Tricks to creating a syllabus students want to read

In December 2021, CNN published a news story that went viral, featuring a Tennessee professor who hid in his syllabus a combination that led to a locker with a crisp $50 bill for the taking. When he announced at the end of the term that not a single student had claimed the prize, few were actually surprised. Hiding an Easter egg of this sort in the text of your syllabus is certainly a fun idea and a nice bonus for the most diligent student(s) who might find it, but there are other ways to get students to read what could arguably be the most important document in your course. 

A course syllabus has traditionally served many overlapping purposes. From an institutional perspective, a syllabus is a vehicle for sharing important policies, rules, and resources available to students. At some institutions, syllabi can be considered contracts between the instructors and students. For the instructor of the course, the syllabus serves as a published planning document, typically listing important information about the course such as dates, times, and locations of classes, office hours, required and supplemental materials and texts, course schedule and activities, learning goals or outcomes, descriptions of grading, and course or departmental policies. In addition to listing basic elements of the course, syllabi often include instructor contact information and explicitly provide course expectations and how to succeed in the course. One inclusion that has recently become important for OSU instructors to remember when creating syllabi is the recently passed Oregon Bill requiring schools to publish all materials costs and fees associated with a course. 

As students generally receive the syllabus in advance of or at the beginning of a course, it often serves as an introduction to the class and the professor. Students might get their first impression of the course and instructor based on this single document and it may weigh heavily in a student’s decision to register for or drop a course. Students often return to this foundational document throughout the course for guidance, and as such, it is important to make it easy to access repeatedly. Yet despite the fact that a syllabus is such an important document, unless there is a syllabus quiz they must take, students often merely skim or even skip reading it altogether. However, there are a few tips you can follow to make your syllabus more attractive and increase the chance that it will be read. Making your syllabus more visually appealing, providing a video tour or infographic, and using inclusive language with a warm tone are three student-friendly ways of increasing the likelihood of students reading the full document, and, coincidentally, have a positive effect on student impressions of the instructor. 

Student-friendly Strategies for Increasing Readership

1- Make it Visually Appealing

One way to increase the likelihood of your students actually perusing your syllabus at length is to make it visually appealing. If your syllabus could have been created with an old fashioned typewriter, you are missing out on a chance to use new tools to make a more modern and interactive document. 

Most students today already spend up to several hours a day reading, watching, and responding to online social media content, so asking students to read a text-heavy document can backfire due to overload. Enticing readers to take a closer look with interesting images and visuals such as graphs or diagrams, along with visually appealing organization, can be an effective strategy. Take a look at the sample redesigned syllabus above to see how one professor, Dr. Jenks, changed the format of hers to make it more visually appealing and readable. You don’t have to be a great designer to redo your own syllabus, as there are plenty of free templates available online (see resources below).

A beautifully designed syllabus can often open the door, encouraging text-weary students to take a look, but design alone will probably not keep them reading for long. Strategies employed in teaching reading are relevant in the discussion of syllabus language and design. Just as you would in an essay, writing a great opening or ‘hook’ can grab the reader’s attention and motivate them to continue reading. When deciding how to design a syllabus, instructors may want to consider using signaling (visually reinforcing important concepts), segmenting (chunking information into smaller units for better comprehension), and weeding (ridding of extraneous information), all of which can help create a concise yet effective document. Placing the most important information first for those inclined to give your document only a cursory glance is another great idea. Also, remember to ensure that your design does not interfere with and preferably increases accessibility. Additionally, some students might need a purely text document, so providing your syllabus in several ways is best practice.

If you have experience building Canvas pages, you could try out using some in-Canvas tricks to create a more visually appealing syllabus page, such as this example of a creative syllabus page design in Canvas: CS 271, Computer Architecture & Assembly Language.

2- Turn it into a Video or Infographic

You are probably already aware that if given the choice, many students tend to choose to view videos more often than read text documents. Recent research suggests that students increasingly expect video content to be part of their learning experience. You can use this to your advantage by recording a video tour of your syllabus to supplement the digital or physical document. Especially in Ecampus asynchronous courses where most of the work will be performed in Canvas, walking through the highlights of your syllabus and connecting what is written there to the pages, modules, and assignments in the Canvas course can help students gain a big picture view of the course and prevent questions later.

Especially in Ecampus asynchronous courses where most of the work will be performed in Canvas, walking through the highlights of your syllabus and connecting what is written there to the pages, modules, and assignments in the Canvas course can help students gain a big picture view of the course and prevent questions later. Using a video to introduce your course can help students better comprehend and remember the important parts of your syllabus by activating both the visual (pictorial) and auditory (verbal) processing channels that working memory uses. The same strategies mentioned as important for designing a visual syllabus can be employed (signaling, chunking, and weeding) to ensure viewers are not overwhelmed. This is one of the most effective ways to introduce your course to new students, with the added value of enhancing your instructor presence. It’s not as difficult as you may assume- OSU’s Canvas LMS has a built-in video recording tool, Kaltura Capture, with which you can create a screencast video.

Another option is to try something completely new- turning your staid, static syllabus into an infographic. Infographics have become more popular with the advent of quite a few online tools that provide a multitude of templates with simple drag and drop functionality, enabling instructors to reimagine how their syllabus information is presented (see below for resources). Infographics are appealing as a supplementary document even when a text version is evident, as they distill the elements of a course into easily presentable and understandable chunks, highlighting important information and saving longer descriptions for later. 

Infographic representing the important concepts in this article
Sample infographic based on this article

3- Consider your Tone and Wording

Another way to encourage students to read the entire syllabus in your course is to consider how the tone of the text is understood from the students’ perspective. Writing your syllabus in a warm (student-focused) tone communicates to students that you care about them as individuals and are rooting for them to succeed, which in turn motivates them to want to succeed, whereas writing in a cool (content focused)  tone can negatively impact students’ perceptions of the instructor and the course. There may be some hesitancy among instructors to shift from what is typically considered ‘proper’ academic language due to a conception that a syllabus should model this type of language. Some may be concerned that using informal or conversational language may muddy power dynamics, preferring an instructor-as-expert approach and mirroring that in their syllabus. 

While this may be the established norm, there are compelling reasons to tweak your writing style when drafting this first contact between instructor and students. Whereas in past decades teachers might have been expected to produce standard syllabi with purely academic, formal language, the more recent focus on concepts such as inclusivity, promoting diversity, and working toward equity has spurred many to take a closer look at how their syllabus language and presentation affects students and their sense of belonging when accessing higher education. Interestingly, using warmer language in your syllabus can actually impact how motivated students perceive YOU to be as well. Research from Richard J. Harnish and K. Robert Bridges determined that “a syllabus written in a friendly rather than unfriendly tone evoked perceptions of the instructor being more caring, more approachable, and more motivated to teach the course.” Recent research from OSU’s own Regan A. R. Gerung and Nicole R. Galardi supports this, finding that syllabi written in a warm, friendly tone rather than a cooler, more academic tone tend to be viewed more positively (and resulted in more positive teacher ratings in evaluations). Instructors are often missing out on a wonderful opportunity to invite students into a mutually respectful class experience by distancing themselves by using an overly cold and academic tone in their syllabus.

OSU has expressed a strong commitment to using inclusive and affirming language, recognizing that how we use language reflects how we view the world and impacts others’ sense of belonging.One of the first things to consider is your audience- are you teaching a freshman level intro course, where students may be entering the world of formal academia for the first time? Many OSU Ecampus students identify as first generation college students or non-native English speakers, which might impact how they interpret the writing in your syllabus. If your syllabus uses language that seems cold, distant, formal, or unwieldy due to overly complex structures and style, students may fail to understand, become disinterested, and/or discontinue their reading of your syllabus. Are you teaching graduate students who might have a better comprehension of academic language? Even if you are, your syllabus may not be the place to showcase this type of language, which can impact comprehension. 

In addition to how friendly your tone is, consider the underlying message sent by how you choose to discuss subjects, especially aspects that are traditionally the sole purview of the instructor, such as the turning in of work, granting extensions or incompletes, and grading policies. If a syllabus contains frequent mentions of the penalties students will face, punitive measures that will be taken, or absolutes that will be enforced, students may be put off and decide the instructor is authoritarian, controlling, or overly strict. A lack of flexibility can seem particularly uncaring, causing students to be less likely to reach out if they encounter difficulties that may impact their ability to turn in work on time and participate fully. Instead, consider how you could offer more student friendly policies that offer students flexibility, choice, and empathy for students’ complicated lives.

The key, as in most areas of life, is finding the right balance that represents what you want to convey to students. The image below, taken from the OSU Center for Teaching and Learning publication Pedagogical Pragmatics (P2): Writing a Warm SYLLABUS, shows some examples of cool vs. warm syllabus statements. Small changes in wording can be enough to convey warmth and friendliness.

Examples of warm versus cool syllabus language in a chart
8/2021 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial 4.0 International License  WEB: Ctl.oregonstate.edu; TWITTER: @OSUteaching; BLOG: https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/osuteaching

Looking to improve your syllabus? Check out these resources:


Sources and Resources

A professor hid a cash prize on campus. All students had to do was read the syllabus – CNN

Accessible Syllabus

Creating the Foundation for a Warm Classroom Climate

Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course Richard J. Harnish ·K. Robert Bridges

Newly passed bills require Oregon public colleges to publicize information on student fees, other costs – OPB

Principles of Multimedia Learning 

Sample Visual Syllabus

STATE OF VIDEO IN EDUCATION 2019 

Syllabus Tone, More Than Mental Health Statements, Influence Intentions to Seek Help – Regan AR Gurung, Noelle R. Galardi, 2021

Using a warmer tone in college syllabi makes students more likely to ask for help, OSU study finds | Oregon State University

Utilizing Inclusive and Affirming Language | Institutional Diversity 

Would a Course Syllabus Be Better as an Infographic? 

“Annotation provides information, making knowledge more accessible. Annotation shares commentary, making both expert opinion and everyday perspective more transparent. Annotation sparks conversation, making our dialogue – about art, religion, culture, politics, and research – more interactive. Annotation expresses power, making civic life more robust and participatory. And annotation aids learning, augmenting our intellect, cognition, and collaboration. This is why annotation matters.” 

                                          -Kalir and Garcia

Annotation 

When you think back to your early college years, you may remember your professor assigning a text to annotate. Annotating a text has long been a common task in higher education, one that ideally promotes deeper reading, interaction with, and comprehension of important texts. Annotation assignments vary widely but the traditional paper-based type of annotation asks readers to respond to a text as it is read, physically marking or highlighting the text itself and perhaps writing in the margins. This approach allows students to enter into a dialogue with the text by recording their responses to the text, adding reflections or critiques, and anchoring those reactions to a specific place in the text. When students annotate a text, they are working their way through skills that span the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, from remembering to predicting, connecting, analysing, and evaluating. Annotation, at its best, encourages active engagement with a text beyond the surface level, promoting deeper critical thinking and stronger retention of concepts. 

While this is, of course, fantastic individual practice, the nature of traditional annotation assignments is primarily solitary. Today’s classrooms place more of an emphasis on 21st century skills such as group and collaborative study, and new digital tools have been developed that have revolutionized what, how, and with whom we can annotate. So-called social annotation has picked up speed with the growing popularity of two major players, Perusall and Hypothes.is, bolstered by the sudden shift to remote learning in 2020. Online instructors seeking ways to replicate the back and forth, robust discussion of a face-to-face class have found these tools a fitting substitute, and the asynchronous format of the discussion means these tools have a place in all modalities. 

Equity, Inclusion, & Community

“As a teaching method, critical social annotation allows for equitable conversations to unfold in-line with the knowledge being presented in course texts. In this way, it can potentially subvert or even redress instances of inequity in course content.” 

                                                                                                         – Brown and Croft

Social annotation platforms increase equity and inclusion in a course in several ways. Digital annotation platforms offer students a variety of ways to connect with material, allowing students to post links, images, video, and more in response to the text, their peers, and other annotators. By putting students’ ideas front and center, social annotation can empower learners to take initiative and experience more feelings of control over their educational process. Unlike the fast paced back and forth of traditional face-to-face discussions, the nature of digital social annotation allows students more time to engage with the text and to take as long as they need to post and respond (within the assignment boundaries). Additionally, the major platforms discussed in this post feature easy-to-use controls that require little technical expertise to use. They also boast comprehensive accessibility features that combine to provide inclusivity to a wide range of student needs. 

Social Annotation as Collective Construction of Meaning

One major difference between today’s digital social annotation and traditional solitary practice is that when students in a particular class collectively annotate a text using one of the digital platforms available today, they are actively building knowledge and understanding as a group. By sharing the document for collective annotation, the act of annotating itself becomes a social activity and contributes to the interaction of individuals within the group.  Socially annotating a text is one of the best ways to encourage close and active reading skills, with many studies reporting higher levels of student comprehension of socially annotated materials. Students who collectively annotate a text are entering into an exchange of questions, opinions, perspectives, and reactions to a text, engaging in a discourse with their peers (and facilitator, usually) and by extension learning from and with them. The process of a social annotation assignment allows students to see knowledge creation in action and become co-creators. 

Use of social annotation in asynchronous online courses can also increase sociability within an otherwise geographically remote, disparate group of students. Asynchronous instructors sometimes struggle to provide opportunities for real social interaction and building of community given the limits of the modality. An often unstated goal of higher education is to socialize students to academic community norms, and social annotation allows students to experience and practice some of these. For example, students annotating collectively learn appropriate language for responding to peers’ ideas and criticisms, develop online academic social identities, and gain experience with navigating power dynamics within the higher education classroom. 

Ready to Try It Out?

Adding social annotation to a course involves matching the task to your learning outcomes, deciding which readings would be best suited to annotation, and choosing your online annotation platform. 

Assignments can be tailored to meet a variety of instructional purposes and goals:

  • Recognizing formatting of various documents
  • Providing background or contextual information 
  • Learning academic norms for responding to peers- supporting, agreeing, disagreeing
  • Drafting questions and responses that are rigorous and meaningful
  • Determining main points vs. supporting details
  • Distinguishing fact from opinion
  • Identifying themes, tone, biases, author’s purpose, rhetorical devices, etc.
  • Learning and practicing discipline-specific writing and reading conventions 
  • Connecting the material to the field of study, to their own practice, or to other course materials
  • Developing evaluative and analytical skills
  • Considering differing perspectives and viewpoints in constructing knowledge
  • Facilitating a deeper understanding of difficult passages

Some best practices to consider when using collective annotation online:

  • Remind students that they have already practiced annotation in their everyday lives (reading and making your own notes in your inherited cookbook, reading your teacher’s remarks on your essay, leaving comments on a colleague’s report)
  • Model annotation with a fun text first
  • Seed the reading with your own comments, questions, and notes to help guide students 
  • Situate the social annotation assignment within the context of the course and make clear the intentions you have for the activity
  • If the activity is to be graded, be sure students know the grading criteria, preferably by providing a rubric
  • Annotation assignments are ideal for small group activities, and some platforms automatically create groups
  • Be prepared to provide guidelines for behavior and etiquette among students and to need to enforce these guidelines if students step out of line
  • Monitor the discussion and provide nudges, likes, upvotes, or validations, and otherwise engage with the dialogue throughout the assignment
  • If the platform allows tagging, do so- students get notified when someone responds to their post or asks a question, a convenience which increases the likelihood of them returning to the assignment for further interaction 

Social Annotation Tools: The Major Players

Perusall (stand-alone site/integrated into various LMS, including canvas)

Perusall is a collective annotation platform developed by Harvard University following a major research initiative into online collective annotation. Perusall offers free accounts for teachers and students at the basic level with options for institutions to integrate the tool into their LMS. The platform allows educators to use Perusall directly for stand-alone courses and upload their own materials for annotation as well as partner with their textbook catalog to purchase and annotate textbooks directly. For integrated LMS users, Perusall offers seamless grade pass back and options for pass/no pass grading as well as a robust automatic AI grading system that saves time and effort. Some instructors have also used Perusall for peer review to great effect using student-uploaded documents. *recommended tool for Ecampus courses

Sample Perusall annotation assignment

Hypothes.is (Google Chrome browser extension)

Hypothes.is is a groundbreaking new tool that bypasses restrictions of the classroom and enables anyone anywhere to annotate any webpage via a unique delivery system- as a browser extension that creates a layer over any webpage. This open source, free tool can revolutionize how we view and interact with web pages as well as texts by allowing us to save our annotations privately as well as publicly, inviting the world at large to socially annotate with us. Hypothes.is is also available as an integrated tool in most LMSs. The company also hosts the AnnotatED community, a group of users that hosts events, studies, and conferences to learn best practices for the tool. *recommended tool for research with a wider audience.

Hypothes.is Introduction Video

Sources

Adapting to Disciplinary Literacy Conventions – Open English @ SLCC

Home : Hypothesis

Innovation | Cégep Vanier College

Kalir, Remi H., and Garcia, Antero. Annotation. United States, MIT Press, 2021.

https://www.google.com/books/edition/Annotation/ejoiEAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0

Pedagogy | ANNOTATION TOOLS

Perusall

Social Annotation | Center for Teaching Innovation

Social Annotation – Pedagogical Support and Innovation Pedagogical Support and 

Social Annotation and an Inclusive Praxis for Open Pedagogy in the College Classroom

Tools for Social Annotation in the Digital Age

chart of five phases of engagement: connect, communicate, collaborate, co-facilitate, and continue

 Why Group Work Is Important 

Love it or hate it, group work is an important part of education. Learning to work cooperatively with diverse people is a core 21st century skill, one which employers increasingly value and expect new workers to have mastered. Experience gathered from group work in educational settings directly transfers to and prepares students for successful collaboration in work teams. By collaborating in teams, students learn a wide range of discrete as well as soft skills that make group work worth the effort, including those below.

  • Technology skills
  • Social skills
  • Self-awareness
  • Empathy
  • Coping with stress
  • Creating work plans and schedules
  • Forecasting needs and hurdles
  • Time management & meeting deadlines
  • Working with difficult personalities
  • Managing & navigating unmet expectations
  • Following up & messaging
  • Accountability
  • Leadership
  • Development of academic/professional voice 

Pedagogically, group work supports a constructivist approach to learning, in which students contribute to the learning environment, build knowledge both individually and collectively, and co-create the classroom environment. Constructivist theory posits that learning is a social process and values student interaction with and contributions to collective knowledge. Group work and student collaboration are foundational methods in constructivist classrooms that help students develop the knowledge and skills that allow them to meet learning objectives. Additionally, group work is seen as a key element of student-student interaction. 

Considerations for Successful Groups

The first thing instructors should consider when planning to incorporate group work is to reflect on WHY they are assigning it- as an objective of learning or as a means of learning. Group work for the purpose of learning collectively, producing collaboratively, or for gaining experience working cooperatively are all valid reasons to include group work. 

Additionally, instructors must consider the limits of the asynchronous modality when creating group assignments. We all know how difficult it can be if the group you end up working in is not harmonious; For students in asynchronous online courses, group work can be even more difficult, with challenges like different time zones, different daily schedules, and lack of face to face collaboration opportunities. Even the most thoughtfully designed group activities can run into problems. What happens when one student fails to contribute? Do the other group members take up the slack and cover for their absent partner? How should a group handle an overbearing group member who takes on more than their fair share of the project? Anticipating the potential hurdles that may arise when planning the group project and incorporating support and resources for struggling groups can alleviate these barriers to a large degree. 

An important consideration when creating group assignments is Conrad & Donaldson’s Phases of Engagement model, which advises instructors to structure group work so that students can build up group cohesion through low-stakes activities like icebreakers, introductions, and discussion forum posting towards the beginning of the term before ramping up to more complicated collaborative projects. This scaffolding of tasks helps groups bond and build community among members, facilitating better working relationships and the trust necessary to work through the intricacies of a complex group project. The theory can be helpful when approaching a series of courses within a specific degree program as well, moving from simple group projects in lower division courses to co-facilitating and transformative ongoing engagement at the upper levels. 

chart of five phases of engagement: connect, communicate, collaborate, co-facilitate, and continue

Another model that can help instructors understand how to structure group work is Peter Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which describes a pyramid of features that are required for groups to function effectively. Lencioni claims that trust is the foundation of any functioning group, followed in ascending order by managing conflict through healthy discourse, ensuring commitment and buy-in, providing a method of accountability for team members, and a focus on collective results over personal prestige. Avoiding dysfunction by clearly structuring group work to anticipate and provide tools for dealing with these problems can ensure teams get off on the right footing and can work together smoothly.

pyramid of five behaviors of a cohesive team: trust, conflict, committment

 

Additionally, instructors should consider the type of collaboration that is common within their own discipline, whether it be performing distinct roles within a team or more general projects requiring cooperation. Designers often work together creatively to develop and improve products; medical teams must work collectively but in distinct roles to serve patients; computer software developers must be able to distribute work and manage tight deadlines; public-facing personnel must be able to amicably respond to a range of customer behaviors. Connecting group work explicitly to real-world work scenarios helps students see the value and relevance of their learning, which helps increase engagement and dedication. Structuring group projects to mimic the type of work tasks they can anticipate also provides the added value of preparing students for scenarios they will actually be faced with on the job.

Finally, since asynchronous group work relies heavily on technology, ensure that the technology to be used by the group is familiar or can be mastered quickly. Provide detailed instructions or tutorials for how to use the technology, plan for how to handle issues students might face with technology, and share resources they can tap should they run into problems. University instructional technology support can be linked to, and websites and apps often offer training videos. 

Types of group work

  • Pair/partner work
  • Informal cooperative active learning
  • Group essays or projects
  • Group presentations

Setting groups up for success

  • Set up groups of the right size, preferably with an odd number of participants
  • Make groups heterogenous to encourage peer-to-peer learning
  • Provide opportunities for students to activate their unique background knowledge and perspectives
  • Provide detailed instructions for group interaction expectations
  • Provide guidance on strategies for dividing the workload, such as setting up roles (ie: organizer, recorder, liaison, etc.)
  • Provide detailed instructions and rubrics for expected process and product
  • Split the grade for group work between collective and individual grades
  • Build in check-ins with instructor early on and midway
  • Plan for interventions if groups are not functioning well
  • Allow team members to evaluate each other’s and their own performance for contribution, cooperation, & timeliness

Sources

What are the benefits of group work? – Eberly Center

21st Century Skills Map

Group work as an incentive for learning – students’ experiences of group work

Group work – Teaching practice – Learning and teaching guidance – Elevate – Staff

Transforming The Online Learner

Increasing Student-to-Student Engagement: Applying Conrad and Donaldson’s “Phases of Engagement” in the Online Classroom

Teamwork 5 Dysfunctions