Constructing an effective syllabus is an important task. It is a task that every faculty member does several times a year and yet there is very little research investigating the best way to construct a syllabus. One of the questions faculty often ask is how long should a syllabus be? In the past, syllabi were fairly short, probably in part due to concerns about the environment and printing costs. With mobile technology, this may no longer be a critical factor.  Today, some syllabi are quite long, even exceeding twenty pages. But what works best?

A colleague of mine, Crystal Quillen, and I decided to investigate this issue by doing an experimental research study at Middlesex County College. In our study, 149 undergraduates were randomly assigned to short (six pages), medium (nine pages) or long (fifteen pages) syllabus groups (to see the actual syllabi used visit www.scholarlyteaching.org). The medium and long syllabi included additional content such as details about assignments rather than an overview, study tips, and campus resource information. The long syllabi provided students with additional details about the assignments such as grading rubrics. Students in each group reviewed the syllabus, completed a survey, and participated in a focus group.

Here’s what we found:

The medium and long syllabus as compared to the short syllabus were linked to positive student impressions. 

The medium syllabus was associated with a more positive impression of instructor:

Chart - the medium syllabus was associated with a more positive impression of instructor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The medium syllabus was associated with a more positive impression of the course:

Chart - The medium syllabus was associated with a more positive impression of the course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students in the medium and long syllabi groups expected the professor to be more caring:

Chart - Students in the medium and long syllabi groups expected the professor to be more caring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students in the medium or long syllabi groups expected their professor to be more helpful:

Chart - Students in the medium or long syllabi groups expected their professor to be more helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students in the medium and long syllabus groups were more motivated to take the course:

Chart - Students in the medium and long syllabus groups were more motivated to take the course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When asked whether they would prefer a syllabus with assignment details versus a shorter syllabus with details following, 66.6% of the students in this study indicated they preferred the longer syllabus with detailed assignment information. 

The findings of this study are consistent with other research. For example, Saville, Zinn, Brown, & Marchuk (2010) also found that students perceived faculty more positively with longer versus shorter syllabi and Jenkins, Bugeja, and Barber (2014) found that students appreciate it when policy information is included.

Taken together, this research suggests that creating a detailed syllabus that clearly articulates expectations and provides students with information about how to be successful in the course is advisable.

Short or long syllabus—what works best in your course? Does your experience reflect the research discussed above? Add your thoughts in the comments!

 

References:

Harrington, C., & Gabert-Quillen, C. (2015).  Syllabus length and use of images:  An empirical investigation of student perceptions.  Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(3), 235-243.

Jenkins, J. S., Bugeja, A. D., & Barber, L. K. (2014). More content or more policy? A closer look at syllabus detail, instructor gender, and perceptions of instructor effectiveness. College Teaching, 62(4), 129-135. Retrieved from ERIC database.

Saville, B. K., Zinn, T. E., Brown, A. R., & Marchuk, K. A. (2010). Syllabus detail and students’ perceptions of teacher effectiveness. Teaching of Psychology, 37(3), 186-189. doi:10.1080/00986283.2010.488523

 

Have you heard? Dr. Harrington is running Scholarly Teaching Institutes. These are opportunities to spend a full day exploring a pedagogical topic. This spring, there are two upcoming Institutes on Dynamic Lecturing, one in Orlando, Florida on February 19, 2016 and another in Hamilton, New Jersey on April 22, 2016. For more information and to sign up for her mailing list, visit www.scholarlyteaching.org