From my childhood I remember going to my elementary school with my mom a day or two before the start of the new academic year where we’d excitedly find out who would be my new teacher. With either joy or anxiety and we’d would head off to meet the teacher and wander around the new classroom for the first time. Checking out the whole class and chasing friends around, I quickly imagined what the new school year had in store for all of us, each respectively wading through a similar mix of emotions and anticipation that night. This initial encounter of teacher and classroom set the emotional stage for my classmates and me as our summer vacation officially came to an end. We’d either be eager and willing to head off for the first day of school, or perhaps unconsciously implore ourselves to stay under the comfort of our bed covers as long as we could! Ahh those memories…
So fast forwarding to the college campus, we can ask whether these emotional sensitivities are any different for a college student when they face their new courses and instructors for the first time. How does your first impression impact your students and how do you make the most of it? Since your syllabus is often available prior to the first day of class, let’s look at how its initial impression can set the stage for a warm and positive experience in your class.
Motivational Language and Tone
Much has been written and discussed about contents and functions of the syllabi. Traditionally. a syllabus may initially introduce the course to student through conveying learning objectives and goals, future content, and needed operational logistics. It can also function as a student contract while at the same time providing the institute a record of a course being taught. Additionally, syllabus types can range from more traditional, instructor-centered to a learner-centered style. No matter what type of syllabus you create and use, one underlying area that receives less attention is its projected tone. A positive, friendly tone may help cultivate a better student-instructor relationship and thus better overall course experience for students.
If you are looking to make changes in your syllabus for the next offering of your class, Maryellen Weimer proposes some questions to consider if you seek to project warmth and enthusiasm for your course. In part she suggests you ask yourself:
- Does my syllabus convey the excitement, intrigue and wonder that’s inherently a part of the content you teach?
- Does my syllabus indicate that all the decisions about the course have been made?
- Is it full of strongly worded directives or friendly in nature?
- Is the focus on what students will be learning or on all those various things that they should and shouldn’t be doing?
These questions can provide a good primary lens when initially reviewing and revising your existing syllabus. But what prominent characteristics are best to concentrate on in creating that warm and inviting syllabus? Consider these six areas to address:
- Positive or Friendly Language – will help the students feel comfortable and welcome, especially when reading the syllabus in advance of your first class.
- Rationale for Assignments – will help motivate students by clarifying how each assignment relates to your course goals.
- Self-Disclosure – sharing a personal experience or perspective can provide insight into an instructor’s interpersonal style.
- Humor – not taking yourself seriously can help with tone, but use caution as humor can be tricky and requires discretion at times.
- Compassion – perhaps best conveyed in your attendance policy when dealing with the unexpected life events.
- Enthusiasm – choose language that shows your passion for teaching and for your subject matter.
First impressions of you and your course can have the same emotional impact on students as they perhaps did during those early days of elementary school. Students want to come to a class and feel welcomed by the instructor and this can start with a positive and warm reaction from the first review of your syllabus. So as you prepare for your classes, what does your syllabus say about you, your teaching style, expectations, or personality? What message does it send about the “feel” of the course and what does its tone say to the students? Make that first impression matter!
For samples of exemplary syllabi please check out the Society for Teaching Psychology website’s Project Syllabi.