Syllabi: A tool to build success

Jeanne Slattery

– Jeanne M. Slattery

I spend a good part of my summer reflecting on last year and looking forward to next. I began editing my syllabi last semester during our course, more seriously edited them at the end of the semester, and now that the new semester is less than a week away, I’m reconsidering my assignments and rubrics, the pace of my semester, and where we’re going. My internship class required few edits, while my capstone course is being significantly redesigned.

I have been part of a national project collecting psychology syllabi for more than 22 years, chaired this project for two years, organized more than a dozen symposia considering syllabi, and have been performing research with colleagues across the country on what makes syllabi effective.

I care about syllabi, but all of us who care about our teaching and our students should also care.

Why do we need syllabi?

On the crassest level, syllabi are a contract between faculty and our students – one that administration holds us to (Slattery & Carlson, 2005). When a student has a complaint, administrators should pull out the class syllabi to consider whether the faculty member had deviated from the syllabus. It helps to identify the late penalty, for example, rather than make this up on the fly.

But syllabi also serve more altruistic and high-minded purposes. They orient students and help our students stay on track. They level the playing ground, helping students recognize strategies for success when they might otherwise fail to understand how they can become more successful (Collins, 1997). They can engage students (Richmond, Slattery, Morgan, Mitchell, & Becknell, 2017). Writing syllabi can help us plan where we want to go and meet our goals (Slattery & Carlson, 2005).

And, they are the first impression of us that our students have. Does this first impression matter? Even half a minute of a video without sound of professor predicts student evaluations at the end of the semester (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1993). That’s not surprising, as by the time our students meet us, they’ve had a lot of time with good teachers (and bad) and can predict what works (and not). Our syllabi can make that same sort of first impression.

What I’m saying is that our syllabi are an opportunity to increase our students’ success in college – and that of a class.

Writing a syllabus helps me consider where I want a course to go and what course and life goals I hope to achieve. My goals for my face-to-face section of Abnormal Psychology include: (a) developing greater understanding and empathy for other people, especially people with psychiatric problems; (b) using psychological principles and theories to understand client problems and direct treatment, considering the strengths and weaknesses of each explanation; (c) building research and information literacy skills for answering questions about psychiatric disorders; (d) building skills in working as a member of a team, writing findings, and presenting ideas effectively; and (e) strengthening career skills consistent with success in graduate school and the workplace and take steps toward making your career goals happen.

Knowing where we want to go matters, but so does knowing who your students are and what they need. You might consider what barriers your students face in this course, how your course design helps your students see themselves as effective and capable learners, how your design choices help your students meet our learning goals more effectively, and how your course design meets the needs of a range of learners, not only students “just like me.”

What should we consider?

There are a number of things that we might consider in our syllabus design that are discussed much more extensively elsewhere (see Gannon, 2019). These things include basic course information (e.g., name and prerequisites), required texts and readings, assignments, grades, and university policies. In this discussion, I’ll focus on tone, strategies for success, accessibility, and our students’ meaning and purpose.

Tone.

One thing that seems to make a difference in how our students perceive us and our course is the tone we use. My colleagues and I have been doing research on syllabus tone, especially that in learner-centered syllabi – syllabi that build a sense of community, communicate a shared sense of power and control, and use student-centered strategies of evaluation (Cullen & Harris, 2009; Richmond, Morgan, Slattery, Mitchell, & Cooper, 2019). We have found that tone affects perceptions of faculty as flexible/open-minded and creative/interesting (Richmond et al., 2017). Students reading a more learner-centered syllabus perceive the professor as caring for and about their students, having a positive attitude, and being enthusiastic. They rated a learner-centered syllabus much more positively and indicated much higher levels of engagement (Richmond et al., 2017). Tone did not affect perceptions of knowledge, competence, or preparedness.

This section of my online Forensic Psychology syllabus is an example of learner-centeredness, as seen in a syllabus, clearly addressing community issues and shared power and control.

“Office hours.” I am looking forward to working closely with you this semester, and you can expect me to play an active role in the course. Our correspondence will be primarily through the Discussions and Announcements areas. I will post announcements every week, answer questions in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board in D2L, and provide detailed feedback on major assignments. I will email you if there is a time-sensitive issue.

If yours is a general question, please post it in the Virtual Office Hours Discussion Board so everyone can profit. Answer each other’s questions if you get there first. If yours is a more specific question, email me. I generally respond to email within 24 hours. If I don’t, I missed your email; email me again. Please reach out to me if you need help—that’s why I’m here!

I will also set up in-person meetings – for those of you in or near Clarion – and scheduled discussions online. If you would especially like to “talk” with me, make sure that I know when works for you. I’ll try to make this work.

Note that some aspects of this syllabus are particular to an online class rather than a class I would meet in the classroom (e.g., the photo at the top of the syllabus and my use of Virtual Office Hours). Write your syllabus to meet the unique needs of your students and class.

Strategies for success.

Our syllabi can include strategies for success. In addition to a list of strategies for doing well, I’ve also begun including Pro Tips throughout my Abnormal Psychology syllabus. I know how to be successful, but my students often do not. Here are two examples from this semester’s syllabus.

Pro Tip: You get the most out of assignments when you make them your own. What do you want to learn? Where do you need help?

Pro Tip: Please don’t text in class. The research suggests that even having your phone out interferes with your learning and that of your classmates (Ward et al., 2017).

Accessibility.

When prompted, many of us think about what we can do to accommodate our students with disabilities. Many of these accommodations are things that we can do for all of our students to help them be more successful. DocREADER in D2L will now read a page to students. This will obviously be helpful for students with learning disabilities and recent concussions, but maybe it would also be helpful for others. (My husband and I watch all TV, not just TV in a language we don’t know, with captions turned on. Neither of us has an identified hearing problem.) Rather than only telling my anxious students how to handle the course well, I tell all of my students how to handle anxiety and the course effectively. My resources are always available, not only available when a student gives me a form from Disability Services. And, I offer help proactively, rather than only after my students request it.

Of course, there are other things that are part of a student’s accommodation that I don’t spontaneously offer (e.g., testing in a quiet place). I don’t have time and energy to do this effectively. If student ask, though, I let them take exams in a quieter place in our building.

Finding their why.

I think our why matters – and our students often have difficulty identifying that why. In grade school and high school, their why was ignored. Because they don’t know why they are doing something, they often see the task as busywork – when we know better. I try to prompt them to find their why in my assignments, as with this Media Analysis assignment in Forensic Psychology, but also in my syllabi, as in my first Pro Tip.

Why this assignment? The ability to think critically about what you read and see is an important skill that will benefit you in many different parts of your life, not just your understanding of the court and prison systems. This assignment will help you build this important skill.

There are other ways that we can help our students see their why – and ours. I identify the relationships between my learning goals and assignments in my syllabus. I try to be clear about the progression of assignments across the semester and how earlier assignments build success in later assignments.

Conclusions

Syllabi are not just a document to meet contractual demands (although you can see some of the “contract” language in my syllabus posted in the Cloud), but an opportunity to help our students become more successful. Syllabi can be a social justice document, helping all of our students obtain the skills to become successful – and to help them recognize that we are their allies to help them succeed.

References

Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431-441.

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 Education34(1), 115-125.

Gannon, K. (2019). How to create a syllabus: Advice guide. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-syllabus?utm_source=at&utm_medium=en&cid=at

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.

Richmond, A. S., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N., Morgan, R. K., & Becknell, J. (2017). Can a learner-centered syllabus change students’ perceptions of student-professor rapport and master teacher behaviors? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2, 159-168.

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


Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is a student-centered teacher, who loves her students, teaching, and learning. She has published three books – Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill; and most recently, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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