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What Kind of Syllabus?

A recent study found that professors and students aren’t on the same page when it comes to the course syllabus (Lightner & Benander, 2018). How about you and your students? As faculty, we probably don’t all see eye to eye, but most of us consider the syllabus a pretty detailed road map that shows students the way through the course. Most of us devote considerable time and energy to developing a syllabus. We write it with the idea that students need to read it, not scan it, even though most of us spend time early in the course carefully going over the syllabus because we’ve learned the hard way that students don’t read it. And most of us politely and patiently respond to any questions students have about the course, even though the syllabus answers most of them. So there are a few issues we might profitably explore.

The study’s authors developed four distinct syllabi: a newsletter-style syllabus with interesting graphics; a “promising” syllabus that included detailed rationales for activities and assignments and explained the relationship between assigned readings and the content covered in class; a simple syllabus characterized as direct and concise; and a “warning” syllabus peppered with prohibitions, penalties, and directives. Course content, policies, activities, and assignments were the same across all four. Students and faculty rated each syllabus in terms of its format, what it communicated about the course, and what it communicated about the instructor.

Overall, students had a strong preference for the simple syllabus; faculty, by contrast, preferred the promising syllabus. The warning syllabus didn’t get high marks from either group, although I’m still seeing lots of strongly worded statements in syllabi. Further analysis revealed that these faculty and students oriented to the syllabus quite differently. Faculty tended to view it as “a creative work . . . a representation of the effort . . . put into the course” (p. 450). To students, however, the syllabus was a reference document, one they perused for procedural information and consulted as needed. Underscoring students’ perceptions was the amount of time they indicated they’d committed to reading each syllabus: 12 minutes on the promising syllabus (more time than they thought the task merited) compared to eight minutes on each of the other three.

Single studies don’t justify broad conclusions, but this one does raise the question of whether we’re trying to use syllabi to accomplish unrealistic goals. If students want a concise course reference, maybe that’s what we should provide. There’s evidence in this study and in other research that the tone of the syllabus does matter. These students didn’t respond well to the syllabus full of warnings and consequences. Rather, they wanted a friendly, professional tone and a course taught by a professor who appeared to care. They didn’t think it took a lengthy syllabus to get that message across.

Some of us want the syllabus to make students glad they’ve signed up for the course—if not excited, at least not dreading what’s ahead. Could that be conveyed in a note or recorded message to students, one shared electronically or posted on the course website? What about greeting students as they arrive, walking around, shaking a few hands, making some introductions, offering words of welcome, or personally handing out the syllabus?

If we aspire to use the syllabus to communicate something other than concrete course details, we may need to let students know that it contains more, and we’ve included these additional information for these reasons. What we say about the syllabus needs to be reinforced with actions that illustrate why and how students can use the syllabus as something other than a reference. For example, many of us put learning objectives and the knowledge and skills students can acquire from the course on the syllabus. After a month or so, we could ask students to look at those and check their progress in achieving them.

Maybe teachers and students aren’t on the same syllabus page. Maybe we need to turn to another page. Or maybe we should create a new page and see whether we can get students to join us there.


Lightner, R., & Benander, R. (2018). First impressions: Student and faculty feedback on four styles of syllabi. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(3), 443–453.