April 15, 2024


Science It Works

Readers’ Suggestions for Crafting a Welcoming Syllabus

I received a number of interesting responses. One common theme: The words used on the syllabus definitely matter, but so does the visual presentation.

Liz Norell, an associate professor of political science at Chattanooga State Community College, summed up her approach by writing, “I’ve worked really hard to adapt my syllabus into a document that’s readable, user-friendly, and supportive.”

Cathy Stierman, an assistant professor of education at Clarke University, uses color and graphics to break hers up — and keeps them contained to a single page. The format, she wrote, has been well received by students, who, she adds, “ask every semester if I have been, or will be, in trouble for doing this. Makes me sad and yet cracks me up every time!”

In fact, Stierman wrote, a former president encouraged moving the syllabus in this direction, providing the kind of “permission” that fosters experimentation.

Cara Hersh, an associate professor of English at the University of Portland, has also embraced the visual syllabus. To ensure that students read it — and answer any questions they might have — she has them annotate her syllabus on the first day of class (she uses Perusall but notes that Hypothesis would also work).

Hersh and a colleague will lead a workshop next month to help colleagues think through making their syllabi inclusive, visually appealing — and integrated with the university’s learning-management system.

Leslie Berntsen, a lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Southern California, provided a good reason for making syllabi visually appealing. She pointed to this paper co-written by her friend and colleague Amy Nusbaum, an assistant professor of psychology at Heritage University, which found that “visual, infographic-style syllabi can lead students to perceive their instructors as kinder and more approachable”

Michelle Pacansky-Brock, a faculty mentor for online teaching and learning at the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, pushes the idea a bit further, arguing that a visually appealing document is no longer enough. She champions an approach called the “liquid” syllabus, which she describes as a “public, mobile-friendly website that includes a brief, friendly welcome video from the instructor and hopeful language to welcome students and demystify how to be successful.” Here’s an example of what she means.

Readers also shared research and other resources on creating a welcoming syllabus, which appear in the following section. Thanks to everyone who wrote in!

Research and Resources

  • Christopher Richmann, assistant director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning at Baylor University, shared a recent study in which he and his co-authors found that “instructors’ syllabus language often does not convey their perceptions of themselves as teachers” and offer ideas for closing that gap.
  • Veronica Armour, associate director of the Innovation, Design, & Entrepreneurship Academy (IDEA) at Rutgers University, shared a Twitter thread Robin DeRosa wrote about a presentation on making a “cruelty-free” syllabus a few years back.
  • Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of California at Santa Cruz, sent along Estela Mara Bensimon’s Syllabus Review Guide, which is meant to promote racial and ethnic equity. “Some of our faculty have been using it this year to ‘tone check’ their syllabi and have found it absolutely transformative,” Greene wrote. 

Adjusting to In-Person

Even if they’re eager to be back in the classroom, returning to in-person learning will be a big adjustment for students who’ve spent more than a year taking most courses remotely. In a recent Twitter thread, Kelly Hogan, a STEM teaching professor and associate dean of instructional innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shared a question she posed to students about whether anything about the transition made them anxious, along with some of their responses.

Among the things students shared:

  • I’m definitely anxious about taking exams in a classroom setting again just because I really hate watching other people finish and get up and leave because it makes me feel like really crunched for time.
  • I am worried about labs since I will be entering higher-level lab classes without any actual in-lab experience.
  • There is no pause button or rewind on in-person lectures, and that is something I think I am going to have to adjust to after so many remote classes.

Read the full thread here.

Have you asked your students how they feel about returning to in-person courses? What did they say? How do you plan to support students through this transition? Share your ideas with me at [email protected] and they may appear in a future newsletter.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at [email protected] or [email protected].

— Beckie

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