Two faculty researchers used an interesting experimental design to test the effects of syllabus tone on students' impressions of the course and instructor. They created two skeleton syllabi, each with identical information about the course and its objectives, assignments, policies, and grading criteria. What they manipulated was the tone. One was written in a “friendly” or “warm” tone and the other in an “unfriendly” or “cold” tone. The article contains examples from each syllabus. In the case of missed exams or assignments, the cold syllabus states: “Unfortunately, illnesses, a death in the family, or other traumatic events are part of life. Such events are no excuse for not contacting me within 24 hours and provide (sic) documentation. If you contact me within 24 hours of the event and provide documentation, a make-up exam will be given.” In the warm syllabus, the information was conveyed this way: “Unfortunately, illnesses, a death in the family, or other traumatic events are part of life. Such events are unwelcomed and, because I understand how difficult these times are, if you contact me within 24 hours of the event and provide documentation, I will be happy to give you a make-up exam.” It is interesting to note that these differences in tone are fairly subtle. The tone taken by many faculty in their syllabi is stronger, more directive, and harsher than the examples used in this research.
Students participating in the study were told the department was reviewing potential candidates, and that one candidate was not able to be on campus but had forwarded a sample syllabus that the department would like students to review and evaluate. Students were given the syllabus and then asked to rate their impressions of the instructor via questions that indexed the coldness, warmth, approachability, motivation, and difficulty. “Our results revealed that a syllabus written in a friendly tone had a significant impact on how the instructor was perceived.” (p. 326) Students rated the instructor who had submitted the friendly syllabus as being warmer, less cold, more approachable, and more motivated to teach the course; they also expected that the course taught by the friendly instructor would be easier.
One cohort participating in the study got either the friendly or unfriendly syllabus to review, but then after reviewing it, they listened to a five-minute videotaped lecture of a person described to them as one of the potential candidates. The lecture segment was chosen on a topic researchers thought students would find interesting but, more importantly, the instructor, who was personable on the tape, “did not appear to be overly friendly or unfriendly.” (p. 325) In that case, the presence of the instructor changed students' impressions. They perceived the instructor “to be less warm, less approachable, and less motivated to teach the course compared to students who did not watch the videotaped lecture.” (p. 325) Seeing the instructor in this study provided more cues than simply reading the syllabus.
The study was not completed in the context of a real course or with an instructor who the students interacted with throughout the course. It lacks ecological validity, but the findings still merit thoughtful consideration. When students encounter the syllabus for a course, they are getting the information they need about the course, but the way that information is communicated may convey messages that are equally important.Reference: Harnish, R.J. and Bridges, K.R., (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students' perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology Education, 14, 319-330.