The Syllabus: A Resource Guide

Research on aspects of the syllabus

Various aspects of the syllabus have been studied, among them issues of tone, its use of images, its length, whether it’s “learner-centered,” and the effects of its being so or not. The studies highlighted here also illustrate the range of methodologies researchers have used to study the syllabus. This collection is more representative than comprehensive. The research questions the work below explores are mostly pragmatic, and that makes the findings of interest to faculty.

Habanek, D. V. (2005). An examination of the integrity of the syllabus. College Teaching, 53(2), 62–64.

“The syllabus provides a document by which faculty members define learning outcomes for students and the methods by which those outcomes will be realized. It also should clearly model the accountability agreement between professor and student by the information it provides” (p. 62). An analysis of 25 syllabi from a range of disciplines showed that only three in the group provided all the information necessary for students to understand this accountability agreement.

Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effects of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14(3), 319–330.
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Student participants were told that the psychology department was reviewing candidates for a teaching position in the department. They were given the candidate’s syllabus— either a version with a positive, friendly tone or one with an unfriendly tone. They were asked to rate the candidate on several teacher evaluation items. “Our results revealed that a syllabus written in a friendly tone had a significant impact on how the instructor was perceived” (p. 326). That instructor was perceived to be warmer, more approachable, and more motivated to teach the course. These findings also held for two treatment groups who saw the same video of the teacher candidate. Even though they saw the same candidate, their review of the friendly or unfriendly syllabus influenced their impressions of the candidate.

Harrington, C. M., & Gabert-Quillen, C. A. (2015). Syllabus length and use of images: An empirical investigation of student perceptions. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(3), 235–243.

Students in this study were randomly assigned to read and assess one of six syllabus conditions involving length of the syllabus and the inclusion of images in it. Students who reviewed the medium or long syllabus had more positive impressions of the course and the instruction than those who reviewed the short one did. No significant differences were found between the syllabi with images and those without them. “This study provides some evidence that including assignment details, study tips, and campus resource information can positively influence student perceptions of the course and professor. It also seems to contribute to student motivation and willingness to seek help” (p. 242).

Ishiyama, J. T., & Hartlaub, S. (2002). Does the wording of syllabi affect student course assessment in introductory political science classes? PS: Political Science & Politics, 35(3), 567–570.

These researchers prepared two versions of an introductory political science syllabus; one with “punishing” language and one with “rewarding” language. Students recruited from other political science courses reviewed one or the other syllabus and then answered questions about the instructor. Researchers hypothesized that students reviewing the rewarding syllabus would perceive the instructor as more approachable. That hypothesis was confirmed. But students did not perceive that language as making the course more difficult or them less likely to enroll in that course. However, the researchers note that their data confirm that first- and second-year students are particularly sensitive to the wording of the syllabi and that this finding links to other research that documents when students find an instructor unapproachable, they are less likely to see help from him or her.

Jenkins, J. S., Bugeja, A. D., & Barber, L. K. (2014). More content or more policy? A closer look at syllabus detail, instructor gender, and perceptions of instructor effectiveness. College Teaching, 62(4), 129–135.

Over 125 undergraduate students enrolled in a general psychology course read a syllabus for a course taught by either a male or female instructor. The syllabus contained only basic course information, additional information on restrictive policies (such as no late papers accepted), or additional course content information. Only the added material on course policies increased perceptions of instructor competence, and that was true for male and female instructors.

Lightner, R., & Benander, R. (2018). First impressions: Student and faculty feedback on four styles of syllabi. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(3), 443–453.
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These researchers created four different types of syllabi, each with the same content. Students rated each syllabus in terms of what it communicated about the course and the instructor as well as how effectively it presented course-related material. Students preferred the “simple syllabus” and reported that they used syllabi as reference documents. Faculty also assessed each syllabus. Their preferences were not the same as students’, and they saw a different role for syllabi than students did.

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.

The Society for the Teaching of Psychology has created a repository with over 125 syllabi from all kinds of psychology courses. These authors analyzed that collection using previously published criteria for determining whether those syllabi were “learner-centered.” They were and have become increasingly so since 1999, when the repository was first established.

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.
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Researchers created two hypothetical syllabi for the same course: one teacher-centered, the other learner-centered. The students were assigned to read one or the other. After responding to quiz questions used to ensure the syllabus had been read, students rated the unknown professor on 12 teaching behaviors. “Student perceptions of faculty using a learner-centered syllabus were markedly more positive; they rated faculty as more creative, caring, happy, receptive, reliable and enthusiastic as well as having more student engagement in their class than faculty using a teacher-centered syllabus” (p. 1).

Saville, B. K., Zinn, T. E., Brown, A. R., & Marchuk, K. A. (2010). Syllabus detail and students’ perceptions of teacher effectiveness. Teaching of Psychology, 37(3), 186–189.

Almost 100 students reviewed a short and detailed version of a hypothetical syllabus for the same course and then used impressions gleaned from the syllabus to rate the instructor on a number of master teacher characteristics, such as approachability, knowledgeability, and fairness. The more detailed syllabus resulted in higher ratings on the master teacher characteristics. Students also said they were more likely to recommend that course to others and to take another course with that instructor.

Stanny, C., Gonzalez, M., & McGowan, B. (2015). Assessing the culture of teaching and learning through a syllabus review. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 40(7), 898–913.
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For this study, the researchers undertook a content analysis of 1,153 undergraduate syllabi to answer a variety of questions about the structure of courses and the campus culture for teaching and learning. It’s an interesting model, and the article includes the rubric used to assess the syllabi. One revealing finding: while many instructors listed 21st-century skills—for example, information literacy, teamwork, inquiry, and analysis—in their student learning objectives, few described concrete activities and assignments that would develop these skills (p. 909).

Research on the role of students in syllabus creation

Faculty have used various approaches that involve students in creation of the syllabus. In these examples, students actually created the syllabus, decided on the course assignments, voted for course readings, and negotiated aspects of the syllabus. The rationale is that providing input increases student interest in and commitment to the course and some student assessments of the approach offer confirmation.

Gibson, L. (2011). Student-directed learning: An exercise in student engagement. College Teaching, 59(3), 95–101.

In a small social work course, students designed the syllabus. The teacher provided the course description, 50 possible course objectives, and 22 potential assignments. Students put together the syllabus. The only stipulation: their syllabus had to accomplish the course description, which it did. The course description and the student-chosen course objectives and assignments are included in the article. Students’ comments indicated that creating the syllabus profoundly shaped their experience in the course.

Hudd, S. S. (2003). Syllabus under construction: Involving students in the creation of class assignments. Teaching Sociology, 31(2), 195–202.

In this introductory sociology course, students were given a “skeleton” (p. 197) syllabus. It identified each week’s topic and the text and supplementary readings for that topic. Students were tasked with developing the assignments, including the types of assignments, timing of the assignments, number and weight of the assignments. Students first did the task individually and then worked with others in a group to create a group list. Group lists were put on the board, and the teacher “orchestrated” the class-wide discussion that produced the final list. The teacher-author’s experience doing this in multiple sections suggests that “students who have collaborated in constructing their assignments become more personally invested in the course content and the evaluation of their performance” (p. 198).

McWilliams, S. (2015). The democratic syllabus. PS: Political Science & Politics, 48(1), 167–170.
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After doing two weeks of introductory readings, students voted on the ideas they wanted to discuss for the rest of the course. The instructor identified 22 subject areas, including potential discussion questions for each. Students decided on the questions, and then the teacher selected readings for those areas. Students also facilitated discussions of those topics and completed two assignments intentionally designed to give them a great deal of discretion.

Kaplan, D. M., & Renard, M. K. (2015). Negotiating your syllabus: Building a collaborative contract. Journal of Management Education, 39(3), 400–421.
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These instructors provide a detailed description of how they negotiate parts of the syllabus with students: “we limit the scope of the negotiation to a few issues to make the task more doable. Items we have found useful are paper length and number, homework amount, types and length of exams and quizzes, and weights of assignments” (p. 405). They don’t negotiate course content, because students lack sufficient knowledge of it. Some items are bargained within a range: group assignments, for instance, may count for somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of the course grade. The instructors present the syllabus as an initial offer. The article is detailed and full of helpful advice.

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