Instructors spend a considerable amount of time planning the topics, content, and activities in their courses, but comparatively little time thinking about the syllabus. The syllabus often is treated as an afterthought at the end of course development and is used to summarize basic information about the course. Typically, the format remains the same from year to year.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]nstructors spend a considerable amount of time planning the topics, content, and activities in their courses, but comparatively little time thinking about the syllabus. The syllabus often is treated as an afterthought at the end of course development and is used to summarize basic information about the course. Typically, the format remains the same from year to year.
But the course syllabus does more than convey classroom policies and assignment due dates, it expresses the values, personality, and teaching philosophy of the instructor. The syllabus is often the first thing instructors go over with students in a face-to-face course, and the first thing students look at in an online course. This first impression sets students’ expectations about the instructor, as well as whether they will enjoy or get much out of the course. Faculty often do not consider the messages they are sending with their syllabi, or how students will react to the tone and format of a syllabus. Given its importance, the syllabus should be moved from an afterthought to a central part of the course design and development process.
Robin Lightner and Ruth Benander did a study of student impressions of different types of syllabi (2018). One interesting finding was that while faculty assume students will read a syllabus chronologically, students tend to use it more as a reference tool for looking up information. This means that the syllabus should present information in a format that is easy to scan and locate what’s needed.
The study also examined three different syllabus formats. Student found the newsletter format—with columns, images, and quotes—attention grabbing. They also felt it was a friendlier format, conveying more of the instructor’s personality and humanity. Studies show that students value instructors showing concern for them and their learning; this format might better connect them to the instructor and motivate their participation.
Researchers also looked at the promising format, which provides the rationale for course activities and how they will benefit the student. As instructors, we often focus on what students will do, but not why. Giving a reason for doing something is an important element in motivation. In addition, students reported that these explanations demonstrated the instructor cares about student learning.
The warning format is the third type of syllabus examined. As the name suggests, this type of syllabus focuses on policies regarding student behavior with heavy emphasis on penalties for late assignments and other punishments that would be incurred if students break the rules. Not surprisingly, students interpreted this format as hostile and cold—even feeling blamed for what they have not done.
This should serve as a cautionary tale for faculty. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that students need to be shown the stick instead of the carrot. I know of one instructor who includes more than two pages of sample student excuses that he will not accept, such as “losing your housing.” This instructor is putting a wall between himself and students and creating a chilling effect on learning. Thinking back to my own undergraduate days, I know I learned less from instructors who seemed bent on intimidating students than ones that showed concern for student learning. Ask yourself how you reacted to such professors and whether your own syllabus fosters this perception.