Monday, May 25, 2015

The Importance of Tone in the Course Syllabus

The course syllabus has been receiving greater scrutiny in recent years. For administration, the syllabus is considered to have legal weight, a contract between instructor and student. For external reviewers, it provides criteria to judge the education students receive. For instructors and students, it structures the course. Among some of the things the document is supposed to contain are:

  • Complete course information and description
  • Information about the instructor and any assistants 
  • A list of reading and any other required materials 
  • Student learning outcomes (reviewers are big on these)
  • All graded course requirements and a breakdown of grading scale 
  • Criteria for evaluation of assignments (this is never on my syllabus.)
  • Policy on late work and extra credit. 
  • Other, non-graded course expectations 
  • Attendance and tardiness 
  • Late or missed papers and exams 
  • Policy on academic dishonesty 
  • ADA statement 
  • Classroom decorum and academic discourse 
  • Campus support services (what a long list!)
  • Study or assignment aids 
  • Schedule 
  • Legal disclaimer that policies and schedule are subject to change “by mutual agreement and/or to ensure better student learning” [1] 
With all these demands placed on it, instructors may forget that this document also helps create our first impression. The syllabus establishes the attitude of the instructor and provides a sense of how the course will be run. What kind of impression do you want to make?

Previously, I had been advised to make my language as impersonal as possible and to remove "you" from the document so that it sounds less domineering. "You will complete three papers. You will take two tests. You will bow to my every command." Okay, not that last, but you get the idea. 

Here is an example of the type of change I made. My former late-work policy read, "Unless I have authorized an extension at least 36 hours before the due date, I will not accept late work except for verifiably excellent reasons such as hospital stays or accidents." The new policy was phrased in a way to motivate students while being less domineering: "Because timely progress is essential in this course, work is due at the time specified and no later. Unless the instructor has authorized an extension at least 36 hours before the deadline, late work will receive a grade of zero." 

According to D.L. Baecker, however, such language is morally suspect because it masks the power dynamics of the classroom. It sidesteps responsibility, "the instructor" instead of "I." Rhetorical distancing is something many instructors do by instinct, especially since students have become more aggressive about grades: if we can turn to the course or department policy, we can pretend we don't have a choice. Baecker's argument certainly gives food for thought. I've started including "I" and "me" in some documents, and it feels much less stilted, which is an advantage.

The language I added about the cause for the policy, though, I feel was a good move and fits with research about best practices in syllabus construction. Research has shown that a warm tone increases retention of syllabus content, and that teachers and lecturers are perceived as more effective when described as “warm.” [2]

This was hard for me to hear. I'm not a particularly "warm" person toward strangers. I'm an introvert, and I like to keep people at a distance. I confess, though, that it matches my experience and it makes sense. Students like and appreciate me, but it's rare that students love me. If I could be more warm towards them, perhaps that would change. More importantly, a welcoming and encouraging tone can motivate students by fostering their confidence. [3] And creating a successful learning environment is really what it's all about.

In my next post, I'll address the importance of information design to establishing a welcoming tone for the course.

I'm prickly but cute.

[1] Nilson, Linda Burzotta. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-based Resource for College Instructors. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. 35-37.
[2] Slattery, Jeanne M., and Janet F. Carlson. “Preparing An Effective Syllabus: Current Best Practices.” College Teaching 53:4 (2005): 159-164. DOI: 10.3200/CTCH.53.4. 
Harnish, Richard J., and K. Robert Bridges. “Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course.” Social Psychology of Education (2011) 14:319–330. DOI 10.1007/s11218-011-9152-4
[3] Thompson, Blair. “The Syllabus as a Communication Document: Constructing and Presenting the Syllabus.” Communication Education 56.1 (2007): 54-71. p. 59. DOI: 10.1080/03634520601011575

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