I’m a big fan of syllabi used well. On the crassest level—and it’s important—syllabi are contracts between faculty and students, contracts that administration holds us to. When a student makes a complaint, administrators want to be able to pull out the course syllabus and use it to determine whether the faculty member has followed the rules as outlined in the syllabus (Slattery & Carlson, 2005).
The syllabus is my students’ first impression of me, and it matters. Even half a minute of a video of a professor teaching predicts end-of-course student evaluations, even when that video is played without sound (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1993). That predictive power should not surprise us. By the time our students meet us, they’ve spent years with good teachers and bad and can quickly figure out which faculty and classes will best serve their needs.
Although syllabi identify necessary course rules and tasks, they also serve more altruistic and high-minded purposes. As I write a syllabus, I consider my course goals and how we as a class will go about meeting them (Slattery & Carlson, 2005). These goals provide the structure I need to organize the course, and they give my students something to strive for. I spend time thinking about how I can shape my syllabus to help students identify and use the strategies that make success in the course more likely. I strive to level the playing field for students who otherwise would be at a disadvantage (Collins, 1997). What makes sense to me may not make sense to students unless I communicate clearly and intentionally throughout the syllabus. I attend to tone and consider what I can do to engage my students in an effective partnership with me (Richmond et al., 2017). In sum, well-designed syllabi are opportunities to create engagement and success—for faculty, students, and the course.
The nuts and bolts of syllabus design are discussed much more extensively elsewhere (see Gannon, 2019). At a minimum, effective syllabi include basic course information (e.g., name and prerequisites), required texts and readings, assignments, grades, and university policies. In this discussion, I want to focus on the motivational aspects of a syllabus: its tone, strategies for success, accessibility, and our students’ meaning and purpose. These I see as the aspects of a syllabus that level the playing field and increase the likelihood that all students will succeed in the course.
Syllabus tone influences how our students perceive the course and us. Does your syllabus communicate low expectations and focus on punitive rules, or does it demonstrate that you expect success? Are students discussed as objects or partners? A positive syllabus tone removes barriers to learning and creates expectations that the course is a comfortable and safe place for learning.
My colleagues and I have been studying tone in learner-centered and teacher-centered syllabi for the past 10 years. Learner-centered syllabi build a sense of community, communicate a shared sense of power and control, and use student-centered strategies for evaluation. They are opposite in this focus to teacher-centered syllabi, which do not build community or share power or evaluation strategies (Cullen & Harris, 2009; Richmond et al., 2019). Interestingly, syllabus tone does not affect students’ perceptions of a professor’s knowledge, competence, or preparedness, but it does affect their attitudes toward the professor and course. Students reading more learner-centered syllabi perceive faculty as more flexible, open-minded, creative, and interesting. Faculty with learner-centered syllabi are seen by students as being caring, having positive attitudes, and being enthusiastic. Students rated a learner-centered syllabus much more positively than a teacher-centered syllabus and reported much higher levels of course engagement (Richmond et al., 2017).
Here’s an example of a section from my online abnormal psychology syllabus that illustrates how I work to communicate the learner-centered notions of community and shared power identified by Cullen and Harris (2009). This respect for the unspoken experiences of others and the confidentiality of clients is particularly important in the online environment. Rather than being defensive in tone or setting up confrontations, my goal is to create a collaborative discussion. I have the same goals for my face-to-face courses, but the context does make a difference. I don’t share my photo or schedule virtual office hours in those courses.
Let’s Talk About Ethics . . .
Many of you plan on entering one of the helping professions (e.g., sociology/psychology, rehabilitative sciences, premed, nursing, education, special education). Given this—and our content—it is especially important for us to begin practicing ethical behavior. We should assume that someone “in the room” either deals with these issues personally or has someone close to them who does. Please ask questions to expand your understanding but recognize that course content may be personally sensitive for your classmates. Please use person-first language, protect people’s privacy, talk about people in respectful manners, and listen to and respect other ideas. You don’t need to agree with everyone else—you may often disagree—but you need to continue to find ways to respectfully and professionally disagree (e.g., using good listening skills, backing up your opinions with strong evidence).
For my part, I promise to listen carefully, encourage critical thinking about the topics we discuss, and work to build a safe, thoughtful, and respectful classroom. I will disguise the identity of the people in my cases and maintain their privacy, ask for my clients’ consent before I talk about them with you, consider other explanations of symptoms, and stay current in my reading of the literature.
I know what it takes to succeed in my courses, but many students may not. For years, I have included a list of strategies for performing well. More recently, I’ve also begun including what I call “pro tips” in my abnormal psychology syllabus. A bit more focused than my list of strategies for performing well, they are part of my goal to get students thinking and acting like the professionals they will soon be. Here are a couple of examples:
Pro Tip: You get the most out of assignments when you make them your own. What do you want to learn? Where do you need help?
Pro Tip: Getting to know and trust each other helps groups become more successful—and is especially important for online courses. Talk to each other regularly about class and “off-task” things too. Find methods that work for your group.
In several ways, syllabi can communicate that a class is relevant or irrelevant to students. Kuh (2009) found that students were more likely to perform at a high academic level when they perceived themselves to be members of a supportive learning community. Syllabi can include content that makes it clear that there’s a place for everyone in the course. They do so through course goals and learning objectives, the course topics and readings included in the course, and statements that promote diversity. Students judged syllabi with diversity statements as creating a more favorable classroom climate; this was especially true when that statement appeared early in the syllabus (Stein, 2019). Here’s how I try to make students feel welcome in my Abnormal Psychology syllabus. The text appears on my syllabus right below my contact information:
Welcome! I’m glad you’re here! I want this place to be a safe place for people of all ages, backgrounds, beliefs, ethnicities, genders, sexual identities, races, religions, and other visible and invisible differences. Together, we can create a respectful, welcoming, and inclusive place for all of us to work and learn in.
Faculty regularly accommodate students with disabilities. Many of these accommodations are services that we can offer all students to help them become more successful, regardless of whether they have given us a request from disability services. For example, my university’s learning management system (D2L) has recently added docReader, which reads documents in D2L to students. docReader will obviously help students with learning disabilities and recent concussions, but other students may also find it helpful. I point out this feature and encourage all students to consider using it. Rather than tell only anxious students how to manage the course well, I tell all my students how to handle anxiety and the course effectively. I offer help proactively, not only when students request it. Requiring that students request services advantages those students who are more assertive or less anxious about revealing an invisible disability.
Of course, there are accommodations that I don’t spontaneously offer to all students; I don’t have time and energy to offer everyone testing in a quiet place, for example. When students ask, however, I consider strategies that meet their needs. I want the syllabus to clearly communicate my willingness to do what I can to help students have successful learning experiences in my courses.
Our students have a long history of having their goals and sense of purpose ignored, so many see their assignments as busywork. We know better, but students may need some help in recognizing that assignments are purposefully designed and can be meaningful for them. I prompt students to find meaning and purpose in my assignments, as in this media analysis assignment in my forensic psychology course. I also use pro tips to get students thinking about how and why an assignment might be relevant to them.
Why this assignment? The ability to think critically and question what you read and see is an important skill that will benefit you in many different parts of your life, not just your understanding of the court and prison systems. This assignment will help you build this important skill.
I also try to make assignments meaningful by identifying the relationships between learning goals and assignments in my syllabi. I try to be clear about the progression of assignments across the semester and identify how earlier assignments build success with later assignments. Some of these things are apparent in the syllabus.
Syllabi do not only meet contractual demands. They’re an opportunity to help our students succeed in their courses and in life. Because I also see my syllabi as social justice tools, I continually consider how I can engage and motivate my students through them. I do this in the syllabus by working to communicate clearly that I’m committed to helping all students obtain the skills they need to succeed. I want them to recognize that I am their ally in and out of class.
Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431–441. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2061
Collins, T. (1997). For openers . . . An inclusive syllabus. In W. E. Campbell and K. A. Smith (Eds.), New paradigms for college teaching (pp. 79–102). Edina, MN: Interaction.
Cullen, R., & Harris, M. (2009). Assessing learner-centredness through course syllabi. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(1), 115–125. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602930801956018
Gannon, K. (2019). How to create a syllabus: Advice guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-syllabus?utm_source=at&utm_medium=en&cid=at
Richmond, A. S., Morgan, R. K., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N. G., & Cooper, A. G. (2019). Project Syllabus: An exploratory study of learner-centered syllabi. Teaching of Psychology, 46(1), 6–15. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628318816129
Richmond, A. S., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N., Morgan, R. K., & Becknell, J. (2017). 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. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000066
Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching, 53(4), 159–164. https://doi.org/10.3200/CTCH.53.4.159-164
Stein, L. (2019). Assessing the value of diversity statements in course syllabi. In J. M. Slattery (Chair), Project Syllabus: All syllabi can be social justice syllabi. Symposium at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Chicago, IL.
Jeanne M. Slattery, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and has written three books on becoming an empathic, effective, and culturally aware therapist. She has been involved with Project Syllabus, a compendium of excellent syllabi in psychology, for over 20 years.