Best Practices in Syllabus Tone
Although the course syllabus is often overlooked or undervalued as the first form of communication between students and their instructors, it plays an important role for both. For students, the syllabus communicates information about the course that they require throughout the semester. For instructors, it assists with planning and demonstrates to students the instructor’s concerns for the course and for them (Hammons & Shock, 1994). Importantly, the syllabus creates a first impression about the instructor and his or her attitudes toward teaching (Grunert, 1997). In this column, we identify six characteristics that contribute to a warm syllabus tone, whereby instructors create a classroom environment in which they are seen as approachable and in which students become engaged. We also provide concrete examples of syllabi sections using “cold” language and improved versions using a “warm” tone.
Much has been written about how to create an effective syllabus. There appears to be widespread agreement about what the requisite components are. A good syllabus communicates to students: 1) basic information about the course and contact information; 2) course purpose including goals and objectives; 3) instructor’s teaching philosophy and beliefs; 4) assignments and course calendar; 5) required and optional materials including textbooks and supplemental readings such as journal articles; 6) methods of instruction and course delivery; 7) grading procedures; and 8 ) learning resources for students (see Altman, 1989; Appleby, 1999; Davis, 1993; Matejka & Kurke, 1994; McKeachie, 2002; Slattery & Carlson, 2005; Suddreth & Galloway, 2006). Indeed, the presence of these areas has been part of the criteria used by Project Syllabus, an arm of The Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology (OTRP), in evaluating and sharing excellent syllabi in psychology (see http://teachpsych.org/otrp/syllabi/syllabi.php).
Only recently has attention shifted from the elements of a good syllabus to how such information is conveyed. Students can glean the instructor’s interpersonal style and approachability from a syllabus’s messages about expectations for classroom climate (DiClementi & Handelsman, 2005; Rogers & Abell, 2008; Sanz de Acedo Lizarraga, Sanz de Acedo Baquedano, Goicoa Mangado, & Cardelle-Elawar, 2009). A syllabus that talks at length about penalties for not following protocol or instructions can convey “coldness” about the instructor and the class climate, and can signal an undesirable class (Rubin, 1985; Slattery & Carlson, 2005). In contrast, a syllabus that provides course information in a positive or friendly manner can build a sense of belonging and community. A positive syllabus tone removes unnecessary and unhelpful barriers between instructors and students, making the classroom a comfortable and safe place for discovery.
The Characteristics of Warm Syllabi
Both the literature on syllabi and that on other types of motivating relationships suggest six strategies for warming syllabi (i.e., tone, rationale, self-disclosure, humor, compassion, and enthusiasm). These are illustrated in Table 1 (on pages 26-27) and discussed below.
(1) Positive or Friendly Language. Use positive, friendly language so students feel comfortable and welcome. Positive or friendly language should be used throughout the syllabus, as this triggers students’ implicit personality theories (Asch, 1946) about the instructor and the course. For example, note the difference in tone in the two examples of office hours, with the warm version indicating, “Individual assistance is always available by appointment. I look forward to seeing you during student hours.”
(2) Rationale for Assignments. Providing the rationale for assignments can help motivate students by making it clear how each assignment relates to the course goals and their own learning (Zinn, 2009). Instructors can also supplement their assignment rationale with strategies to help students further develop their metacognition about their learning (e.g., providing students with strategies for monitoring and regulating their study behavior). Students will be more likely to approach coursework with zeal when they recognize the work’s value and feel able to succeed. For instance, in the example on Optional Readings, the “warm” instructor notes, “too often students simply accept what they see in a text as truth without critically evaluating the information,” and suggests that students will have a different experience in this course.
(3) Self-Disclosure. One way a syllabus can facilitate a warm and inviting classroom environment is through the sharing of personal experiences that lead to liking (Collins & Miller, 1994). For example, Sorenson (1989) argued that self-disclosure in the classroom, whether it is relevant to subject content or not, can provide insight into an instructor’s interpersonal style. As in the warm example on Learning Resources (i.e., “We’ve all needed help in something at some point in our lives.”), this can be minimal, yet effective. The examples also create positive self-disclosures by speaking in first person (e.g., “I developed…” “My hope…”).
(4) Humor. Humor or not taking oneself so seriously can help with tone, but humor can be tricky and requires tact (see Pollio, 2002). Mester and Tauber (2004) suggest, “to be effective, humor need only be pertinent, brief, tasteful and nonhostile” (p. 161). There is no reason why a syllabus cannot contain a cartoon, joke or anecdote about the course topic matter. Indeed, humor seems to be characteristic of master teachers and an indicator of their enthusiasm for their disciplines (Buskist, 1998). Humor can capture attention to important details in the syllabus and increase motivation for learning the course material (e.g., in the section on Teaching Philosophy, the instructor notes that she cannot make students eat what she prepares, but that she hopes they come to class hungry).
(5) Compassion. Compassion is perhaps best illustrated in the attendance policy, when acknowledging unexpected (and unwelcomed) life events. Instructors should strongly encourage students to attend class while also acknowledging that unforeseen events may occasionally prevent perfect attendance. In such cases, where the student is experiencing illnesses, death in the family or other traumatic events, a supportive word may be needed. Providing a limit on the number of missed classes is acceptable, with the syllabus noting that when students surpass the allotted excused absences, they are overextended and it may not be the best semester in which to take the course.
(6) Enthusiasm. Use the syllabus as an opportunity to show your students your passion for teaching and for your subject matter (e.g., in Course Goals, “Think for a moment about how test scores impact people’s lives — in schools, jobs, health, and many other important domains of life. Understanding test scores is vital…”). Enthusiasm has been found to foster active learning and student engagement (Patrick, Hisley, & Kempler, 2000). Other research has shown that student-rated instructor enthusiasm is positively correlated with other aspects of student-rated teaching effectiveness (e.g., structure of the course) and with self-ratings of student learning (Jackson et al., 1999).
In this column, we have attempted to provide a list of the prominent characteristics of a warm and inviting syllabus. We encourage instructors to review their syllabi for warmth to help their students feel welcome, comfortable, and excited about their courses. As Rubin (1985) noted:
… [I]f students could be persuaded that we are really interested in their understanding the material we offer, that we support their efforts to master it, and that we take their intellectual struggles seriously, they might respond by becoming more involved in our courses, by trying to live up to our expectations, and by appreciating our concern. (p. 56)
Providing friendly and positive language in the syllabus promotes understanding between students and teachers and sets the stage for a rewarding educational experience for all. Other aspects of a warm syllabus, such as infusing humor, compassion, and enthusiasm about the course, helps students immediately connect with the professor and course.
Furthermore, transparency regarding the rationale for assignments and appropriate self-disclosure within the syllabi help students recognize an approachable professor who is open to questions and discussions. Overall, a conscious effort to construct a syllabus warm in tone is a small investment with far reaching benefits for a successful course.
Additional examples of exemplary syllabi that convey warmth are available at the Project Syllabus website.
Examples of Cold and Warm Syllabus Sections
|Office Hours:||Office Hours:131 Psychology T & R 8:30 – 9:30 firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need to contact me, you may email me or contact the department and leave a message. I will return your call.
|Student Hours:131 Psychology T & R 8:30 – 9:30 email@example.com
Individual assistance is always available by appointment. I look forward to seeing you during student hours. Stop in.
|Course Description||This course is an introduction to the principles and theories of the self. Students will be required to examine one’s own sense of self and others’ identity, beliefs and assumptions, and behaviors that form identity.||Who are we? Am I a son or daughter, a mother or father, a brother or sister? Am I a student, a worker, an athlete? How did we become who we are? How do we manage to play so many diverse roles? And what dictates the roles that we play? In this class, we will learn what science can tell us about development of the self and how scientists figure these things out. Your efforts in this class will help you understand who you are in new ways and prepare you to study the self scientifically.|
|Course goals and objectives||Course Goal The course will provide you with a broad and general introduction to scale development, scale transformation, norms, standardization, validation procedures, and estimation of reliability.Course Objectives By the end of the course, you should be able to. . .||Course Goal Think for a moment about how test scores impact people’s lives – in schools, jobs, health, and many other important domains of life. Understanding test scores is vital both to psychology as a science and to society as a whole. In this course you will have the opportunity to learn about scale development, scale transformation, norms, standardization, validation procedures, and estimation of reliability. You will complete the course with the ability to use test scores appropriately and to evaluate their use by others.Course Objectives Some of the specific skills you will obtain in this course are listed here. All of these will help you to become a critical consumer of test scores and to be a better decision-maker about testing in your professional and personal lives. . .|
|Instructor’s teaching philosophy and beliefs||This course is a bit like a restaurant. You order and pay for the food. I serve it. I cannot and will not make you eat it. That is your choice. To assist you in understanding the prominent ideas, theories and principles in testing and measurement, I have assigned the following tasks for you to complete. . .||If you take a moment, I bet you can think back to the first time you ordered something off the menu at a restaurant when you were out with your family. This course is a bit like that – ordering something off a menu at a restaurant. You selected this course off of a menu of courses and certainly, I don’t have to tell you the price you paid for your “meal.” My job is like the chef in the restaurant. I want to serve you the most appetizing and nutritious food I can. But unlike that meal with your family, I will not hound you if you are not hungry. Why? Well, from my experiences with my own kids, I know I cannot make you eat what I prepare. That is your choice. But I hope that you come to this class hungry. I will present the prominent ideas, theories and principles developed that form the foundationof testing and measurement. To assist you in learning the course material, I have assigned the following tasks for you to complete. . .|
|Required and optional materials||Optional Readings Each has been placed on e-Reserve.||Optional Readings Why optional readings? I developed the optional reading list for a number of reasons. Foremost, the readings provide an opportunity for those interested in social psychology to go beyond the material provided in the required text and examine in more detail specific topics that are of interest to social psychologists. Second, too often students simply accept what they see in a text as truth without critically evaluating the information. My hope is that you will start (if you haven’t already) being critical of what you are reading by drawing upon your own experiences and other knowledge. I have carefully selected the optional readings because they are provocative and provide a different perspective to the required text. Each has been placed on e-Reserve.|
|Methods of instruction and course delivery||For each unit, there is required reading. The lecture is intended to amplify, explain and demonstrate the material in the textbook.||How can you best succeed in this course? Engage in active reading of the assigned text. (I will explain what I mean by active reading below.) The purpose of the lectures is to amplify, explain, and demonstrate the material presented in the text. There will be some overlap between the text and the lectures, but there will be a substantial amount of material that is unique to each. Your understanding of each lecture will be best if you have done the reading before the lecture.|
|Attendance||Professors are required to keep attendance records and report absences throughout the term. Any student failing to attend class for two consecutive weeks, without an approved excuse from their instructor, will be administratively withdrawn and notified via email that you have been withdrawn and a grade of “WH” will be recorded.||You should attend every class. I understand that extenuating circumstances arise that can make this difficult, but please let me know before class if you cannot attend. If circumstances make you miss more than 3 classes during the semester, you may have overextended yourself and you should consider dropping the class.|
|Class Participation||Your active participation is expected in this course. I expect you to actively participate by helping to summarize key learnings from the lecture and class discussion. Your comments, thoughts, questions and engagement in the in-class demonstrations will count toward your final grade. Please be advised that I may call on students or make comments that are intended to make the lectures a little more lively and interesting.||I hope you actively participate in this course. I say this because I found it is the best way to engage you in learning the material (and it makes the lectures more fun). I welcome your comments, thoughts, questions, and hope you take an active role in the in-class demonstrations. If the class is too quiet, I may call on a student to share his or her thoughts. Please note that if I do so, I am not “picking” on that student. I’m hoping to make the lecture a little more lively and interesting. One other tactic I use to make class a little livelier is to make puns. I’m told they are bad puns (but puns nonetheless) so help me out and share your thoughts and comments.|
|Missed Exams or Assignments||No make-up exams will be allowed without documentation of illness, death in the family or other suitably traumatic event.||Illnesses, death in the family or other traumatic events unfortunately are part of life. A make-up exam will be given if you contact me within 24 hours and provide documentation.|
|Grading||Exams are designed to assess your mastery of core concepts covered in lecture, discussion, and the assigned readings. You will take 3 exams accounting for 93% of your grade.||Exams are designed to assess your mastery of core concepts covered in lecture, discussion, and the assigned readings. You will take 3 exams accounting for 93% of your grade. Exams take approximately 45 minutes to complete, but please take your time and remember that you have the full class meeting time (80 minutes).|
|Learning resources for students||If you need help with the course, please see me during office hours. If you cannot make office hours, please contact me to set up an appointment.||We’ve all needed help in something at some point in our lives. If you find yourself not understanding the assigned readings, lectures and assignments, please set up an appointment with me. You can drop by during my office hours or arrange a mutually convenient time if you can’t make my office hours.|
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Portions of this column were presented at the 117th Annual Convention of the American PsychologicalAssociation, Toronto, ON, August 6-9, 2009. Send correspondence to Richard J. Harnish, Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, New Kensington Campus, 3550 Seventh Street Road, Route 780, Upper Burrell, PA 15068-1765, Phone: 724-334-6735, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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