A syllabus is a great way to provide students with the course purpose, an overview of assignments, and the rules of engagement that you will be using throughout the term. But did you know that a syllabus could also be used as a tool to motivate and encourage students? The following three tips help foster a growth mindset and begin the term on a positive note:
Tip 1: Use a Warm Tone
The way we communicate information in our syllabi has the potential to set the tone for the entire term. Studies have shown that using a warm tone (i.e., positive and friendly) in the syllabus can impact student self-efficacy and retention even before the course begins. This was especially true for at-risk and first-generation learners.
In essence, the tone used shaped how students viewed the instructor and the course. A warm tone left the impression that students could ask for help if they were struggling, while a cold tone made many feel unsupported. When we use a warm tone, we can help our students adopt a mindset of success, which will prime them for learning.
The following are a few examples comparing warm and cold tones (taken from the Harnish, et. al. 2011 study, the emphasis is mine). As you read, please notice how adapting to a warm tone does not mean that we need to loosen our rules or lower our expectations.
Office Hours Example
- Office Hours: 233 Jones Hall
- MWF 10:00–10:50 a.m.
- TR 9:30–10:30 a.m.
- [email protected]
If you need to contact me outside of office hours, you may email me, call my office, or contact the department and leave a message
- Student hours: 233 Jones Hall
- MWF 10:00–10:50 a.m.
- TR 9:30–10:30 a.m.
- [email protected]
I welcome you to contact me outside of class and student hours. You may email me, call my office, or contact the department and leave a message
Course Goals & Objectives Example
Some of the specific skills you should obtain in this course are listed below. Because you are not yet a critical consumer of information about mental processes and behavior, all of these activities will help you become one, and if you are motivated enough, use the skills in your daily life.
Some of the specific skills I hope you will obtain in this course are listed below. Being a critical consumer of information about mental processes and behavior is important; all of these activities will help you become one, and it is my hope that you will use the skills in your daily life.
Late or Missed Assignments Example
Unfortunately, illnesses, death in the family or other traumatic events are part of life. Such events are no excuse for not contacting me within 24 hours of the event and providing documentation. If you contact me within 24 hours of the event and provide documentation, a make-up exam will be given.
Unfortunately, illnesses, 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.
The trouble with tone is that it happens no matter what. When we are not intentional about using a warm tone, we could inadvertently use a cold tone. The following are few quick steps you can take to ensure you are using a warm tone:
- Use everyday language and address students as “you” instead of “students.”
- Visualize your students as engaged, successful learners. How we visualize our audience can impact our word choices, which affect our tone.
- Include humor and/or enthusiasm.
- Read your syllabus out loud. Better yet, ask someone else to read it out loud to you. Revise and repeat as needed.
Tip 2: Use Questions to Engage
Using clear sections to organize similar content will make your syllabus easier to navigate, which can encourage students to continue reading. Succinct headers, such as Course Information or Grades, are a great way to clarify what type of information can be found in that section. Consider using questions as your headers to further connect students with how the information might impact them. For example, instead of using “Course Information,” you could use “What is the purpose of this course?” Instead of using “Grades,” you might use “What is the overall workload and what dates are most important?”
After revising your syllabus under the new headers you’ve selected, read through the content, and consider if the information needs to be in the syllabus or if it would better serve the students if it were located in another area of the course. For example, instead of providing extensive details about how the course will prepare students for the professional world in the syllabus, you might add a note alongside the official course description to direct students to the Course Introduction video, which contains these details. This not only helps to declutter your syllabus, but it also elevates the importance of specific areas in the course and reinforces the structure they will use to complete course content.
It’s true that students are not the only audience for your syllabus. Syllabi are used by program and department leadership in program planning and accreditation. So, don’t forget to retain the information pertinent to these processes.
Tip 3: Make Your Syllabus Accessible
Finally, ensuring that all students can access the information in your syllabus is key for their success. Many students use screen readers to help them either access or comprehend written material. Others rely on accessible contrast and color. Use the following tips to help ensure that all students have quick and ready access to your syllabus content. (The hyperlinked material provides more information regarding each item and how to implement it in your course.)
- Use the built-in heading styles to format headers.
- Use web-friendly colors.
- Add alternative text (aka, alt text) to convey content provided through images or illustrations (e.g., graphs). If the image is purely decorative, mark the alt text as “decorative.”
- Use meaningful text as hyperlinks instead of the URL or vague messaging, such as “click here.”
When possible, let the tool or software do the heavy lifting for you! Microsoft Office products have built-in formatting and web-friendly color palettes. They also include an Accessibility Checker, which can help you quickly identify any area of your document that is inaccessible for students with alternate abilities.
- Harnish, Richard J., and K. Robert Bridges. “Effect of Syllabus Tone: Students’ Perceptions of Instructor and Course.” Social Psychology of Education, 18 March 2011.
- McKeachie, Wilbert J. Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher (8th ed.). Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath,1986.
- DiClementi, J. D., and M. M. Handelsman. “Empowering Students: Class-generated Course rules.” Teaching of Psychology, 32 (2005), 18–21.
- Babad, Elisha, Henry Kaplowitz, and John Darley. “A ‘Classic’ Revisited: Students’ Immediate and Delayed Evaluations of a Warm/Cold Instructor.” The Social Psychology of Education, 3, 81–102, 1999.