Syllabi: Best Practices or Just Best Guesses?
Syllabi are a frequent subject of education research. Over the last decade, researchers have measured and assessed student responses to syllabus tone, voice, length, design, and delivery format. It may be expected that the product of this research would be an identified set of best practices in syllabus construction. Surely, there has been no reluctance for endorsing various syllabus templates as being based on “best practices.” However, what evolves from a review of the extant literature on syllabus design is a winding path of contradictions. Absent are large-scale studies that span across the curriculum or across educational disciplines. The lack of consensus in approach ultimately suggests incompatible conclusions for best practices. It may be the case that best practice for any syllabus is highly dependent on instructor, course, and institution; alternately, it may be the case that best practices cannot and should not be identified at this time.
In September 2020, we launched a literature search to identify whether best practices in syllabus design could be identified. After a full review of 68 articles meeting inclusion criteria, minimal consensus could be drawn regarding which elements of the syllabus were likely to improve the experience of students. Findings within the body of research frequently conflicted or compared incongruous variables, often relying on small sample sizes within individual courses. For example, while Anderson (2010) found that students perceived more warmth from syllabi presumed to be written by women, Denton and Valoso (2017) found that perception of instructor gender had no impact; instead, friendliness of written tone was associated with positive regard by students. In extended communications related to classroom policies, Baily et al. (2015) assessed that instructor gender did not influence student perceptions of fairness in responses to student requests for policy exceptions. Jenkins et al (2014) found that instructor gender does not influence student expectations for the implementation of firm rules on course policies within the syllabus.
Researchers have explored the use of audio and visual media to supplement the written syllabus in generating a perception of the instructor. Harnish and Bridges (2011) found value in using a “warm” tone in the syllabus, as 172 students from the Pennsylvania State University indicated that friendly tones are motivating; however, the use of video introduction in concert with the syllabus did not facilitate a perception of instructor warmth. Jones (2018) suggested that graphics or illustrations are not viewed as helpful in a study of 103 first-year students. In a study of 56 students, Overman et al. (2019) found that students remember more details from traditional syllabi when compared against retention of information from an infographic model. In 2017, Moceck found that syllabus infographics boost retention for students representing at-risk populations. Mikhailova (2018) argued that Clemson University students prefered graphic syllabi and found them easier to understand. What conclusion can be drawn from this scattered collection of positives and negatives?
Another vexing question: Is less more? While acknowledging that student expectations shaped syllabus preferences, Lightner and Bernander (2018) found that a simple syllabus was easiest to understand, based on student views expressed in a focus group (eight students) and survey (83 students). Conversely, Martin and Sheetz (2011) advocate for longer, more detailed syllabi for online courses, and a 2010 survey of 97 psychology students indicated a preference for detailed syllabi (Saville et al., 2010). Similarly, in a study of 149 community college students, Harrington and Gabert-Quillen (2015) find that adding extra details to a syllabus, such as study tips, positively impacts student perceptions of the course and instructor. Generally, the preferred syllabus length appears to be somewhere in the range of six to 12 pages; that is, assuming the professor’s institution does not require a prescribed template, which most institutions do.
Still, more choices about syllabus design permeate the literature. Additional studies have explored the efficacy of the “promising,” negotiated, contractual, engaging, democratic, and learner-centered syllabi. There may be a consensus on the importance of expressing relevance, but no clear directives on a particular course of actions that effectively express relevance.
There is, perhaps, a path to consistency within the body of literature. One could identify the limited scenarios in which gender and graphics or details make a difference. One could identify best practices for some types of instructors and some types of students. But ad hoc exceptionalism is of limited utility, and it raises questions about whether any generalization is ever possible. If one practice motivates students, but leads to decreased information retention, which value prevails? In an ideal world, there would be an approach to syllabus design that makes sense for every instructor, in every discipline, at every institution. Such an approach has not emerged.
The failure to find a meaningful consensus should come as no surprise. Makel and Plucker first sounded a more generalized alarm about education research in 2014. Their landmark study of 100 education journals found that only 0.13% of published education studies were replications (Makel and Plucker 2014). Further, they found that, of the small percentage of replicated studies, the likelihood of successful replication was profoundly impacted by the overlap of contributing authors in the original and replication attempts. Makel et al. (2021) have extended their range of concerns in a recent study that identifies tendencies in education researchers to omit and/or massage data, in order to confirm hypotheses. In addressing concerns about limited sample sizes in published research, education journals have issued calls for manuscripts devoted to replicating prior studies (Educational Research & Evaluation, 2021).
For now, however, the best practice in syllabus design is to be cautious in advocating for “best practices.”
Dr. Lindsey Luther, DNP, is a faculty fellow at Mount Carmel College of Nursing. Professor Miriam Abbott, MA, is a faculty fellow at Mount Carmel College of Nursing. Dr. Roxanne Oliver, DNP, is the director of graduate programs at Mount Carmel College of Nursing.
Anderson, Kristin. 2010. “Students’ Stereotypes of Professors: An Example of the Double VIolations of Ethnicity and Gender.” Social Psychology of Education 3: 459–472. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-010-9121-3
Bailey, Sarah, Jade Jenkins and Larissa Barber. 2015. “Students’ Reactions to Course Policy Decisions: An Empirical Investigation.” Teaching of Psychology 43(1): 22-31. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0098628315620065
Denton, Ashley Waggoner, and James Velaso. 2017. “Changes in Syllabus Tone Affect Warmth (but not Competence) Ratings of both Male and Female instructors.” Social Psychology of Education 21:173–187. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-017-9409-7
Educational Research & Evaluation. 2021. “A Call for Replication Studies in Education.”
Harnish, Richard, and Robert Bridges. 2011. “Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course.” Soc Psychol Educ 14: 319–330. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-011-9152-4
Harrington, C. M., and C.A. Gabert-Quillen. 2015. “Syllabus length and use of images: An empirical investigation of student perceptions.” Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology 1(3):235–243. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000040
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Jones, Natasha. 2018. “Human Centered Syllabus Design: Positioning Our Students As Expert End-User.” Computers and Composition 49: 25-35. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S8755461518300392
Lightner, Robin, and Ruth Benander. 2018. “First Impressions: Student and Faculty Feedback on Four Styles of Syllabi.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 30(3): 443-453. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1199421
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Mocek, Evelyn A. 2017. “The Effects of Syllabus Design on Information Retention by At-Risk First Semester College Students.” Syllabus Journal 6(2) https://www.syllabusjournal.org/syllabus/article/view/222
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Saville, Bryan, Tracy Zinn, Allison Yost, and Kimberly Marchuk. 2010. Syllabus Detail and Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Effectiveness. Teaching of Psychology. 37:186-189. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232841045_Syllabus_Detail_and_Students’_Perceptions_of_Teacher_Effectiveness