College students more engaged with teachers who have a ‘friendlier’ syllabus

CORVALLIS, Oregon — For college professors looking to improve engagement with students, it turns out the syllabus could be the key. A recent study shows that college students feel more comfortable asking questions when the syllabus is written in a “friendlier” tone.

Researchers at the Oregon State University report that more college students asked for help in classes with “warmer” syllabi. Conversely, fewer students were prone to approach the professor in classes with a more disconnected, unfriendly syllabus.

“The instructor has to ask themselves, what’s the first point of contact with the class for the student? In an online class and in remote learning, the syllabus is often the first thing. An impression of the course and you the instructor is formed on the syllabus,” says Regan A.R. Gurung, lead author of the study and director of the general psychology program in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts, in a statement. “In the old days, before Canvas and other online teaching tools, the student wouldn’t see the syllabus until I handed it out. That gave me a lot of time to create that impression. Now, however, students often read syllabi to determine if they want to take a course or not.

“During the pandemic, when the majority of courses have moved online and students may be struggling with more stress and pressure than they would in a normal school year, conveying that it’s OK to ask for help is even more important,” adds Gurung.

The study focused on 257 psychology students at OSU who had volunteered to take part in the research. They read one of four different syllabi including ones that were either friendly or detached, both with or without a “reach out if you need help” statement. The friendly syllabi also included statements such as “We will” and “I  welcome you to contact me outside of class and student hours,” whereas the detached version included more “You will” statements.

The students then rated each instructor based on the syllabus they had read. To verify they had read the syllabus, specific questions were answered. The ranking system included the following: how likely they would be to reach out for help when feeling down, on an assignment, with family issues, medical issues, and/or with campus questions.

According to the results, college students were more likely to reach out concerning the majority of the situations if the tone of the syllabus was friendly. Additionally, the tone did not determine the overall perception of instructor competence.

Because the students were willing volunteers and the study did not occur within an actual classroom, the study is limited. Also, each syllabus was limited to two pages, although most courses may have lengthier syllabi. Lastly, the syllabus was the only source by which students were to judge their engagement. 

“But that’s exactly why I think a study like this is powerful — that even without that human component, even something as black-and-white as a syllabus can make a difference. If you’re a great approachable person, good for you; you’ll just be able to magnify these effects,” says Gurung.

This study is not meant to suggest far-reaching syllabi or that professors do away with normal discipline. However, according to Gurung and his team, the relationship can make all the difference. “You can absolutely have rules, and you should be firm and you should be fair and you should be clear, but that is sort of separate from your interaction with the student as a person. You don’t have to be extroverted or cracking jokes, but you can still show that you listen,” added Gurung.

This study is published in the journal Teaching of Psychology.

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