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.

Webinars: Teaching with MS Teams Meetings (May 13 & 18, 2021)

CATL recommends all summer courses use Microsoft Teams meetings if they require synchronous online sessions, as access to Blackboard Collaborate Ultra will end on June 30, 2021.

CATL is here to help instructors get ready to teach with Microsoft Teams meetings this summer! Join us for a live online training session, “Teaching With Microsoft Teams” on Thursday, May 13 from 3–4 p.m. or on Tuesday, May 18 from 11 a.m.–12 p.m.

This session will cover the following basics for using Teams meetings in your class:

  • Scheduling meetings for your synchronous class sessions
  • Configuring meeting options
  • Sharing Teams meeting links in Canvas
  • Meeting controls
  • Sharing your screen or a PowerPoint
  • Using Breakout Rooms
  • Downloading Attendance Reports
  • Recording meetings
  • Polling

The instructional portion of the session will also be recorded for those who cannot attend.

For specific questions or a quicker refresher on using Teams meetings for instruction, also feel free to drop by CATL’s end-of-semester drop-in hours or schedule a one-on-one consultation.

Click Here to Register for May 13
Click Here to Register for May 18

Didn’t register? No problem! You can also join us with the following links:

Guide: Setting Up MS Teams Meetings For Synchronous Instruction

Scheduling A Recurring Teams Meeting For Class Sessions

Scheduling A Recurring Teams Meeting For Class Sessions

Extensive documentation for scheduling Teams Meetings can be found on the UWGB KnowledgeBase (Links to an external site.). Here are the steps we recommend for setting up Teams meetings for recurring synchronous class sessions.

  1. Open Microsoft Teams and select Calendar from the app bar.
  2. Click the + New Meeting button.
  3. Give your meeting a title in the “Add title” field.
  4. The quickest method to invite all the students who are currently enrolled in your class is to use your course’s email distribution list. You can type in the name of your course distribution list in the “Add required attendees” field, then click the matching result in the search box that appears.
  5. Enter the start and end date and time for the first meeting occurrence (i.e. your first class session).
  6. To create a recurring meeting, change the selected meeting recurrence drop-down menu choice from “Does not repeat” to the desired pattern. For a class that meets multiple times in a week, choose the Custom option, set it to repeat every 1 Week, and select the desired days of the week. Set the end date to the date of your last class meeting. Click Save to add the custom recurrence pattern to your meeting.
    Setting a custom recurrence
  7. (Optional) Enter in any meeting details in the meeting body. You could include welcoming language for your students and/or expectations for student participation in this field.
  8. In the top-right of the New meeting window, click Send to create your meeting and send invitations to the students.

NOTE: Your meeting invitation will not automatically update to include/remove students who add or drop the course. After the meeting has been created, you can edit the meeting series to invite additional students or remove students from the meeting series. To edit a meeting series in Teams, click any occurrence of the meeting in your calendar once, then click Edit > Edit Series.

Configuring Meeting Options

After scheduling your Teams meeting, you can customize the meeting options. Of particular importance for a class meeting is controlling whether or not students can present (i.e. share their screen). For maximum meeting security, we recommend setting the Who can present? meeting option to “Only me.” This setting will allow students to use their mic, camera, and chat during the meeting but will prevent them from sharing their screen, starting a recording, or creating polls.

Whenever a student needs to present in a meeting, you can quickly promote an individual student to the presenter role in the meeting’s participants panel. For more information on setting user roles in a Teams meeting, please see this Microsoft Support guide.

Posting the Meeting Join Link in Canvas

A ready meeting link

Students will be able to join a Teams meeting to which they’ve been invited by finding the meeting in the calendar page of the Teams application. Joining a Teams meeting through the calendar of the Teams app is the easiest way to join a meeting, but you may also wish to post the meeting join link in a Canvas course page or event so that students can join the meeting by clicking a link within your Canvas course.

Once a Teams Meeting has been scheduled, a meeting join link is automatically added to the bottom of the body of the appointment that is added to your Teams (and Outlook) calendar. This link can be freely copied from your calendar and pasted anywhere, including a Canvas course. Each scheduled occurrence of a recurring Teams meeting will use the same join link. Consider pasting the join link for your meeting in any or all of these Canvas course locations:

  • In a page in the introduction module of your course.
  • Add the link as an External URL module item (IMPORTANT: When adding a Teams join link as a module item in Canvas, you must check the Load in a new tab option for the link to work)
  • In a Canvas course calendar event. NOTE: Canvas events do not support custom recurrence patterns; events can be only be duplicated with daily, weekly, or monthly patterns. A separate Canvas event that is duplicated weekly would have to be created for each day of the week your class meets (e.g. one for Monday meetings and one for Wednesday meetings), but you can paste the same Teams meeting join link in each Canvas event.

Organizing Canvas to Improve the Student Experience

Article by Sam Mahoney

We’ve all been there: someone told you to finish that thing, and you remember seeing the file somewhere a few weeks ago, but you just can’t remember where you saved it. Or when it’s due. Or maybe even what it was called. Maybe it was this file titled “download_040521”? No wait… maybe download_064053?

Now imagine yourself in that same situation, but you’re a student. Between unclear file names, multiple methods of communication, and so many places information can be posted, it can be frustrating to keep track of all the details in an online class. That’s where organization and consistency in how you use Canvas can save your students a lot of headache and you from the burden of answering a dozen emails a day from confused students. In fact, in a recent survey conducted by UW-La Crosse, students cited clear organization in Canvas as one of the most important things their instructors did that helped them during their Fall 2020 classes. Read on for some suggestions on getting more organized in Canvas so you can help your students be more successful in your classes.

Organizing Course Content

When teaching online, an important consideration is how to arrange and present your content. For maximum clarity and visibility, we recommend organizing your content in modules on the home page. Students are generally used to working through online content sequentially, so arranging modules chronologically with the first week/unit at the top is ideal. You could also arrange your course’s modules in reverse chronological order, publishing the most recent one at the start of each unit/week, so the current module is always at the top of the page. If arranging your content chronologically doesn’t seem like a good fit for your class, you could also try grouping content in modules by project instead.

GIF of reordering modules on the course home page
Modules can be rearranged by clicking and dragging the stacked dots in the top left corner.

Once you have decided how you would like to set up your modules, consider the order in which the content within the modules appears. The first item in a module is nearly always a page. This page should provide students with the context they need to successfully read/watch the necessary materials and complete the necessary activities for the week or unit. You can also use this page to provide an introductory paragraph with other necessary contextual information, as well as the learning objectives or goals for the unit/week. Depending on the depth of the material, you may also consider breaking this information down into multiple pages.

For example, your overview page in each module might include:

Briefly introduce the materials and concepts covered in the module.

Provide any necessary background information students may need to know before engaging with the "meat" of the content. 

You can also link to relevant, optional "pre-reading" materials that might be useful for some students to review before diving into the new content. 

Concretely describe what you would like students to know or be able to do by the end of the week/unit's activities.

For more on crafting objectives, see this guide.

Link to online articles or documents uploaded in the files area in Canvas.

Make sure all readings are accessible—PDF scans of physical textbooks, for example, are not usually readable by e-readers unless they have been OCR-scanned.

A quick way to check: can you copy and paste the text? 

Embed your pre-recorded lectures for the module in sequential order. 

Try to break down lectures into shorter, more digestible videos. Studies have shown that 6—9 minutes may be the sweet spot, and a conversational tone is equally important (Brame, 2016).

Link directly to Canvas activities that students are to complete for the week/unit (assignments, discussions, etc.). 

Include both graded and non-graded activities. 

After the overview page, add any relevant Canvas activities to the module, such as discussions, assignments, and quizzes, all with appropriate, descriptive and consistent namesIf you are using a weekly or unit-based module system, only add the activities that will be due that week/unit. In general, all Canvas assignments, discussions, and quizzes should also have due dates assigned to them in Canvas, as this will add the item to students’ to-do list and calendar in Canvas. These due dates, combined with adding those activities to the appropriate module, will let students see at a glance what is due by the end of the week or unit. Keep the content in the modules simple and high-level in terms of information—save the specifics for the assignment, discussion, or quiz details. 

Linking Related Materials 

It may be tempting to link all your readings, resources or other materials for a unit in the modules on the home page, but the more content students see in the module, the more overwhelmed they will feel. Instead, it is a good idea to keep materials related to each project, assignment, or other activity in the activity description itself. 

With Canvas’s Rich Content Editor, which is what you use to edit the descriptions of assignments, quizzes, and discussions, you can add links to files (documents that you have uploaded to the files area), content within Canvas (published pages, discussions, assignments, etc.) and external URLs (online articles or other websites that have content or activities you would like students to engage with). You can also embed videos that you have created (Kaltura/My Media videos) or videos from other sources that support embed codes (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.). Use this to your advantage by linking all relevant materials needed for completing an activity in the description for said activity. After you’re finished, it’s a good idea to check over the links in your course with Canvas’s link validator tool to make sure you don’t have any broken links.

How to link a file with the New RCE menu bar
Demonstration of how to link a file with the Rich Content Editor.

It’s not enough to just add links, however. Any materials that you would like students to engage with also require clear, concise instructions for what you would like students to do with the content that you’ve linked. 

Here are some questions to consider when you are adding materials to your assignments, discussions, and other areas of Canvas: 

Use the exact name of the article or video, or a clear, concise description for the inline text when you create a link.

For an article, for example, is your intention for students to skim it? Do a close read? Annotate it? Take detailed notes?

Include page numbers for readings and timestamps for videos, when applicable.

This information also allows students to better gauge the amount of time they will need to complete an activity.

Provide instructions on how you would like students to apply what they have learned/accomplished from the linked material to the activity.

Decide if you want students' use of the material to be open-ended or specific (e.g. for a discussion, do you want students to submit a free-form reflection on the reading, or answer specific discussion questions?).

Consistency is Key

However you decide to organize your course, it’s important to keep things as consistent as possible from week to week or unit to unit. This includes:

  • File naming conventions
  • Assignment/discussion/quiz naming conventions
  • Layouts on pages
  • Layouts in modules
  • When, where, and how students can find the instructions for an assignment/discussion/quiz
  • When, where, and how students are to submit an assignment/discussion post/quiz

You’ll find that students will become quickly habituated to doing things a certain way, so if you change up, for example, the location in which students can find the weekly PowerPoint slides, it will likely disrupt students’ learning and cause unnecessary confusion and frustration. Studies have shown that consistency in course design is one of the keys to student success in an online environment (Swan, et al, 2000).

Other Ideas

Have you found other creative and effective ways to organize your course content in Canvas? Let us know by dropping a comment below! Or perhaps there’s something you read about here that you’d like some help implementing in your own course—consider emailing us at catl@uwgb.edu or filling out our consultation request form to chat with a CATL member.


The content of this post has been adapted from CATL’s Pandemic to Online Teaching course from January 2020.