Each time the new term starts, it is time for professors to update their course syllabi. Sometimes I make radical changes in my syllabus, instituting new grading schemes or dramatically changing the sequence of topics. However, most often, I am making only minor adjustments to account for the peculiarities of this term’s calendar. Yet, I often wonder what changes I could institute that would help my students learn even better.

Tips & TricksMy syllabus is a carefully constructed and organized pathway for my students and I to follow in order to be most efficient at learning the course material. The syllabus is something I wish my students to refer to frequently, as it communicates how we will navigate the interwoven ideas in my class. But what if my carefully thoughtout syllabus has unintended characteristics that actually impede students’ learning and engagement, rather than being helpful and supportive?

Consider the following two phrases:



Please, be on time.

In the first case, the syllabus is communicating to students that my classroom is run by strict, Draconian rules. Moreover, in my contemporary students’ social media world, all-caps font is equivalent to shouting and most often considered rude. BOLD, ALL CAPS probably sends a message I don’t want my students to receive. You should consider removing all caps font from your syllabus to make your syllabus and course seem to be more accessible, and in turn make you as the professor seem more approachable.

Now, consider these two phrases:



Please, be on time so as not to disturb your fellow classmates.

Whereas the first case says “these are the rules-period” the second phrase explains why the rule is in place. Most importantly, the supplied rationale implies to students that I actually care about my students’ learning. I’m certain that I’ll get better end-of-course evaluations if my students perceive that I’m interested in supporting their learning.

Finally, consider these two phrases:



Please use cell phones with discretion, if at all, as they interrupt the learning process.

When most of us were in college, students were by and large 18-22 year old students of privilege. Most of today’s college students are quite different and are living a different experience. The median age is 27 years old, many have jobs exceeding 20-hours per week that are supporting a household, and many more than ever before have care-taking responsibilities as parents themselves or caring for their own elderly parents. A rule like NO CELL PHONES that is implemented with the best of intentions to manage easily distractible 18-year old students has far reaching negative consequences for non-traditionally aged students. Telling your students that they must be completely disconnected from their responsibilities during class won’t earn you any positive points during the end-of-year course evaluations. Instead, consider asking students to mute their phone and only use them during emergencies so as not to interfere with their learning.

SyllabusThree Simple Action Items for Next Term:

  • Go through your syllabus and consider if you really need ALL CAPS font
  • Phrase course policies such that benefits to students are stated
  • Reconsider rules designed to manage 18-year old students that have negative consequences for non-tradition students.

NOTE: Many of these ideas blogged here resulted from conversations with Stephanie J. Slater from the CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research.

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com

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