Syllabus Format May Enhance Understanding of Course Requirements

Syllabus Format May Enhance Understanding of Course Requirements
Over the years, course syllabi have evolved from a simple document that outlines course objectives and requirements to an intimidating, multi-paged contract of terms and conditions for successful course completion. A number of writers have proposed syllabus makeovers, including some who've suggested the syllabus be offered in newsletter style. Others have proposed quizzing students on the syllabus as a way to encourage them to read it carefully.

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Over the years, course syllabi have evolved from a simple document that outlines course objectives and requirements to an intimidating, multi-paged contract of terms and conditions for successful course completion. A number of writers have proposed syllabus makeovers, including some who've suggested the syllabus be offered in newsletter style. Others have proposed quizzing students on the syllabus as a way to encourage them to read it carefully. We decided to try these two ideas and investigate if they helped students understand four essential course requirements: course objectives, course policies, procedures for late work, and the number of exams. Each of us created one traditional course syllabus and one graphically enhanced syllabus in newsletter format, randomly distributing each type on the first day of class. We quizzed students on the course requirements on the second day of class. Both syllabi contained identical content. The newsletter syllabi were designed using a newsletter template readily available in word processing programs. The essential elements of the syllabus were placed in boxes, enhanced with graphic elements, and written in different fonts. We tried for designs that highlighted important parts and were graphically pleasing to read. One of our goals as instructors is to place the responsibility for learning experiences on students. We thought a more engaging syllabus format might be more intellectually invigorating and better at connecting students with the course. Moreover, for those of us who include student learning objectives (SLOs), we hoped that offering them in this format might stimulate more self-regulated student learning. Each of us reviewed syllabus content as part of normal first-day activities and asked students to review the syllabus prior to the next class, emphasizing that there would be a quiz on syllabus content. In addition to questions about course requirements, the quiz also contained an open-ended question that asked for student reactions to the type of syllabus they received. Quizzes and syllabi were distributed in a total of six classes, and we received responses from 146 students, 46 percent of whom were enrolled in upper-division courses, and 54 percent of whom were in lower-division courses. Of those upper- and lower-division students, 25 percent were online, and 74 percent were face-to-face at either a small private liberal arts institution (32 percent) or a research institution (67 percent). When we graded the quizzes, we found that upper-division students who received the newsletter-style syllabi scored higher on each of the four quiz questions. Lower-division students scored higher on all questions except the one on course policies, where they scored an average of 77 percent correct, to those who received a traditional syllabus, who scored an average of 84 percent correct. In their responses to the open-ended question, students stated that, regardless of format, they liked syllabi that got their attention and were “pleasing to the eye.” They wanted syllabi that were easy to read so that they could locate important items, such as course policies. Students also appreciated a syllabus that was “clear and straightforward,” where they could “find due dates,” and have sufficient detail but that was not “too long” or “too wordy.” A final theme of syllabus organization emerged in which students expressed appreciation for chunking information into well-organized, easily digestible parts. Those students receiving traditional syllabi provided few comments about the format, except for the fact that it was “familiar.” With the newsletter format, however, students again commented on “aesthetics,” indicating that the newsletter syllabus was “fresh,” “inviting,” “engaging,” “memorable,” “attention-grabbing,” “artsy,” and “visually appealing.” Four students found the pictures “distracting,” and three others thought the syllabus was “confusing.” So, which syllabus format is better for students? The quiz scores did provide some, but not conclusive, evidence that a newsletter format aided understanding course requirements. Responses to the open-ended responses offered additional supportive insights. If students see “familiar” as the main descriptor of a traditional syllabus, then using a newsletter syllabus may generate some excitement about the course, which may mean more students' deciding that the syllabus is worth reading. The positive comments about newsletter formats' being “more inviting” and “aesthetically pleasing” also hint at greater student engagement. Many instructors believe the syllabus should introduce students to the course's learning objectives, but many students look at the syllabus only as a calendar, detailing what they have to have done by when. A graphically enhanced syllabus might be a mechanism instructors can use to address these cross-purposes, especially if there is a focus on SLOs during first-day activities. Instructors who employ a graphically enhanced syllabus can more easily direct students' attention to the learning objectives and encourage them to participate in their education from the first day. They can also discuss how self-regulated learning contributes to successful course completion. Betsy Wackernagel Bach (betsy.bach@umontana.edu) is from the University of Montana; Alison M. Lietzenmayer is from the Old Dominion University; and Mary Lahman is from the Manchester University.