Do YOU hear what I HEAR?

I was thinking about syllabi.  All faculty at some point have to put one together for their courses and post for students to access.  These documents may include policies and procedures for the course.  This might seek to communicate when, where, why, what, who for the course.  The primary audience are the students enrolled in this class.   As a document that seeks to communicate to students many different facets of a course, it seems that little has looked at the effects of these documents.  For example, I have seen instructors BOLD “important” and serious information such as expected behaviors.  What does this communicate to the students?  How does this shape the student-teacher relationship? How does it impact the learning environment? I particularly like to “teach” the syllabus to students at orientation.  My experience or perception, rather, has been that students would not lay eyes on this document otherwise.  However, I had not ever considered the influence of the syllabus on students.  I assumed that it communicated professional attitudes and that student behavior would fall in line with those expectations.  But, is there any published data regarding the effects of syllabi?  Very little has been done in this area as far as I can tell after conducting a brief search of Pubmed, ERIC, and google.

Most suggest that the syllabus content, style, and tone can have important effects on student-teacher interactions.  These include initial impressions of instructor, approachability of instructor, classroom behavior, and student performance possibly.  As I reflect on this, I wonder how much the syllabus tone influences students evaluations of the teacher.  The study by Harnish suggests that there could be an effect.

The next time you read through your syllabi, think about what are you trying to convey?  This is a challenging topic when one considers that there may be two purposes for a syllabus – one from the teacher perspective and one from the student perspective.  In discussion with colleagues, some see a syllabus as a contract.  In this case, one would expect a syllabus to read like a “legal” document.  However, one could also take the posture that communicating to students course expectations with “how” that is communicated might be more important.  Next time, you are reviewing or creating a syllabus consider how you are communicating to students as well as what you want to communicate.


Bies-Hernandez NJ. The effects of framing grades on student learning and preferences. Teach Psychol. 2012; 39(3): 176-180.

Harnish RJ, Bridges KR.  Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions off instructor and course.  Soc Pscyhol Educ. 2011; 14: 319-330.

Perrine RM, Lisle J, Tucker DL. Effects of syllabus offer of help, student age, and class size on college students’ willingness to seek support form faculty. J Exp Educ. 1995; 64(1): 41-52.

Sulik G, Keys J. “Many student really do no yet know how to behave!” The syllabus as a tool for socialization.  Teaching Soc. 2013. DOI: 10.1177/0092055×13513243





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