Current reading: “Syllabus Language, Teaching Style, and Instructor Self-Perception: Toward Congruence” by Richmann, Kurinec & Millsap (2020)

Yes!! People are actually responding to my “send me an article that is currently inspiring you!” request! In a comment to my blog post “Summaries of two more inspiring articles recommended by my colleagues: On educational assessment (Hager & Butler, 1996) and on variables associated with achievement in higher ed (Schneider & Preckel, 2017)“, Peggy sent me the article “Syllabus Language, Teaching Style, and Instructor Self-Perception: Toward Congruence” by Richmann, Kurinec & Millsap (2020) I am discussing below.

“Syllabus Language, Teaching Style, and Instructor Self-Perception: Toward Congruence” by Richmann, Kurinec & Millsap (2020)

In the article, Richmann, Kurinec & Millsap (2020) argue for the importance of syllabi as teaching artefacts that, through many subtle signals, and through the language being used in them, set the tone for a course and influence how students show up and expect to interact with the instructor. While one can debate whether the language in syllabi should always be positive and inviting (although I don’t really see why it should not be), it seems clear that it would be helpful if how students perceive the instructor through the syllabus in a way that is congruent with who they will encounter in the classroom. Or at least with how the instructor see themselves.

Richmann, Kurinec & Millsap (2020) then present a tool that compares syllabus language with self-reports of teachers.

For the syllabus, they use the Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance (PAD) emotional state model and thus diagnoses an emotional state that is conveyed by the words used. The model uses a dictionary that assigns words values on the three scales: the pleasure subscale measures emotions, for example between bored and content, the arousal subscale is about a person’s energy (for example somewhere between sluggish and excited), and the dominance subscale is about control: for example submissive to dominant. Baseline values measured with this instrument turn out to depend on discipline.

For teachers’ self declaration, they use a Teaching Styles Inventory that classifies teachers in one of five types: Expert, Formal Authority, Personal Model, Facilitator, Delegator. They also use a questionnaire based on the PAD model to identify the teachers’ typical emotions.

Richmann, Kurinec & Millsap (2020) find that in most cases, the diagnosed language in syllabi is incongruent with how the teachers perceive themselves, which, as described above, can be problematic. Since the tool suggests alternative wording, it can be used to increase congruence. The article cites some examples of what that might look like:

“Required Books” became “What Book You Need,” “Course Requirements” became “How to Demonstrate Your Learning,” and “Attendance and Student Decorum” became “How to Be a Part of the Class.”

So is that something we should now all be doing?

First, how large is the influence of syllabus language on anything? Lots of teachers complain that students have no idea what’s on the syllabus in terms of deadlines, requirements, …, so how much influence can a syllabus actually have when the perception on the other hand is that nobody ever reads it? On the other hand, especially when students don’t have a lot of contact with teaching (like in a lot of emergency online teaching situations), the syllabus might become more important again. And I think running syllabi through the tool and getting an evaluation of congruence with self-perceived teaching styles is definitely interesting, even though I am not sure whether that necessarily means that the syllabus needs to be modified (and especially whether the tool’s suggestions would then be the best way to go). I agree that “how to demonstrate your learning” sounds a lot more inviting than “course requirements”. But Richmann, Kurinec & Millsap (2020)  also note that “One instructor in our participant pool commented that he aims for strategic inconsistency between his in-class persona and syllabus language, attempting a “good cop, bad cop” approach.” In any case, using suggestions from the tool as starting point for reflection certainly won’t hurt! Unfortunately, I did not get the tool to work, despite several attempts in different browsers, and emails with the authors. But if it works for you, please let me know about your experiences!

Thanks, Peggy, for suggesting this article, I really enjoyed reading it! Who else has something inspiring to read for me? :)

Richmann, Christopher; Kurinec, Courtney; and Millsap, Matthew (2020) “Syllabus Language, Teaching Style, and Instructor Self-Perception: Toward Congruence,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 14: No. 2, Article 4.

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