No One Reads the Syllabus

Concurrent Session 5
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Brief Abstract

“It’s in the syllabus!” is the constant refrain of higher education faculty.  Every semester brings a repetitive batch of student questions that have already been addressed in a course syllabus. The same types of repetitive questions arise when it comes to course assignments.  Again, the instructions have been ignored

 In general, a student’s failure to demonstrate comprehension of course instructions stems from two sources:

  1. The student failed to read the instructions

  2. The student failed to understand the instructions

It would be naive to conclude that only the student has failed here. The author of the instructions may also be at fault. Copywriting is a pursuit that’s devoted to creating compelling, reader-friendly content.  When content is compelling, the learner wants to engage.  When content is reader-friendly, the learner understands the written text.  Most academics are not well-versed in best practices from copywriting, leaning instead towards what has been described as “needless complexity”

Guidance from three fields can dramatically improve instructional writing style.  Studies in neuroscience have suggested best practices for writing for reader comprehension. Behavioral science has suggested best practices for writing that motivates compliance. And the field of technical writing suggests techniques for simplifying specialized information.

Courses designed and executed using such principles were evaluated by students. At the close of the courses, more than 90% of students in the anonymous course evaluations agreed or strongly agreed with the statements that described the course as clear, understandable, and well-organized.

Presenters

Miriam Bower-Abbott is an assistant professor and Academic Department Leader for Humanities at Mount Carmel College of Nursing. She's also a former TEDx speaker, with interests that range from ethics and logic to the study of writing and communication skills.

Extended Abstract

Background

“It’s in the syllabus!” is the constant refrain of higher education faculty.  Every semester brings a repetitive, predictable batch of student questions and challenges that have already been addressed in a course syllabus. The same types of repetitive questions arise when it comes to course assignments.  Again, the instructions have been ignored. 

 

Upon reflection, it would seem that instructions and rules are not on anyone’s favorite reading list.  Ask administrators, who complain that faculty don’t read college policy. 

 

Several options have been recommended as remedies to encourage students to carefully read instructions and syllabi. Such recommendations include collecting contract-like signatures on syllabi, administering quizzes about course instructions, and offering hidden extra-credit points for close readers. 

 

In general, a student’s failure to demonstrate comprehension of course instructions stems from two sources:

 

  1. The student failed to read the instructions

  2. The student failed to understand the instructions

 

It would be naive to conclude that only the student has failed here. The author of the instructions may also be at fault. Copywriting is a pursuit that’s devoted to creating compelling, reader-friendly content.  When content is compelling, the learner wants to engage.  When content is reader-friendly, the learner understands the written text.  Most academics are not well-versed in best practices from copywriting, leaning instead towards what has been described as “needless complexity” (Clayton, 2015; Ball,  2017).

 

Recommendations

Guidance from three fields can dramatically improve instructional writing style.  Studies in neuroscience have suggested best practices for writing for reader comprehension (Douglas, 2015). Behavioral science has suggested best practices for writing that motivates compliance (Behavioral Insights, 2020). And the field of technical writing suggests techniques for simplifying specialized information (Alred et al., 2011). Recommendations from these fields include:

 

  1. Editing for concision, clarity, and word economy

  2. Revising for optimized subject-verb order

  3. Applying descriptive norms

  4. Developing consistent organizational patterns for tasks

  5. Content formatting for rapid comprehension

 

Results

The deliberate application of copywriting principles can improve course communication and learning. Courses designed and executed using such principles were evaluated by students. At the close of the courses, more than 90% of students in the anonymous course evaluations agreed or strongly agreed with the following statements:

 

“Instructions for completing each module were easy to understand”

“The online course was well-organized with instructions that made it easy to navigate”

“The instructor presented information in a clear and understandable manner”

 

Limitations

There are some limitations in application.  In many classrooms, a syllabus serves the function of a legal contract. Legal contracts are not intended to be compelling reading material, and syllabi are more likely to serve this function when offered as an incredibly meticulous, multi-paginated encyclopedia of policies. 

 

The principles of good copywriting, however, may be applied to a  “shadow syllabus”, that is, a classroom guide written in plain language.  Assuming the goal is for students to understand the requirements for success in a course, then a readable classroom guide is certainly a good place to start.  Principles of clear communication may be applied not only in a classroom guide, but in all instructional materials and in course communications.

 

References

 

Alred, G. , Brusaw, C. & Oliu, W. (2011). The Handbook of Technical Writing. St. Martin’s Press.

 

Ball, P. (2017). It’s not just you: Science papers are getting harder to read. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/news/it-s-not-just-you-science-papers-are-getting...

 

Behavioral Insights. (2020). Publications. Retrieved from https://www.bi.team/our-work/publications/

 

Clayton, V. (2015). The needless complexity of academic writing. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/complex-academic-w...

 

Douglas, J. Y. (2015). The Reader’s Brain. How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. Cambridge University Press.