The Syllabus Effect

The Syllabus Effect

I’ll bet most if not all of you have had this experience. When I was in college, especially grad school, there was a moment every semester that I dreaded. It was that moment the professor handed out the syllabus. It became policy sometime in my college years that they had to lay out everything that was coming and I mean EVERY thing; every class discussion, every assignment, every test, every project, the grading policy, the attendance policy, the cheating policy, materials to be purchased, times, dates, and events. Everything!

It’s probably a good policy and keeps students from coming back and saying “I didn’t know we had to do that” or “I didn’t understand we were going to be graded on that” but the effect on me was not relief about knowing all the details in advance. My reaction was often just short of a panic attack. “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe how much there is to do and there’s no way I can get it all done!!!”

I’ve thought about it over the years and even as I have been on the other side of the exchange, I realized that at least for me, what I was experiencing was all the stress and anxiety of a semester but forced into one moment. In other words, I experienced in a couple of minutes something that would actually take me almost 5 months to live.

As a therapist, I have come to label similar reactions as the syllabus effect; experiencing in one moment the stress of something that will actually be played out over time. When I see people in its throes I often see a couple of fairly maladaptive responses. Some people freak out and continue to freak out until they burn themselves out and/or drive everyone around them crazy. Others get so initially freaked out, they turn away and procrastinate until the very end and flame out, fall short, or give up.

I can’t tell you exactly when those feelings are going to come or how to avoid them completely. At least for me, knowing it was coming never stopped it from coming. I do believe, however, that we can all get a little better at catching ourselves in the heat of this horrible feeling and, before we kick into maladaptive patterns, recognize, name, and alter how we respond. “Ok, Raleigh. You just freaked out a little and it’s ok. But don’t forget what you have learned. You can take this rotten feeling and spread it out over the next while and make it manageable. Take a breath. Don’t throw in the towel. Get to work and do what you can today. Repeat daily until you get there. You’ll get there.”