Read the d*** syllabus!

Jeanne M. Slattery, Aaron Richmond, Michelle Haney, Nathanael Mitchell, and Robin Morgan

Figure 1. Expectations for students and instructor, drawn from Aaron Richmond's syllabus. By permission.

Figure 1. Expectations for students and instructor, drawn from Aaron Richmond’s Cognitive Development syllabus.

We have just gotten back from Washington, DC, where we presented on syllabi for the American Psychological Association. We have worked together for several years as part of Project Syllabus, where we have considered what exemplary syllabi are and have identified Best Practices in syllabus creation. In the course of our work  we have identified a number of things that we believe especially characterize the best syllabi we see.

Figure 2. Academic honesty, from Aaron Richmond's syllabus. By permission.

Figure 2. Academic honesty, from Aaron Richmond’s Statistics syllabus.

Why syllabi? Syllabi lay out our expectations and requirements (e.g., attendance, participation, papers, exams). They are a contract between faculty and students (Slattery & Carlson, 2005). If it is in the syllabus and the student stayed in the class that student has de facto agreed to those requirements. They are also an opportunity to engage the class, create a class culture, and express and generate enthusiasm. Finally, syllabi create a level playing ground for less prepared students: “This is what you need to do to succeed,” “This is what will help you succeed.”

Syllabi are not effective unless they are read, however. Some faculty use a syllabus quiz, for example, to encourage students to read the syllabus (e.g., “Which of the following behaviors will earn a student full participation credit?”). Others put students into groups the first day to ask and answer questions about the course. Still others ask students to sign the syllabus as if it were a contract. We do these things, too, but have increasingly focused on creating warm and engaging learner-centered syllabi (Cullen & Harris, 2009) so as to increase students’ understanding of course expectations and strategies for success. See Figures 1 and 2. We’re excited, as our early data on the differences between warm and cool syllabi suggest that students remember warmer syllabi better than cooler ones.

What do we mean by warm and cool syllabi? We believe that warm syllabi are positive in tone, provide a rational for assignments, self-disclose somewhat (to foster a relationship with students), use a sense of humor, and express our passion and enthusiasm for teaching and the course (Harnish et al., 2009). See Table 1.

Table 1. Examples of elements from syllabi with cooler and warmer tones.

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 10.07.48 PMThink about your reactions to these two syllabi. Which did you like better? Why? What stood out for you? (We find that our eyes just skim over the cool examples without processing them.) Then think about how your students might respond. We believe it is important to consider how you will engage your students from the very beginning.

We closed our symposium by asking whether our attendees were passionate about their teaching. Almost everyone raised their hands. Then we asked how their students knew this. Many fewer could answer that question. We believe that if you’re passionate about what you do, you should share this with your students. We also believe that you may need to think about how you communicate this.

Some of us just tell them!


Collins, T. (1997). For openers . . . An inclusive syllabus. In W. E. Campbell and K. A. Smith (Eds.), New paradigms for college teaching, pp. 79–102. Edina, MN: Interaction.

Cullen, R., & Harris, M. (2009). Assessing learner-centredness through course syllabi. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 34, 115–125.

Harnish, R. J., McElwee, R. O., Slattery, J. M., Frantz, S., Haney, M. R., Shore, C. M., & Penley, J. (2011, January). Creating the foundation for a warm classroom climate: Best practices in syllabus tone. Observer, 24 (1). Retrieved from

Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching, 53, 159-164.

Thanks to Melissa Downes for her insightful comments on an earlier draft of this piece.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at

Aaron S. Richmond is an associate professor of educational psychology and human development at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), and has published dozens of articles and chapters in SoTL in order to strengthen student learning. He can be contacted at

Michelle Haney is a professor of psychology at Berry College, in the Charter School of Education and Human Sciences.  She currently chairs the Psychology Department. Her interests include autism and other developmental disabilities, community engagement and learning, the scholarship of teaching, and teaching and ethics. She can be reached at

Nathanael Mitchell is an assistant professor of psychology at Spalding University. He is director of the Health Psychology program. His research is on the health behaviors of underserved children, the psycho-social correlates of obesity and other chronic health conditions, and the social stigmatization of obese individuals by health care professionals, psychologists, and educators. Dr. Mitchell also regularly publishes book chapters and articles regarding best practices in post secondary teaching. He can be contacted at

Robin K. Morgan is a professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast and currently serves as Indiana University Director of the Faculty Colloquium on Excellence in Teaching (FACET). She serves as editor for the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, the founding (and current) editor for the Journal on Teaching and Learning with Technology, and is completing work on Quick Hits: Teaching Tips for Adjunct Faculty and Lecturers to be published by Indiana University Press. Robin served as the founding director of her campus teaching and learning center and has won several major teaching awards. She can be contacted at

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