Study: Syllabus tone can have an impact on students

Oregon State University researchers note that a warmer delivery of information can make a difference.
By: | March 3, 2021
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An instructor looking to make an impact with students – and be a go-to resource for them when they struggle – might want to start by looking at how they are choosing their words in their course syllabus.

According to a new study done by researchers at Oregon State University, the tone that instructors use can have a positive or negative effect on students. They say using both a “warmer” tone and the inclusions of university statements on mental health and stress can get students to be more responsive in times of need.

That is especially important they say during this pandemic crisis and with the prevalence of device usage, as the first introduction to an online class is often through that document.

“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,” said Regan A.R. Gurung, director of OSU’s general psychology program and lead author told the university’s Research News team. “The instructor has to ask themselves, what’s the first point of contact with the class for the student? An impression of the course and you the instructor is formed on the syllabus.”

The study was published in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology and done by researchers Gurung and undergrad student Noelle Galardi who leaned on 257 introductory psychology students at OSU to conduct the research. They were asked to peruse a warmer-toned short syllabus (two pages) and one that was “colder”. Both contained “reach out” statements to indicate where students could turn for help if they were experiencing any trauma.

In the warmer-toned syllabus, students saw several examples of an instructor clearly trying to connect by “providing a rationale for assignments, using positive or friendly language, sharing personal experiences, using humor, showing enthusiasm for the course, and conveying compassion,” according to the report. It contained highly positive statements, signs of compassion and understanding that provided more personal touches. The cold one did not.

One of the reasons Gurung and his team launched the study was to see whether those impressions really did resonate.

“I have been doing teaching and learning research for over 15 years and one of the factors that keeps coming up as important is rapport and building rapport,” Gurung told University Business. “One of my areas of specialty is first impressions (how clothing can influence perceptions) and I was curious how a syllabus would influence first impressions of the instructor. As someone who long ago changed my syllabi to be more friendly, I wanted to test if it made an empirical difference.”

The results did show a difference in favor of the warmer tone. Students who were asked six questions on whether they would reach out for help in certain scenarios all favored the warmer tone, regardless of whether the university statement on self-care was included. There were nominal differences in a couple (having a personal issue with friends or family or a medical issue, with neither score rating high), but more significant differences in these:

  • Help with a class assignment
  • When feeling low
  • Asking about campus resources
  • Teacher behavior checklist

The big takeaway: tone does matter.

“Even something as black-and-white as a syllabus can make a difference,” Gurung told OSU’s Research News. “If you’re a great approachable person, good for you; you’ll just be able to magnify these effects. You can absolutely have rules, and you should be firm, fair and clear, but that is separate from your interaction with the student as a person.”

Although there were not significant differences in the outcomes from the study survey on university statements, Gurung and his team note they can be instrumental in providing that extra resource for students. He said including them on a cover page of a syllabus might be more helpful than burying it – especially since it may contain 10-15 pages.