January 10th, 2018

As You’re Preparing the Syllabus . . .

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Writing an effective syllabus

The “find and replace” feature in Word quickly makes an old syllabus ready for a new course. Use it too many times and thinking about the course settles into a comfortable rut. Yes, we may change more than just the dates, but when was the last time we considered something beyond what needs to go on the syllabus? The literature answers that question with a few definitive conclusions and a host of possibilities. Here are some thoughts, offered with just a bit of provocation, in the hopes they might reenergize our thinking about the syllabus and what it can accomplish in the course, for students and for the teacher.

Teaching Professor Blog Tone matters as much as content. On most syllabi the tone is professional, impersonal, directive, often more negative than positive and more accusatory than encouraging. It’s language that accomplishes two objectives: it clarifies expectations and establishes who’s in charge. Most syllabi would not be described as friendly invitations to exciting learning adventures.

Does the tone matter? Is a more positive tone preferred? Harnish and Bridges (2011) created two versions of a syllabus that contained the same content, but one was written in a cold tone, the other in a warm one. There are examples of each in the article. “Our results revealed that a syllabus written in a friendly tone had a significant impact on how the instructor was perceived.” (p. 326) Richmond, et. al. (2016) used learner-centered and teacher-center syllabi in their research (characteristics of each appear in Table 1, p. 4). “Student perceptions of [hypothetical] faculty using a learner-centered syllabus were markedly more positive; they rated faculty as creative, caring, happy, receptive, reliable and enthusiastic as well as having more student engagement in their class than faculty using a teacher-centered syllabus.” (p. 1)

Downsize policies. Yes, this is the provocative part but there are two issues here that merit some mulling over. First, policy creep, defined as the addition and retention of a policy that prohibits something bad that happened once, affects many syllabi. What’s the ratio between what the syllabus decrees students shouldn’t do and what it proposes they should do? Rules are fine but a plethora of prohibitions dampen the motivation to learn.

Second, an instructor’s credibility suffers if the syllabus contains a policy that can’t or won’t be enforced. Cell phone policies are a great example. There’s lots of research documenting that better than 90% of students are using their phones in class, even in courses with a policy that prohibits their use (see Clayson and Haley, 2013, for example). Students also report that if the instructor asks them to stop using the phone they will, at that time, but will continue to use the phone in that and other courses. The distracting use of cell phones is a problem, but it’s not being prevented by most policies and that implicates the professor.

Think more like a map and less like a contract. The contract syllabus makes clear what the student is obligated to provide. Does it also list what the professor will provide? Do students get to offer any input? Do they have any recourse? How effectively do contracts motivate learning? Most aren’t very fun to read or easy to understand. Maps, on the other hand, show the way—how to get to where you’re going. Usually there’s more than one route. Maps are helpful, full of all kinds of useful information. If you’re lost, confused, and need directions, you’ll do much better with a map than a contract.

The syllabus can make you a better teacher. Here’s a couple of ways the syllabus can benefit teaching. It’s an artifact that allows the teacher to step back and take a look at the course. There it is, all together in one place. How does it look? Interesting? Cohesive? How well does it all hang together? Where does it start and end? And then there’s useful feedback to be had if questions are asked about the syllabus. Share it with a colleague and ask what he or she would conclude about the course and instructor if all they had to go on was the syllabus. Better yet, ask students.

For more on writing an effective syllabus, read:

References: Harnish, R. and Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology Education, 14, 319-330.

Richmond, A., Slattery, J., Mitchell, N., Morgan, R. and Becknell, J. (2016). Can a learner-centered syllabus change students’ perceptions of student-professor rapport and master teacher behaviors. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2( 3), 159-168

Clayson, D. and Haley, D. (2013). An introduction to multitasking and texting: Prevalence and impact on grades and GPA in marketing classes. Journal of Marketing Education, 35 (1), 26-40.

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  • Laura Shulman

    What are some specific examples that affect the tone of a syllabus? Are we talking about language like using first and second person pronouns (“you” and “I”) rather than the more distant third person (“the student” “the professor”)? what other changes in language would   affect tone?

    HOW does one create a syllabus that reads more like a map rather than a contract? Again, examples please.

    • 115thDream

      For the most part in my own (very short) syllabi, I use “we.” Almost everything I want to say about the course is stuff that we’ll be doing together. I don’t know if I have a “map” syllabus–more so than a contract I guess, because I don’t list many policies or try to address every possible transaction. I try to say what we’re going to study and some general sense of how.

      I’m not trying to pretend that they have the same role as me, or that I don’t have authority and responsibility–only to go in with the idea that we are in this thing together.

  • Perry Shaw

    I no longer list policies in my syllabi. Rather I make a list of “mutual commitments” in which I challenge my students to act like adults, while committing to treat them with respect. Of course this is easier given that there is a very clear overall policy document that is fairly enforced by our registrar.

    I have found that when students feel respected there is less initial hostility and greater potential for student cooperation.

    Here is my sort of standard list:

    Mutual Commitments:
    What I expect from you as a mature adult:
    1. I expect you to be diligent in preparing thoroughly for each session.
    2. I expect you to submit work on time, or if this is not possible to request an extension adequately in advance of the deadline.
    3. I expect you to participate fully and constructively in all course activities and discussions.
    4. I expect you to show respect to other students, being sensitive to national, cultural, gender, and other individual differences, and listening courteously when others speak in class.
    5. I expect you to provide accurate and constructive feedback on the course content and methodology that will help me as I teach this course and when I teach this material again in the future.

    My commitments to you are:
    1. I will prepare carefully for each class session.
    2. I will encourage reciprocity and cooperation among you as a class of emerging leaders.
    3. I will emphasise time on task, making the best use of the available time to promote quality learning.
    4. I will promote active learning, respecting diverse talents and learning styles.
    5. I will provide adequate opportunity outside of the class session times for you to discuss with me the course material.
    6. I will do my best to provide prompt feedback to your work.

    Of course I have to live up to my own commitments! 🙂

  • drs

    I think there are some good suggestions within the article here. I truly appreciate the stated intentions. But I’m somewhat concerned by the statement, “The distracting use of cell phones is a problem, but it’s not being prevented by most policies and that implicates the professor.”

    First, I want to note the apparent all-or-nothing fallacy here. I’ve seen it applied elsewhere, as when online-course instructors don’t do much to reduce the risk of cheating and then argue that any approach they might try won’t “prevent” cheating. If students want to cheat, they’ll find a way.

    The actual issue is not whether policies prevent a behavior (such as the use of cell phones) but rather whether policies “reduce” the behavior. Then a fair question would be whether the level of reduction is enough to outweigh potential negatives in having the policies.

    Second, policies in the syllabus are not just about influencing student behavior. Written policies also protect instructors who do take concrete steps in class, even if only one time, to curb the behavior prohibited by the “policy.” Unfortunately, instructors who follow university or classroom rules are sometimes put in a defensive position when the students who have been reprimanded complain to the administration or, in extreme scenarios, when an appeal hearing is held. It helps to have something in writing to point to.

    In the case of cell phones, I think that the high percentage of students who admit to the behavior, even with policies against it, is all the more reason to keep such policies in place. Even if the policies were not reducing the behavior at all, the problem could technically worsen if instructors don’t even bother explicitly prohibiting the behavior.

    But I agree that the syllabus is an opportunity to achieve some of the benefits cited by the author.

  • Neil Singleton

    One of the reasons that instructors stick with the contract syllabus is because, in this day and age, students won’t hesitate to go over the instructor’s head when breaking a policy and stating ‘I never knew that was the policy’ as a defense. If you don’t have it in writing, your supervisor WILL call you out on it. My syllabus is more of a combination of contract and road map. It contains the rules and policies but also includes helps like encouraging the use of the Writing Center and clearly defining what each assignment is and WHY it’s important to the course as a whole. Just my two cents after reading this 🙂