Exploring What the Syllabus Communicates

Syllabus
The syllabus is often described as a road map to the course. But along with laying out the direction and details of the course, it also conveys messages about what the course will be like. These messages are not communicated explicitly but are more a function of the language and tone of the syllabus. A group of psychology faculty agreed, but they also wondered if the theoretical framework of the syllabus might influence students' perceptions of the course and its instructor.

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The syllabus is often described as a road map to the course. But along with laying out the direction and details of the course, it also conveys messages about what the course will be like. These messages are not communicated explicitly but are more a function of the language and tone of the syllabus. A group of psychology faculty agreed, but they also wondered if the theoretical framework of the syllabus might influence students' perceptions of the course and its instructor. To test that hypothesis, Richmond, Slattery, Mitchell, Morgan, and Becknell created two syllabi: one that represented learner-centered approaches to course design and one that represented teacher-centered approaches. They modified a rubric created by Cullen and Harris in a work published in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education and used it to guide construction of the two syllabi. The rubric identified learner- and teacher-centered factors in three areas: community (how accessible the teacher was), power and control (the focus of the syllabus with respect to policies), and evaluation and assessment (the relative emphasis on learning and grades). The learner-centered syllabus created for the study focused more on student learning, and the teacher-centered one focused more on the delivery of course content. To ascertain whether each syllabus was correctly perceived as teacher- or learner-centered, they were blindly rated on 12 subfactors, derived from the three main factors, and both were correctly identified. Examples from each of the syllabi are included in the article. These two syllabi were then given to 90 introductory psychology students, who received course credit for participating in the study. The students were given either the learner- or teacher-centered syllabus. They were told to read the syllabus, took a quiz on it, and then were asked to rate the instructor (who they were told wrote the syllabus) on 12 teacher behaviors taken from a Teacher Behavior Checklist (TBC), developed empirically, that listed the characteristic behaviors of master teachers (behaviors such as effective communication, preparation, enthusiasm, flexibility). They also rated the hypothetical teacher on another instrument that measures levels of teacher rapport with students. The findings confirmed both of the authors' hypotheses. Students did perceive the instructor who wrote the learner-centered syllabus as having significantly higher master teacher behaviors than the instructor with the teacher-centered syllabus. They also rated the teacher with the learner-centered syllabus as having significantly higher rapport with students. For instructors who worry about establishing connections with students in online courses, the results of this study are promising. They indicate that messages about who they are and what they hope will happen in the course can be conveyed by the course syllabus. It can be used to help set the tone for the course. For instructors with face-to-face classes, there is an important caveat. The study setting was, in the words of the researchers, “highly controlled” and “artificial.” In face-to-face courses the syllabus is often delivered by the instructor who in most classes then talks about it at length. How the instructor's presence and discussion of the syllabus affects students' perceptions of it were not studied in this work. There are some instructors who now make the course syllabus available online before the class convenes so students may first review it without the instructor being present. We don't know at this time if their initial impressions are changed when they meet the instructor in person. Whether the syllabus is first encountered with or without the instructor's being present, work like this confirms the importance of this artifact of teaching. We've recognized its value as a road map for some time now. There are many articles and some books that delineate the various course details that can be included on the syllabus, often recommending a collection of them. What isn't as regularly recognized are these important “meta” messages that lurk between the lines of this course document. The syllabus subtly hints at what instructors believe about students, how much they care about learning, and whether the learning environment in the course will be open and inviting or closed and controlled. It's more than just a road map. The syllabus strongly suggests what the trip will like. Work like this should encourage us to look closely at our syllabi. What would students conclude about us and our course? It's an important part of how they are introduced to both. Reference: Richmond, A. S., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N., Morgan, R. K., & Becknell, J. (2016). 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), 1–10.