This week:

  • I share some new findings on crafting a syllabus that encourages students to reach out when they need help.
  • I ask for your input on which pandemic-related changes to college teaching are worth holding on to.
  • I share some recent articles you may have missed.

A Warm Tone

Writing the syllabus using a warm tone — for instance, framing course objectives as “we will” rather than “you will” — makes students more likely to reach out for help.

That’s the key finding of a recent study conducted by Regan A. R. Gurung, a professor in the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University, and Noelle R. Galardi, an undergraduate at the university, published in Teaching of Psychology.

Gurung, who is also the interim executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State, has a research interest in first impressions. Historically, he noted, professors made their first impression on students in person, on the first day of class.

But that has changed — and not only because of remote instruction during the pandemic. Students often have access to their syllabi before the first day of class, Gurung noted. That raises the stakes for the way professors present themselves in writing, before the student has anything else to go on. As a result, he said, the syllabus is “a major tool for the first impression.”

The study is based on an experiment in which 257 student volunteers taking introductory psychology courses at the university read one of four sample syllabi — using a warm or cold tone, with or without a statement explicitly encouraging students to reach out for help — and ranked their likelihood of asking for help in five different scenarios.

Students who read the warm-tone version indicated they were more likely to reach out for help in three of the five scenarios. Those who read the explicit reach-out statement were more likely to ask for help in just one scenario, which concerned having personal issues with friends or family.

Reach-out statements have become a popular way for instructors to signal their support to students. So why was including one less effective than using a warm tone?

There are a few possibilities, Gurung said. First, the reach-out statement was included at the end of the syllabus, and it’s possible that by the time students got that far, they were skimming more than reading. It was also near the “rules and procedures” part of the syllabus, Gurung added — a section students are inclined to skip. Finally, the statement Gurung used is the same one the university uses in real courses, meaning that the students in the study had probably seen it before. It would be interesting, he added, to test the reach-out statement at a different institution, where it would be novel.

Increasingly, Gurung said, colleges and departments are encouraging instructors to use a template to design their syllabi. It’s good to ensure everyone shares the right information, he said. The problem? In many cases, templates “are cold; they are dry; they are boring.” Instructors, he said, can hit all the notes in the template without copying its institutional tone.

Tone, of course, is just one aspect of syllabus design. How have you reimagined your syllabi to set the stage for your courses? Share your example with me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and it may appear in a future newsletter.

What Changes Are Worth Keeping?

The pandemic has forced all kinds of changes in college teaching. Some of them may no longer be needed whenever the pandemic is over, but others are worth sustaining.

We’d like to hear from you: Which pandemic-inspired teaching changes should colleges keep? Your ideas don’t have to be classroom specific. We’re interested in responses about academic support, technology, and curricula, too. Use this form to share your thoughts. Thanks!

ICYMI

  • Fall grades at a number of colleges that offered mostly remote instruction held steady. But that encouraging news is only part of the picture, as Beth explains in her latest story.
  • Several recent cases of professors caught on tape disparaging their students raise questions around venting. My latest story explores why it’s rarely a good idea.
  • Why did Boise State University suspend its required diversity course? Our colleague Nell Gluckman has the story.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

— Beckie

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.