculty anonymity was guaranteed and data were analyzed in aggregate.

Data Analysis

Quantitative data from faculty and student surveys were scanned and analyzed using SPSS version 12.0. Student and faculty responses were compared descriptively and using a chi-square test for independence.

Results

Demographics

Of the 199 students who participated in the study, 80% were female and 90% were Caucasian. Only 20% of the students who participated in the study were the traditional college age of 18 to 24, and 20% were age 40 and older. Twenty-eight percent of the student sample had only a high school diploma, 61% had either an associate or bachelor’s degree, 10% had completed a technical or certificate program, and 1% had a master’s degree in non-nursing fields. According to Wlodkowski (1993), all of the students in this study met Knowles’ (1970) definition of an adult learner:

an individual who performs roles associated in our society with adults (e.g., worker, spouse, parent, etc.) and who perceives him/herself to be responsible for his/her own life. (p. 5)

Of the 27 faculty who participated in the study, 100% were Caucasian women, ranging in age from 30 to 50 and older, with the majority (63%) older than 50 years. Teaching experience ranged from zero to more than 16 years, with one third having 5 years or less teaching experience. Seventy-four percent of the faculty held master’s degrees and 26% held doctorate degrees.

Comparison Results

When asked to define syllabi, 73% of faculty and 49% of students defined them to be both contracts and learning tools. Approximately 25% of both groups defined syllabi as being contracts only. Students were significantly more likely to define syllabi as strictly learning tools than were faculty (26% versus 0%, p = 0.009).

Both students and faculty were asked to rate, on a 5-point Likert scale, the importance of 20 items commonly included in syllabi that were identified in the literature (Table 1). The Likert scale ranged from 1 (very unimportant) to 5 (very important). Of the 20 items listed, more than 85% of both faculty and students identified the following as important or very important items to include in syllabi: grading criteria for courses, grading criteria for assignments, listings of course assignments, required readings, participation requirements, schedule of class meetings times, assignment and testing deadlines, and faculty contact information.

Items Identified as important to very Important to Include in Syllabi Through Chi-Square Analysis of Comparisons Between Instructors (N = 27) and Students (N = 199)

Table 1: Items Identified as important to very Important to Include in Syllabi Through Chi-Square Analysis of Comparisons Between Instructors (N = 27) and Students (N = 199)

In lieu of these similarities, there were significant differences in how the groups viewed the importance of other syllabi items. Significantly more faculty than students rated purpose of the course (93% versus 69%, p = 0.015), academic honesty and plagiarism policy (89% versus 29%, p < 0.001), and student conduct policy (70% versus 37%, p = 0.005) as important to include in syllabi. Students, on the other hand, were significantly more likely than were faculty to rate extra credit policy (73% versus 33%, p < 0.001) as an important syllabi item.

The findings also revealed a significant difference between students and faculty on four other items: listing of course assignments (95% versus 89%, p = 0.007), makeup policy (87% versus 78%, p = 0.015), schedule of class meeting times (94% versus 89%, p = 0.026), and grading criteria for each assignment (94% versus 93%, p = 0.038). However, the differences between the groups for each of these four items are very small. The differences are a result of the number of faculty, relative to students, who found these items to be very unimportant or unimportant, rather than very important or important. Because of the small numbers in each of these cells, the results are likely an artifact of the disparity in sample sizes, and therefore did not represent a practical difference. According to Agresti and Franklin (2007), the chi-squared statistic does not indicate the nature of the strength of the association and may be misinterpreted if the expected frequencies are too small.

To analyze the data further, the items from Table 1 were categorized by their function, which included orientation items (Table 2), course guidelines (Table 3), and course rules (Tables 4). These three functions were arbitrarily defined by the researchers for the purpose of this study. Orientation items were defined by the researchers as introductions to the course, course guidelines as recommendations, and rules as standard procedures. Respondents were asked to identify the two items from each category they thought were the most important to include in syllabi. The results were analyzed as frequency distributions.

Frequency Comparisons of Faculty (N = 27) and Student (N = 199) Responses to Syllabi Items Related to Course Orientation

Table 2: Frequency Comparisons of Faculty (N = 27) and Student (N = 199) Responses to Syllabi Items Related to Course Orientation

Frequency Comparisons of Faculty (N = 27) and Student (N = 199) Responses to Syllabi Items Related to Course Guidelines

Table 3: Frequency Comparisons of Faculty (N = 27) and Student (N = 199) Responses to Syllabi Items Related to Course Guidelines

Frequency Comparisons of Faculty (N = 27) and Student (N = 199) Responses to Syllabi Items Related to Course Rules

Table 4: Frequency Comparisons of Faculty (N = 27) and Student (N = 199) Responses to Syllabi Items Related to Course Rules

As Table 2 demonstrates, faculty contact information was the most frequently selected orientation item (80%) by both faculty and students. However, students selected this item more frequently than did faculty (83% versus 59%). That students selected academic honesty policy (3%) and student conduct policy (5%) less frequently than other orientation items supports previous findings in this study.

Table 3 presents frequency distributions representing how each group selected course guidelines. No single item emerged strongly in either group as a key course guideline. Relatively more faculty than students identified course objectives (44% versus 17%) and grading criteria for the class (44% versus 31%). However, relatively more students than faculty identified content outline (38% versus 22%), schedule of class meeting dates (43% versus 26%), and grading criteria for each assignment (36% versus 22%) as the most frequently selected guidelines.

As Table 4 demonstrates, assignment deadlines was identified as the most important course rule to include in syllabi by both faculty and students (92%). Proportionately more faculty than students selected attendance requirements (48% versus 31%) and participation requirements (48% versus 24%); more students than faculty selected testing deadlines (43% versus 19%) as the most important syllabi rule.

Both surveys asked faculty and students how important student involvement is in syllabi development. Approximately two thirds of both faculty and students identified student involvement as important or very important (69% and 65%, respectively). However, faculty and students strongly differed in their responses regarding the frequency with which students have been asked to participate in syllabi development. Of the faculty respondents, 92% said they have invited student participation in syllabi development; however, only 12% of students claimed to have been invited by faculty to participate in syllabi development.

Discussion

Syllabi as Contract Versus Learning Tool

The findings from this study suggest that although the majority of both groups defined syllabi as either contract and learning tool combinations or contracts only, students were significantly more likely than were faculty to define syllabi as learning tools only. This finding contrasted with what students in this study identified as important syllabi components.

One may expect syllabi, as learning tools, to contain information to help students see the big picture of how courses would help them in their future and assist them to best prepare for course work. According to this definition, it may be expected that students would value syllabi information, such as the course purpose and objectives. However, the students in this study preferred the type of syllabi information and rules associated more with a contractual agreement focusing on the nuts and bolts of how to accomplish the course requirements in the most time-efficient manner. They were most interested in information such as faculty contact information, assignment deadlines, and extra credit policies.

Adult Learning Theory (Knowles, 1970) may explain this ambiguity. Adult learners tend to see themselves in partnership with faculty and to view the educator as a resource and co-learner (Leith, 2002). Although adult learners expect to have information that will direct them to get the best grade through the most efficient route, they tend to prefer a learning environment that is learning friendly and supportive of faculty-student partnerships (Leith, 2002; Thoms, 2001). Syllabi, defined as learning tools, help to establish a learner-friendly environment.

Syllabi Expectations Between Faculty and Students

Both faculty and students in this study agreed on which basic items syllabi should contain, including:

  • Grading criteria.
  • Grading scales.
  • Assignment information.
  • Required reading.
  • Participation requirements.
  • Late assignment policies.
  • Faculty contact information.
In addition, faculty and staff both selected faculty contact information as the most important item to help orient a student to the course and assignment deadlines as the most important course rule.

However, both groups disagreed on other kinds of critical syllabi information. Faculty members were significantly more likely to value syllabi information that provided overall course information, such as course purpose. A greater proportion of faculty than students selected course objectives as one of the most important course guidelines. Even more notable, faculty members were significantly more likely than students to place importance on syllabi information that directed student behavior, such as academic honesty and student conduct policies. Proportionately, more faculty than students selected class participation and attendance requirements as important course rules to include in syllabi.

Findings from this study suggest that students preferred syllabi items that provided clear-cut direction and rules regarding how to be successful in the course, and placed a lesser value on how to conduct themselves in the classroom. For example, significantly more students than faculty in this study valued including a rule for extra credit. A greater proportion of students than faculty selected course rules such as assignment deadlines and testing deadlines, as well as course guidelines that provided a schedule for class meeting dates.

Syllabi Expectations and Adult Learning Theory

Students preferred syllabi that provided a greater focus on telling them what needed to be accomplished and less on how to behave. This supports the Adult Learning Theory (Knowles, 1970), which focuses on nontraditional students and defines them as self-directed, internally motivated, and likely to seek a partnership with faculty in which mutual respect is shared (Houser, 2002). Adult learners are described as having a great deal of pride, are often preoccupied outside the learning environment with other life responsibilities, and have an established framework of values from which they function (Thoms, 2001). From this perspective, it is easy to see why conduct and academic honesty rules may be considered as trivial and even insulting to include in syllabi by adult learners, and why instruction on how to most efficiently accomplish the course assignments is more highly valued.

Adult learners expect to have a nontraditional, learning-friendly relationship with faculty. This was exemplified when faculty and students were asked to identify the most important syllabi items necessary to orient students to the classroom. Although both faculty and students selected faculty contact information as an important means of orientating students to the course, students selected it more frequently than faculty did (83% versus 59%). This finding supports that adult learners view faculty as those who encourage and nurture and expect a faculty-student relationship that allows student access to faculty outside of the classroom (Leith, 2002).

Misperceptions Between Faculty and Students Regarding Syllabi Development

A noteworthy difference found in this study between faculty and student perceptions about student inclusion in syllabi development exemplifies that faculty may not always hear student needs accurately. Although two thirds of both groups agreed that student involvement in syllabi development was important, 92% of faculty claimed to have invited student participation, although only 12% of students claimed to have ever been invited to do so. This provokes the question, could faculty and students have misconstrued the meaning of involvement? Further study in this area is warranted to clarify this question.

Limitations and Recommendations

Both faculty and student surveys need additional validity and reliability testing before they can be administered to larger samples. Although this study provided comparison data between faculty and students regarding syllabi expectations, it was limited by the overall sample size and its derivation from only one nursing department. In addition, the small sample size renders some of the significant findings to be questionable from a practical perspective. Additional studies that use larger sample sizes and include students and faculty from both nursing and non-nursing academic departments are recommended. Additional exploration of what students and faculty expect from syllabi and how to best design syllabi are recommended so syllabi are student friendly and useful in meeting the needs of adult learners.

Conclusion

The differences revealed in this study raised questions about whether students and faculty expect the same things from syllabi and whether faculty are truly in tune with the needs of students as adult learners. Knowing more about what students value in syllabi and how their expectations may differ from those of faculty could help to make syllabi a more valuable and useful tool. Syllabi should clearly identify student outcomes, define student responsibilities, and establish a pattern of communication between educators and students (Grunert, 1997). Finally, student participation in syllabi is important to determine how they best learn and which assignments may be most meaningful in meeting their goals (Johnson, 2000).

The following summary points can offer helpful guidelines when developing syllabi:

  • Adult learners value syllabi information that directs them on how to most efficiently complete each course assignment.
  • Adult learners place less value on syllabi information that has to do with student behavior or information that describes a general overview of courses.
  • Adult learners expect to have a partnership with faculty and want syllabi that reflect this kind of relationship.
  • Adult learners want to be involved in the development or evaluation of syllabi.

References

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Items Identified as important to very Important to Include in Syllabi Through Chi-Square Analysis of Comparisons Between Instructors (N = 27) and Students (N = 199)

Syllabi ItemFaculty, n (%)Students, n (%)Chi-Squarep
Course objectives25 (93)151 (76)5.150.075
Purpose of course25 (93)137 (69)8.390.015*
Content outline22 (82)185 (93)5.710.057
Schedule of class meeting times24 (89)186 (94)7.300.026a
Grading criteria for the course25 (93)187 (94)4.660.097
Grading criteria for each assignment25 (93)187 (94)6.540.038a
Grading scale23 (85)155 (78)4.540.103
Listing of course assignments24 (89)190 (95)9.880.007*
Advice to students about how to succeed11 (41)98 (49)3.130.209
Academic honesty and plagiarism policy24 (89)58 (29)36.72<0.001*
Required readings25 (93)189 (95)0.660.71
Teaching philosophy12 (44)77 (39)0.290.866
Participation requirements23 (85)176 (88)2.050.360
Attendance requirements22 (81)181 (91)4.280.12
Assignment and testing deadlines24 (89)172 (87)1.710.43
Student conduct policy19 (70)74 (37)10.590.005*
Faculty contact information25 (93)191 (96)0.870.647
Extra credit policy9 (33)145 (73)22.70<0.001*
Make-up policy21 (78)173 (87)8.460.015a
Student resources17 (63)90 (45)3.680.159

Frequency Comparisons of Faculty (N = 27) and Student (N = 199) Responses to Syllabi Items Related to Course Orientation

Orientation ItemsFaculty, n (%)Student,n (%)Total, n (%)
Faculty contact information16 (59)164 (83)180 (80)
Advice to students about how to succeed10 (37)88 (44)98 (44)
Teaching philosophy5 (19)46 (23)51 (23)
Student resources3 (11)33 (17)36 (16)
Academic honesty and plagiarism policy10 (37)6 (3)16 (7)
Student conduct policy5 (19)10 (5)15 (7)

Frequency Comparisons of Faculty (N = 27) and Student (N = 199) Responses to Syllabi Items Related to Course Guidelines

Course GuidelinesFaculty, n (%)Student, n (%)Total, n (%)
Schedule of class meeting dates7 (26)85 (43)92 (41)
Content outline6 (22)76 (38)82 (36)
Required readings10 (37)72 (36)82 (36)
Grading criteria for each assignment6 (22)71 (36)77 (34)
Grading criteria for the class12 (44)61 (31)73 (33)
Course objectives12 (44)33 (17)45 (20)
Purpose of the course2 (7)3 (2)5 (2)

Frequency Comparisons of Faculty (N = 27) and Student (N = 199) Responses to Syllabi Items Related to Course Rules

Course RulesFaculty, n (%)Student, n (%)Total, n (%)
Assignment deadlines21 (78)185 (93)206 (92)
Testing deadlines5 (19)86 (43)91 (41)
Attendance requirements13 (48)61 (31)74 (33)
Participation requirements13 (48)48 (24)61 (27)
Extra credit policy0 (0)10 (5)10 (4)
Authors

Dr. Davis is Associate Professor, and Dr. Schrader is Professor, Department of Nursing, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho.

Address Correspondence to Shoni Davis, DNSc, RN, Associate Professor, Department of Nursing, Boise State University, 1910 University Dr., MS 1840, Boise, ID 83725-1840; e-mail: .shonidavis@boisestate.edu

10.3928/01484834-20090301-03

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