Setting the tone: how you write your syllabus can make a big difference

Teacher with exasperated expression points to "It's in the syllabus" message on his shirt
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Published: 16 December 2021

Research shows a syllabus written in a warm, friendly style can enhance student engagement and learning outcomes.

By Diane Dechief and Véronique Brulé

Instructors: think back to when you were an undergraduate. Do you remember how you felt as you read the syllabi for your courses? Hopefully there were feelings of excitement and intrigue. But perhaps there was also confusion or worry that certain classes weren't really what you’d thought you were signing up for.

Though some aspects of academia have changed over the past decade or two, the tradition of impersonal and sometimes opaque writing on course syllabi persists. As university instructors, we may be contributing to our own students feeling less engaged, simply because we continue to use this traditional style of writing.

Sure, a syllabus has a basic purpose to communicate essential information. We sometimes refer to it as a “contract” with our students, providing details of course content and structure – the what and the how of the course. But the text that interweaves and connects these elements belongs to us. And this is where we can share why it’s important to learn about these topics.

We can also use this space to meet our students, human-to-human, and to share with them our passion for the topics we teach. Focusing on “why” and creating connections can really change the tone of a syllabus.

Recent scholarship in teaching and learning describes the syllabus as the first opportunity to make an impression on our students. It also tells us that using a warmer, more personal tone can make a big difference in terms of increasing classroom engagement, improving student attitudes toward learning, increasing motivation to succeed in the course, and fostering positive expectations for the course overall.

So, it sounds like tone is powerful, but you might be wondering, what exactly is it? Tone is all about our attitude and how it’s conveyed to our readers by the words we choose. As we write, we might not think we’re sharing much about our attitudes, but it does come across, even if we don’t mean it to. As readers, we sense an author’s attitude toward the topic they are writing about, toward themselves, and certainly toward us, their readers. And since tone is going to come across, why not be intentional and use it to motivate and engage our students?

All too often syllabi are written in an arms-length style that loses sight of the fact that instructors are also introducing themselves to their students. A learner-centered syllabus, on the other hand, uses tone to create rapport with students. This doesn’t have to involve completely rewriting the syllabus, either. A few small tweaks can have a positive influence on students’ mindset toward the course and their own learning.

To get started, think of what you usually say when you introduce yourself and your course to a new group of students, either in person or via Zoom. Next, translate those welcoming words into your written syllabus.

Here are a few strategies for working with tone in your syllabus:

Use positive or friendly language

Research on syllabus writing has found that positive language has benefits for student learning, ranging from increased likelihood of students approaching an instructor when struggling in class to students rating instructors higher on scales of teaching effectiveness. Learner-centered writing can be as simple as referring to students as “you”. Contrast a heading, for example, that says “Learning Objectives” with “By the end of this term, you will be able to:” This shift in language can help students make a personal connection to the learning goals.

Acknowledge where students are at

Students bring with them a variety of learning experiences. Acknowledging these experiences and the most common potential barriers to success in your course can help alleviate students’ stress.

Throughout your program, you will do a lot of academic reading and writing. This reading and writing may seem very different than what was expected of you in high school. To help with this transition, this course...

Make a personal connection

It’s hard not to feel inspired when listening to someone who is passionate about a topic. By including a welcome statement in the syllabus we can convey our enthusiasm for the subjects we teach. A welcome statement doesn’t have to be long. A couple of short sentences are enough to share our personal connection to the course content and why we are motivated to teach.

Have you ever wondered how fluorescent proteins are created? It’s a question that’s had a profound influence on my research and one that I’m excited explore with you in this course.

Address the ‘why’

There are many reasons why students might decide to take a course: it’s required as part of their program, they are interested in the subject, or maybe they had a free time slot in their schedule. Whatever the reason, providing clear and direct answers to students’ instinctive questions of “Why do I have to take this class?” and “What’s in it for me?” tells students what they can expect to get from the course and increases their engagement with content.

Why are we covering this? It’s a foundational topic for anyone moving onto x-course(s) next term, and it’s an opportunity to understand the theory behind the practical techniques we’ll cover in the lab part of this course. This will be helpful when it comes time to work on the research project assignment in Week 6.

Frame learning as a partnership

Positioning learning as a partnership between students and instructor – where students are viewed as knowledge contributors rather than knowledge recipients only – can increase students’ engagement and motivation to succeed. This partnership can begin in the syllabus by recognizing that students have valuable insights to share and welcoming their input during the course.

Your posts on the discussion board are an important way to engage with your classmates and with me. I learn new things every semester from these discussions, and I am eager to hear your perspectives.

Whether teaching online, in person, or a blend of the two, a learner-centered syllabus is a great way to engage students from the outset by sharing our passion for the topics we teach and setting a positive tone for future classroom activities and conversations.

Added bonus: Using this style of writing means that students might actually read the syllabus!

Where to start?

Here is a list of locations in the syllabus where tone is most likely to have an impact on student perceptions of the course:

  • Welcome statement
  • The course description
  • Learning outcomes
  • Instructor’s availability / teaching approach
  • Class policy (attendance, participation, assignments/exams)
  • Learning resources available to students
  • Supportive statements / campus resources for assistance

Perrine & Lisle, 1995; Thompson, 2007; Harnish & Bridges, 2011

And here is a quick checklist to use as you finalize your learner-centered syllabus.

Considerations for crafting a learner-centered, syllabus with a warm tone:

  • Use positive or friendly language
  • Provide rationales for assignments, activities, etc.
  • Show enthusiasm for the course and the content
  • Invite students to take ownership of their learning
  • Offer support or resources for student success

Harnish & Bridges, 2011; Richmond et al., 2016; Denton & Veloso, 2018; Gurung & Galardi, 2021

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