Create a Motivational (Math) Syllabus

How long should a syllabus be?

(a) 1-2 pages  (b) 3-6 pages  (c) 7-9 pages (d) Over 10 pages

A year ago, I went to the Lilly Teaching Conference where Christine Harrison asked this question. I didn’t have to think twice, my answer was (a). All my syllabi (to be honest, at that point it would have been like six of them) had been 2 pages long, mostly because of the university-mandated statements. The audience seemed to back me up. Roughly 70% answered (a) or (b) and the rest (c) or (d). Still… 3 out of 10 members of the audience were creating insanely long syllabi. “Who will read them?” I thought.

My typical 2-page syllabus. Compare it to the one later in this post.

Three months later, I created an eleven-page syllabus. Why? It all started with three questions Christine asked during her presentation.

  • If you want your students to know who you are, why don’t you add a picture of yourself on your syllabus?
  • If you want your students to know which book(s) to buy, why don’t you add a picture of the cover of the book(s) you will use during the length of the course?
  • If you want to motivate your students… why don’t you add a welcome message?

I quickly figured I could improve my syllabi. Still, I was skeptical about the effectiveness of long syllabi. Then, the next round of questions came along:

  • If you want to make your students want to read your syllabi, make it attractive. Why not use a pie chart for the grading information instead of just a table?
  • Are you giving four exams? When, where, and why? Convince them this is better for them than just having one or two exams.
  • If you want to share best practices to do well in the course, why not add tips from previous students?

At this point, I was almost convinced that a long-ish syllabus made sense. Still… almost. Then, just months before I was scheduled to teach Villanova’s math capstone seminar, which is based on three presentations and a paper, the presenter said (paraphrasing):

  • Are you assigning special projects, presentations, or reports? Add the guidelines and grading schemes to the syllabus. That way, students will know where to look at them from day 1.

And there I was, creating an eleven-page syllabus. I told students that almost every question they might ask about the course is probably answered in the syllabus. To my surprise, they did bring their syllabus to class and, for the most part, looked at it when looking for course information.

The first two pages of my 11-page syllabus.

I must add that Christine provided much more information and research in her presentation. On her website, she has a similar presentation titled Creating a Powerful Syllabus and she wrote a book titled Designing a Motivational Syllabus. Please refer to the presentation and book if you are interested in knowing more about the research that has been done in the area.

Two final advice I really liked. One is to use positive language. Replace phrases like “Don’t cheat!” with others like “Engage in honest action, this is what it means to be honest…”; “If you need to contact me” with “I welcome you to contact me”; “Engage in class” with “I hope you actively participate in class.” The second advice was to add these six “magic words” in bold somewhere in the syllabus: Please come and talk to me. The author mentioned a study that suggests these words have an impact on students and they do tend to come and talk to you more often. 

In that spirit, please come and talk to me. Particularly, share your syllabus with me (alexander.diaz-lopez@villanova.edu) and let me know if you are ok sharing it on the internet. I am planning to create a freely available repository with the syllabi I receive. For instance, here is a portion of a different type of motivational syllabus by Chad Topaz.

A portion of Chad Topaz’s Differential Equations syllabus.

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