Setting the Tone for a Welcoming Classroom with a Liquid Syllabus

At times, the syllabus can feel like a relic from a different age of academia: a formal, lengthy document that reads like a legal contract and lacks personality. In an attempt to make syllabi more engaging and student-friendly, some instructors have come up with clever ways of reimagining their syllabi. One example of this is the liquid syllabus.

What is a liquid syllabus?

Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s liquid syllabus from her Fall 2020 photography class.

As a part of her effort to humanize her teaching methods, Michelle Pacanksy-Brock—author, instructor, and faculty mentor for California Community Colleges—decided to redo her syllabi. She saw her syllabi as an opportunity to set the stage for an inclusive and positive learning environment, both in terms of language and format. Applying these concepts, she developed a new online syllabus for her photography class using Google Sites. Pacansky-Brock has branded this style of syllabus as a “liquid syllabus”, in which the word “liquid” refers to the fact that these syllabi are easy to access online and interact with, even on mobile devices.

As defined by Pacansky-Brock, a liquid syllabus is usually:

  • Public (accessible online without needing to log into a university account and often available to students before class starts)
  • Mobile-friendly (resizes responsively based on a user’s device)
  • Engaging (includes an instructor video and possibly other forms of media)
  • Student-centered (uses approachable, welcoming language)
  • Visually pleasing (clearly organized with stylistic touches)

The purpose of a liquid syllabus is to serve as a welcoming and encouraging introductory resource for students, while still fulfilling the requirements of a traditional syllabus.

Is creating a liquid syllabus worth the time and effort?

A liquid syllabus is no doubt a bit of extra work, but the research seems to support that creating a liquid syllabus is a great investment in terms of equitable teaching. Here are a few features of a liquid syllabus that you might consider implementing in your own syllabi.

Close equity gaps among your students.

A student checking her smartphone as she walks around campus.

By building your syllabus with a mobile-friendly, web-based tool, you are increasing access for your students. It’s no secret that students in higher education are more likely to have access to a smartphone than a personal computer. A mobile-friendly syllabus is easy to interact with on a smaller screen because it resizes automatically, unlike a PDF or Word doc, which are difficult to read on mobile devices due to sizing constraints.

Liquid syllabi also put a heavy emphasis on inclusive language. When writing a syllabus, it is best to avoid making assumptions about your students’ background knowledge. Transfer students, non-traditional students, international students, and first-generation college students may not be familiar with institution-specific terminology or higher education lingo in general. Try to avoid using abbreviations for your content area, your department, buildings on campus, etc., unless they are clearly defined in the syllabus. Also consider providing some student-centered contextual language before syllabus resources and policies.

Make a good first impression.

Students’ perceptions of their instructors can rely heavily on their first impressions (often more so than an instructor’s reputation and credentials) and studies show that syllabus tone can make a huge difference in these first impressions. Students perceive their instructor as more welcoming, friendly, and inclusive when the instructor’s syllabus uses such language.

As you rework your syllabus, think about ways you can make your language more encouraging. When it comes to classroom expectations, you might reframe your statements to focus on what students should do for success, rather than what they shouldn’t (e.g., instead of saying “academic dishonesty will be punished”, you could say “I encourage academic integrity”). By turning commands into invitations, the overall tone of your syllabus shifts from contractual to welcoming.

Welcoming Language: Examples of Commands vs. Invitations
Commands Invitations
“You must complete makeup work to receive credit.” “Feel free to complete makeup work to earn credit.”
“You are allowed to…” “You are welcome to…”
“I only accept…” “I encourage you to…”
“Late work receives a 40% reduction.” “Late work is eligible for up to 60% of original points.”

Show students who you are.

An example of an instructor welcome video that has been captioned and embedded with a transcript player on the Syllabus page.

Most liquid syllabi also include an introductory video made by the instructor. In an online environment, instructor presence is particularly crucial for student feelings of connectedness, and a welcome video can be a great way to help meet that need. Cheer on your students and let them know that you are there to help them succeed. You can also use this as an opportunity for your students to get to know you a little bit—for example, you could introduce your pet on camera or briefly share about one of your hobbies.

Visual impact makes a difference too. In another study, students expressed more interest in taking a course when the syllabus was graphic-rich as opposed to purely textual. A syllabus doesn’t have to look cold and boring—it can be colorful, welcoming, and even playful, so get creative with your design. After you’re done, check things over to make sure your syllabus still meets accessibility guidelines. Add alt text to your images and captions to your videos as needed.

How can I create a liquid syllabus?

There are a variety of tools you can harness to develop a liquid syllabus. Like Pacansky-Brock, you could use a free website builder like Google Sites to get started. Or, if you feel comfortable using WordPress, you could also build your own site with UWGB domains. You can even use the Syllabus page right in Canvas. If you’d like to try making a liquid syllabus but aren’t quite sure where to start, CATL has developed a template in Canvas which is undergoing a pilot for Fall 2021. To learn more about the template or register to be a part of the pilot, please see this blog post. No matter which tool you choose, keep in mind accessibility and ease of access for students.

Do you have other ideas or suggestions for how to reinvent the syllabus? Share with us how you are transforming your syllabi by dropping a comment below or sending us an email at catl@uwgb.edu! We’d love to hear from you.

Workshop: What Will You Carry Forward? (Aug. 23, 12–1:15 p.m.)

Last year changed everything—or did it?

Join CATL for a “show and tell” event where some of your fellow instructors will show how they are moving on from last year. What did they keep? What will they discard?

We are centering the event on the idea of “flexibility” since it encapsulates many of the questions involved with making the transition from last year to this. For example, how and to what extent will you remain flexible in regards to due dates, attendance, participation, and more? How will you reuse all those online resources you made last year (labs, study guides, instructional videos) to remain flexible? How and to what extent will students be able to participate at a distance or asynchronously? Or, is now the time to teach students how to better be accountable for their own learning?

Come and hear what your fellow instructors are thinking.

Check back soon for details and registration!

Call for Participants: Liquid Syllabus Pilot

Looking to spice up your syllabus for Fall 2021? Consider going digital with a liquid syllabus! CATL is looking for instructors to pilot our liquid syllabus Canvas template. A liquid syllabus is a media-rich, web-friendly syllabus written in welcoming, student-centered language. Our template takes these elements into consideration and packages them conveniently in Canvas’s built-in Syllabus page. If you are interested in trying out our template and providing us with feedback, please register below.

Register Here

FAQ

Does the liquid syllabus template meet the University’s requirements for a syllabus?

Yes, the template meets all the requirements on the University’s syllabus checklist.

If I sign up for the pilot, do I have to use the template for my fall courses?

While we encourage you to try using the template for a course this fall, you are also welcome to use it for a course in a future semester or just experiment with it in a sandbox course.

How do I get access to the template?

When you register, we will ask you to provide a link to the instructional course or sandbox course you’d like the template added to. A CATL member will import the template into the Syllabus page of your Canvas course and then email you to notify you when it’s ready to use.

Can I change, add, or delete parts of the template?

Certainly! In fact, we highly encourage you to make the template your own. Our language is there as an example, but it will mean more to your students if your messages are customized. After making changes, we encourage you to check your template against the University’s syllabus guidelines to ensure that your final product still meets all standards.

I need a PDF or print version of my syllabus—what should I do?

We will include instructions on how to save your syllabus as a PDF when you register, but the short version is that in your browser you can right-click on the body of your Syllabus page, select “Print”, and then change the printer destination to “Save As PDF”.

Summer 2021 Event Digest

In addition to further programming still in the works, CATL invites you to take a look below at some of the workshops, presentations, and ongoing programs we have planned for the summer. Click on any of the titles listed below to learn more and stay tuned for updates!

  • Distance Education Certificate Program
    The Provost’s Office is launching a Distance Education Certificate program in June. With the help of the CARES Act and the Provost’s Office, instructors who participate this summer will earn stipends for completing courses in the program. Anyone developing or reconfiguring a course for any of the distance education modalities is encouraged to participate.
  • Reading Circle: “Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)” (Aug. 12, 2021)
    This summer, CATL is supporting faculty and staff-led Reading Circles—book discussions that are open to the campus community. One of these will be on Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead).
  • Reading Circle: "Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom" (July 15 & Aug. 5, 6–7 p.m.)
    This summer, CATL is supporting faculty and staff-led reading circles—book discussions that are open to the campus community—and Tracy Fernandez Rysavy (English) will be leading one on bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom! Participants will meet via Zoom on Thursday, July 15, and Thursday, Aug. 5 from 6–7 p.m. to discuss our thoughts on the book. There are a limited number…
  • Summer Office Hours
    CATL staff will be available to answer questions, brainstorm assignment design ideas, or test new technologies with you during a virtual Open Office Hours this Summer. Join us via Microsoft Teams Currently scheduled dates and times: Wednesday, Jun. 30 from 8–10 a.m. Wednesday, Jul. 7, from 8–10 a.m. Wednesday, Jul. 14 from 8–10 a.m. Wednesday,…
  • Classic Quizzes & New Quizzes (July 21, 12–1 p.m.)
    In this presentation, CATL staff will highlight the feature differences between Classic Quizzes and New Quizzes in Canvas and cover tips & tricks from use cases. There will be time for questions, but if you have one in mind, don’t hesitate to reach out before! 
  • Canvas Banners Workshop (July 27, 1–2 p.m.)
    In this workshop, participants will learn the basics of creating banners with Canva, a free online tool for creating graphics. Attendees will also learn some basic tips on graphic design and web accessibility that they can apply in their own Canvas courses. 
  • VoiceThread Workshops (Aug. 5, 9–10 a.m. & Aug. 6, 12–1 p.m.)
    CATL staff will briefly demonstrate using the VoiceThread assignment builder for creating “watch,” “comment,” and “create” assignments. This is intended to be a workshop, so please come with ideas, fully designed assignments with which we can tinker, or past snafus you might wish to address. 
  • Canvas Accessibility FAQ (Aug. 18, 10–11 a.m.)
    Learn how to make your course more accessible using Canvas tools (Pages Accessibility Checker) and integrations (automatic, machine-generated captions with Kaltura; UDOIT Accessibility Checker). There will be time at the end of the session for a short Q & A on these tools and general accessibility questions. 
  • Workshop: What Will You Carry Forward? (Aug. 23, 12–1:15 p.m.)
    Join CATL for a "show and tell" event where some of your fellow instructors will show how they are moving on from last year. What did they keep? What will they discard?

 

Canvas Accessibility FAQ (Aug. 18, 10–11 a.m.)

Learn how to make your course more accessible using Canvas tools (Pages Accessibility Checker) and integrations (automatic, machinegenerated captions with Kaltura; UDOIT Accessibility Checker). There will be time at the end of the session for a short Q & A on these tools and general accessibility questions. 

Join us via Microsoft Teams