‘Tis the season for new classes, new professors and new academic adventures. A major part of the first-day-of-class ritual is the course syllabus, and providing a course syllabus is one of the few aspects of college instruction that is mandated by Texas state law. Professors take great pride in preparing their syllabi. Instructions from department heads, deans and the UT Center for Teaching and Learning encourage professors to provide lots of details about the course schedule, the structure of assignments and the basis for grading in the class. Students are eager to have these details in the syllabus so they can know clearly what they have to do to get a good grade. But is that the best approach?
Students who are fortunate enough to attend UT have gotten here because they have learned to follow the instructions provided by their teachers. Course requirements are very well spelled out in high school and the best students are the ones who are most expert in following those instructions. Should higher education follow the same strategy?
There is no question that detailed specification of course requirements helps students earn better grades. But will this provide the kinds of skills students need once they graduate?
Why do students go to college? Because they (or their parents) want them to get a good job and assume leadership roles in society once they graduate. What skills are required for the best paying and most important jobs in society? Expertise in following instructions is not one of those skills. Menial minimum-wage jobs require following a lot of instructions.
Before someone is allowed to make French fries at McDonald’s, they receive detailed instructions on how long to leave the fries in the oil, what temperature the oil has to be, where to put the fries when they come out of fryer, etc. They are also told precisely when to report to work, how long they have to stay and when they are allowed to take a break.
College graduates do not aspire to cook French fries for minimum wage. They aspire to become the president of a company or to invent the next fast food that consumers will find hard to resist. Unfortunately, there are no instructions for doing those jobs. High-level positions and leadership roles in business, industry, health care or the arts do not come with instructions. Steve Jobs had no instructions to follow in building Apple into one of the most successful companies in the world. Mack Brown was not told how to improve UT’s winning percentage when he started preparations for the 2013 football season.
Important high-paying jobs cannot be performed by following instructions. Success in such positions requires learning to navigate in an ambiguous environment. The president of a company or the head coach of a football team has to identify what the problems are, set goals and figure out how to meet those goals. They do not have to do these things alone, but even deciding how to get help with these tasks is unspecified. The higher one goes in an organization, the fewer the instructions are for the work that one has to do.
Students demand detailed instructions in their classes because they have learned that academic success comes from following those instructions. The most frequently asked question I have encountered in my classes is “Will this be on the test?”. A desire for such clarity is understandable, but it is counterproductive in the long run. It fails to prepare students for what is really important in life, which is how to succeed in an ambiguous environment where there are no instructions.
Michael Domjan is a professor in the Department of Psychology at UT-Austin.