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The Unwritten Syllabus

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

FPD IX: Research on First-year Programs Part III

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.1350.1 - 25.1350.17



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Paper Authors


Stanley M. Forman Northeastern University

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Stanley Forman and Susan Freeman are members of Northeastern University’s Gateway Faculty, a group of teaching faculty expressly devoted to the First-year Engineering program at Northeastern University. The focus of this team is on providing a consistent, comprehensive, and constructive educational experience that endorses the student-centered, professional and practice-oriented mission of Northeastern University.

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Susan F. Freeman Northeastern University

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The Unwritten SyllabusUndergraduate engineering students change radically from when they begin their training towhen they complete their studies and graduate. One notable change is the acquisition of manytechnical skills and competencies, most of which can be defined by the totality of the subjectsdescribed on their course syllabi. A second change is often more subtle. Students usually havegained a degree of personal and professional maturity by the time of their graduation. It isbelieved that much of the change occurs during the first year of school, enabling students tobecome polished during their upperclass years. But are the changes just from the benefit ofincreased age? Would they change as much if not for the indirect lessons imparted by theirinstitutions?Some of the skills acquired are results of direct training, such as improved speaking and writingskills. There are documented formal methods to enhance these skills. Other skills, however, areforms of additional personal growth of students that may be the result of the indirect,undocumented values, ethics and beliefs they acquire while at school, that is, the lessons fromthe Unwritten Syllabus. These other skills, frequently described as soft skills, are oftendiscussed by both teachers and human resource personnel for employers. This set of soft skills,such as personal accountability and greater work ethic, is not subject to defined teachingmethods. There are clearly benefits to acquisition of these skills, but it has been a challenge todescribe the methods and techniques used to achieve success in these skills and the list of theseskills varies from source to source. The Unwritten Syllabus may encompass skills such asintellectual curiosity, caring for others, honesty, ability to overcome obstacles and more.An example of the Unwritten Syllabus is lessons learned by first-year students grappling withcourse policies and procedures that are different than they have previously encountered. Coursepolicies may be listed in the written Syllabus posted on online bulletin board systems or mayonly be explained verbally at the start of a semester. A typically changed procedure deals withthe oft-repeated question: “When is it due?” High school teachers often take on the role of‘reminder-in-chief’, posting due dates in the classroom and frequently pointing them out. Thisdoes not match the adult role of knowing when a task is due, planning the work and delivering aresult on time. A course procedure that changes that behavior can be one where the due datesand requirements are published once, available to be reviewed anytime by students and then notdiscussed at all in class. This process shifts the onus of knowing what is due on what daysquarely to the student. When the answer to the ‘When is it due?’ question becomes, politely,‘it’s posted online’, that question stops within a few weeks of the semester start. The lessonlearned is that the student is responsible to find the information themselves and act on it.The paper will present the results of research necessary to frame the objectives, methods andoutcomes of the Unwritten Syllabus which deliver these desired skills to students. Many pointsof view will be investigated, including students, instructors, advisers and potential employers.The first results will be from faculty to look at both the skills they are setting out to teach ormodel, and, more importantly, how they are accomplishing this. The data collected will definethe core set of attributes and outcomes. The sample will be from full-time teaching faculty,tenured faculty, experienced to novice teachers, across all student levels. This will lead toresearch questions that ultimately could allow a better understanding of how to develop anddeliver the lessons of the Unwritten Syllabus.

Forman, S. M., & Freeman, S. F. (2012, June), The Unwritten Syllabus Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--22107

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