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Tag: writing an effective syllabus

Teacher and student reviewing a syllabus
Writing an effective syllabus
Male professor in classroom with students
writing on sticky note
student engagement
professor with students in library

Instructors who teach online do not share a physical space with their students, and therefore they need to establish their presence in creative ways. One tool to effectively enhance instructors’ presence is a liquid syllabus. A liquid syllabus is published on a public website, allowing students to review it when deciding whether to register for a class. This also allows students to access the syllabus easily during the class from any mobile device. It is liquid in that the teacher can modify it at any time without redistributing it to students.

A liquid syllabus is more visually appealing than a print syllabus because it allows for the integration of images, color, and videos. But more importantly, it is more welcoming to the student. This is done through an instructor’s welcome video with a course description depicting student-friendly “welcoming, hopeful language” (Pacansky-Brock, n.d.).

What makes for a good welcoming video?

According to Pacansky-Brock (2017), an instructor’s welcoming video needs to be brief yet meaningful. It does not have to be perfect; rather, it must show students that the instructor takes them and their learning seriously. I make mine with Adobe Express since it is the most user-friendly tool. It also provides video templates.

The next trait of an effective welcoming video is meaningfulness, which Pacansky-Brock (n.d.) defined as creating “relevant connections to learners.” I believe that this is the most important trait of the video and so shared my country of origin, what it is known for, and the language spoken there (Figure 1). Working with international students, I wanted them to see me as their ally—an instructor who also learned English.

Slide showing map and indicating the instructor is originally from Indonesia and speaks both Indonesian and Javanese as well as English
Slide showing pictures of Indonesian culture. Text reads: "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika: Unity in Diversity."
Figure 1. Slides about my country of origin, Indonesia

I gave students a brief quiz on the syllabus after they went through it to ensure that they got the most important points out of it, and from the student comments I learned that they saw me as a role model. The welcome video seemed to trigger questions centering my personal strategies to be successful English learners—for instance, “What is the biggest difficulty you have encountered?,” “How much time you spent studying in university?,” and “What habits can a person take to improve their writing besides just practicing more writing?” Some were curious to know when I began learning English and how I felt during those times. Reading these questions provided me with a way to relate to students and make the course content more meaningful by sharing personal anecdotes about my strategies in learning English.

Another topic I included was my multilingual family (Figure 2). My husband and I each speak many languages, though we have only English in common. Since most of my students are from China, I also stated that my husband speaks multiple Chinese language varieties. This is often generated a few interesting questions from students such as “Can you speak a bit of Mandarin?,” “Do you know any Cantonese?,” and “How was your husband able to speak three Chinese languages?” Although these questions seemed irrelevant, they helped me understand that students want to know not only me as a teacher and learner of English but also the people close to me. One comment in my student evaluation stated, “I find the video about instructor a very interesting look that makes them more humane but which is lacking in many other classes I take.”

Slide showing a picture of the author with her husband and young son. On the borders of the picture are flags representing each family member's nationality (Malaysian for the husband and US for the boy) as well as a list of the languages each of them speaks. The husband speaks English, Hakka, Mandarin, and Cantonese; the child speaks English and Indonesian.
Figure 2. My multilingual family

What does a welcoming course description look like?

Another way to enhance instructor presence is to frame the course description in learner-friendly language that piques students’ curiosity. Lang (2020) proposes two ways to do that. The first is to connect the course content with students’ interests, while the second is to embed mysterious questions, which he defines as “big, open-ended questions that fascinate us, and yet have no easy answers, or no answers at all” (p. 117), in our course content. For instance, “Why do some people get sick and others don’t? What is the best form of government? Why do humans speak so many different languages?” These mystery questions not only stimulate students’ curiosity but also structure our courses to address big questions.

It is important to highlight that writing a welcoming a course description is a process. For instance, my original description read as follows:

ENGL 83 is a first-year seminar designed to facilitate multilingual students’ success transition between high school and college. This course equips students with rhetorical strategies on how students can use reflective writing as a way to develop an understanding of themselves as college learners as well as navigate themselves successfully in diverse academic communities at Penn State Abington.

This description implies a transactional relationship with students, positioning the instructor as the depositor of knowledge and students as empty vessels. It is also heavy with academic jargon and complex lexical choices, such as rhetorical strategies, reflective writing, navigate, academic communities, and equips.

When I switched to a liquid syllabus, I transformed the description to be more welcoming and added a picture to illustrate the type of writing students would do in the class. I also began the course description with two mystery questions to summarize what students would learn in the course (Figure 3).

Slide with stock photo and heading, "What Is This Course About?" Text below image reads, "What does a successful college student look like? What is the role of writing for successful college life? ENGL 83 'First Year Seminar' is designed for multilingual students new to the (US) college experience. You will be expected to join multiple campus events relevant to your academic goals and write a reflection essay to document your participation. The reflection essay will be an engagement and also, a media to learn what college writing looks like."
Figure 3. Course description with mystery questions

Even though it was an improvement on the original course description, I still received comments from students to simplify the language so they could better understand what was expected from the course. The problem is that I still used academic terms such as designed, academic goals, document, and engagement. It also appears distant since I used the second-person pronouns you and your, which continue to present knowledge transfer as transactional.

Thus, I revised it again. The first change was to make the pronoun use more personal. I began by inserting the first-person pronoun I in the mystery questions so students could be more reflective when reading them. Then I used the inclusive pronoun we to evoke a sense of community and indicate that we would address these “personal” mystery questions together and learn from one another. The inclusive pronoun we also reinforced the feeling of rapport between me and the students.

I also stripped out jargon and simplified the lexicon. I changed “you will be expected to join multiple campus events” to “we will attend various campus events.” Rather than saying “to document your participation,” I stated “to make participation in campus events more memorable.” Finally, I made the syllabus even more visually appealing by coloring the mystery questions purple and using a different font to make these questions more scannable and noticeable (Figure 4).

Slide with heading "Course Description: What Will I Learn?" Text below stock images reads, "How ready am I to begin college? Do I know what I need to do to be successful? What happen if I run into troubles? Where should I go? Find out the answers in ENGL 83 'First Year Seminar'—a course specifcailly deisgned for multilingual students new to (US) college experience. During the course, we will attend various campus events to figure out skills and knowledge important for college success. To make participation in campus events more memorable, we will write a variety of reflections on the events. At the end of the semester, we are going to share and learn from each other's written reflection to find better ways to survive and enjoy college experience."
Figure 4. More personalized and visualized course description

While these changes might seem minor, they help students to better understand what is expected of them. The use of imagery, colorful fonts, and plain language gave them multiple ways to understand the content quickly and without the help of a dictionary. Overall, the liquid syllabus is about showing our learners that we care about them and want to help them succeed.

References

Lang, J. M (2020). Distraction: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Basic Books.

Pacansky-Brock, M. (n.d.). Brief, imperfect videos. https://brocansky.com/videos-2

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2017). Best practices for teaching with emerging technologies (2nd ed.). Routledge.


Nugrahenny T. Zacharias, PhD, is an assistant teaching professor of TESOL and applied linguistics at Penn State Abington.