Evidence-Based Frameworks and Strategies for Keeping Students Engaged

Keeping students engaged in their learning throughout an entire semester is a challenge that exists across all disciplines and modalities. Though the ways in which you implement strategies for increasing student engagement might vary because of these factors, the good news is that the underlying principles remain the same. Below are some of the key methods and strategies that have emerged as common themes across many studies on the relationships between teaching practices and student engagement.

Foster a Culture of Growth, Trust, and Belonging

Part of a student’s engagement in a course is tied to the affective domain of learning, or a student’s thoughts and feelings about their own learning. Does the student feel like they belong in this learning environment? Are they respected by their peers and the instructor? Do they see their instructor as an ally in the learning journey, or as an adversary?

One aspect of the affective domain is whether an individual has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The Center for Learning Experimentation, Application and Research at the University of North Texas has a great list of growth mindset interventions instructors can implement. It is worth noting, however, that research seems to indicate the effectiveness of these interventions is contingent on the instructor’s mindset as well. Studies have shown that instructors with a greater growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) have smaller racial achievement gaps and inspire more student motivation in their courses.

The affective domain also includes students’ feelings of belonging and trust. While the degree to which you can affect these feelings has limitations, evidence-based practices usually boil down to how you interact with students and facilitate interactions between students. A few examples include using a welcoming tone in your syllabus, modelling inclusive language, and taking the time to get to know your students’ names. Even in asynchronous classes it is important to build trust with your students. For example, you might want to consider using a week-one survey to provide your students with an opportunity to tell you about themselves.

Break Up Lectures & Add Opportunities for Active Learning

When there is a lot of content that needs to be disseminated across the duration of the semester, lectures are a common method for communicating that information quickly and efficiently. But the longer and denser the lecture is, the more instructors risk losing their students along the way due to cognitive load.

One solution is to build pause points into your lectures. Students benefit from structured pauses during lectures as it allows them space to question, process, and reflect on the information that they’ve absorbed. For pre-recorded lectures, the same idea can be achieved by breaking up a long lecture video into multiple short, topical videos (research suggests 6-12 minutes is an ideal length for maintaining student engagement). Fortunately, Kaltura (My Media) makes it very easy to trim and save video clips from right within Canvas.

When adding pauses for students to digest information, it is also beneficial to create opportunities for active learning activities. These activities can be very brief, such as using an anonymous polling tool to check for student understanding during a lecture. For more in-depth active learning, consider making time for small group discussions, written reflections, and other exercises that require students to employ higher order thinking skills. For courses with an asynchronous component, PlayPosit allows instructors to add a variety of engagement activities to pre-recorded lecture videos, while Hypothesis may be useful for incorporating annotation and reflection activities into assigned readings.

Provide Transparency and Support

When a student needs to spend a lot of mental energy figuring out the logistics of how to complete an activity, they have less mental energy left to engage with the course materials themselves. Therefore, transparency and scaffolding are both key elements to designing engaging assignments.

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) framework is designed to help instructors write clear and descriptive instructions for learning materials and assignments. For this framework, lay out the task, purpose, and criteria for each learning activity. If a student knows what they are supposed to do, why they are supposed to do it (how it ties to the course learning outcomes), and how they are going to be assessed, they can go into the activity more confident in their ability to engage with it.

It is common for a student to stop engaging with a course if they feel like they don’t have the means or resources to complete the tasks they’ve been assigned. Proper instructional scaffolding can help counter this issue by bridging some of the cognitive gaps and reducing the number of students that fall through the cracks. For example, if the final assignment in your course is an 8-page research paper, consider breaking up the process into several smaller assignments, such as having students submit their topic, bibliography, and outline at various points throughout the semester. Other ways to provide scaffolding this assignment might include modelling (providing examples of papers that meet the outcomes of the assignment), incorporating instructor or peer feedback for the outline or an early draft of the paper, and providing a robust rubric to guide students on how to meet the assignment outcomes.

Additional Resources

Engaging students is a broad topic that we are only just able to scratch the surface of in this post. Below are some resources for further reading if you’d like to dive in deeper.

Questions?

As always, we welcome you to share your ideas for engaging students by dropping a comment below or emailing us at CATL@uwgb.edu. If you’d like to discuss any of these methods or ideas one-on-one, a CATL member would be happy to meet with you for a consultation as well.

Cold Lunch & Hot Topic Follow-up: To Record or Not to Record

To Record or Not to Record? 

That appears to be the question many of us are asking ourselves.  

COVID has accelerated the presence of remote learning technology in the classroom. Much of this technology allows for videoconferencing and video recording. For many of us videoconferencing has become a normal part of the workday as we use Teams and Zoom for classes and/or meetings. This increased use and comfort of working with technology has translated into our teaching and learning, so the question is more of a should we record instead of a can we record. 

Comfort with recording, however, does not require us to implement that technology in the classroom. As you decide what to do for your class, CATL would encourage you to think first about pedagogy and content before considering technology. 

The purest and simplest answer is to be consistent with the modality of your class. The reality, though, is that our students have become accustomed to recordings being available  because we have offered recordings to support learning as part of our response to COVID. As we move away from that emergency approach to teaching, some students may still expect class recordings to be readily available regardless of the modality if they miss a class now for illness, family obligations, or work.  

Perhaps this point has merit, however, there are a few limitations we would suggest you consider before you make your final decision regarding whether to record or not record your classes.  

It may be easy to record a class meeting if you are in one of the classrooms that has all the equipment necessary to support videoconferencing or lecture streaming. Virtual classrooms that are completely run in Teams or Zoom are also easy to record. Before you hit the record button, though, you need to be mindful of your pedagogy. If your classroom is not equipped with cameras and microphones, it may seem like using our GBIT provided laptops, smart phones, or a DE cart could be a solution. But such a solution is limited by technology. We have all been in meetings this semester where the audio and video focused on one person or access to information shared in the meeting was limited. Recording with our laptops, DE carts, or personal phones creates a limited, potentially inequitable learning experience.  

If you rely on active learning, large class discussions, or significant periods of Q&A in your class, passively watching a recording of the video may not yield a comparable learning experience for your students. The CATL Team has curated a few ideas to consider offering students who must miss a class meeting which can be viewed below.  

If you elect to record a specific class meeting to accommodate a student absence, please follow best practices in video sharing, as well as guidelines for FERPA. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching provides a good starting point to consider as you design and deliver Effective Educational Videos. In a recording, you can elect to pause or remove student conversations in class, but remember that if students’ images, names, or voices are captured in the video, you should limit access to the video to that one class. The Department of Education provides guidance a FAQ on Photos and Videos that should help with determining how best to manage FERPA concerns with class recordings.  

Finally, if these conversations have led to thoughts about your class modality and whether you should change it for a future term, please consult with your Chair. They, in consultation with the Associate Deans and Associate Provost, can help you with any policy questions you might have about the UWGB modalities. 

Strategies to Deal with Student Absences and Makeup Work 

  • At the beginning of the semester, create semester-long small groups of students and encourage them to communicate with each other about sharing notes from class. You can create a Canvas Discussion group for students to interact or post photos or links to their class notes.
    • You can also encourage students to coordinate amongst their group and share what strategy for note taking is most effective and ask students to create a plan for sharing class notes when a group member has missed a class.
    • You can use Hypothesis to create a shared note-taking document that is assigned to these small groups (e.g., post your module PowerPoint slides as a group Hypothesis PDF document for possible annotating).
  • If students are working on a group project and one of their members is missing, have one student in the group be a notetaker to fill in their missing member on what the group accomplished during class. The student who missed class and group work time will know of any important decisions that were made and be aware of tasks they need to complete to make up for the missed work time.
    • You could even require students to complete a group charter at the beginning of the group project to establish group member roles, expectations, and communication methods.
  • Have students do research to find scholarly resources, videos, or web resources that supplement the topics and materials covered during the days they missed. Ask for a brief summary of the source or sources. Bonus: you may learn of a few new resources to share with the class.
  • If your class includes reading assignments, ask students to submit a reading journal to share their observations and questions regarding assigned reading content. The reading journal serves both to meet participation for in-person class and an opportunity to engage with students about the content shared and discussion questions they may have asked if in class.
  • If you track attendance or incorporate participation points in your course, consider creating a Canvas Discussion Board where students can respond to prompts as a make-up activity if they miss class.
  • If a student missed class, and you require them to complete an alternative assignment to make up for the in-class absence, use the “Assign to” feature in Canvas to assign just the absent student(s) the make-up activity.
  • Administer your exams and quizzes through Canvas. Doing so can make it easier for students to make them up if they miss an exam day. Canvas quiz features like shuffling answer options or using question banks can also help prevent cheating if you are concerned about a student taking the quiz later than the rest of the class.
  • If you use Power Point slides for lectures or in-class instruction, consider posting them to Canvas. You can share the slides before or after class. A best practice for slides is to have limited text that students fill in with notes, as note-taking is an important part of studying and learning.
    • As a bonus for sharing your slides with the class, some students might like to print off the slides in advance and use the paper copy for taking notes during the lecture, which will also be helpful for studying later.
  • Consider supplementing your face-to-face instruction by regularly sharing brief videos (and/or audio and text resources) in Canvas that review “muddiest points” from class meetings or work through additional example problems. This type of material can be videos you create yourself or videos you have discovered on a public site (YouTube, etc.). Doing this can aid students who missed class and reinforce the learning of students who were present.
    • In general, short, targeted videos tend to be more effective than full lecture recordings and as a bonus you can reuse the material from term to term.
  • Consider using in-class digital activities which can be completed synchronously or asynchronously.
    • For example, a Hypothesis annotation activity or a collective note-taking document can be used during in-class instruction but can also be completed by a student after the fact, allowing them to see their peers' contributions as well.
    • Another example is the use of a PlayPosit video with embedded questions. PlayPosit Broadcast can be used to let students interact with the video synchronously in class, or you can create a lightbulb activity to be completed before or after a course or for an asynchronous course.

What’s in a Name? Tips for Learning & Using Students’ Names in Class

Research tells us that learning and using students’ names in class has benefits for belonging and engagement, both of which are associated with positive educational outcomes. Instructors also know, however, that it can be quite a challenge to learn dozens and, in some cases, even hundreds, of student names in a semester. There is no one easy solution, but here are some different strategies you might consider, along with a healthy dose of reviewing and rehearsing. 

  • Use the classic standby table tent method. Provide card stock or thick paper and bold markers. Pass materials out and ask students to make a nameplate that they use for class each day. You can even collect them and pass them back to students each day for the first couple of weeks if having to return them helps you learn names. 
  • Call the roll and consider doing it on more than the first day. You can even explain to students that you are doing so because you genuinely want to work on learning and correctly pronouncing their names. Ask them to correct mistakes you make. Write phonetic pronunciations next to names on your roster. They may appreciate your efforts at getting to know them even if it takes a few minutes of class time.
  • Ask students to complete a course survey for you and submit it in Canvas as an assignment. Have them provide their preferred name, correct pronouns, and a typed-out phonetic pronunciation of their name as some of the items. Include other questions that help you learn a bit about them, so you can associate that with their name. You can invite them to include a photo if they feel comfortable doing so. 
  • Take pictures in class. Have students write their names in large letters on a full sheet of paper. Ask them to hold it up, and then take photos of groups of students in the classroom. Practice reviewing the images before class each day. You should offer students the choice to opt-out of this exercise because they may have legitimate cultural, safety, or other reasons for not wanting to participate. 
  • Remember that your class rosters in SIS include photos, and you can print rosters to take to class with you that include thumbnails of those images. You can also use the rosters to practice learning names. Do keep in mind, though, that the photos are typically first-year student ID pictures and may not be accurate representations of your students today 
  • Assign students to visit your office for just a couple of minutes to introduce themselves to you. It may help you learn names, assist them in finding your office and make them more likely to seek you out when they have questions.  
  • Spend time before class speaking individually with students. Try calling them by name or ask them to provide or remind you of their name as a part of the conversation.  
  • Be aware that UW-Green Bay does have a preferred name policy, and students can request to have their preferred name on class rosters, in Canvas, and in email. If you have a student in class who requests you use an entirely different name than is currently on your roster, let them know that there is a mechanism to ask for a name change in many of our systems.   
  • Teaching online? Ask students to share an image and description of their real or fictional dream vacation destination, favorite food, or a favorite book to a discussion board to introduce themselves. Although you may not have to memorize names in asynchronous online classes in the same way you do when teaching face to face, getting to know your students from the start of the semester and encouraging interaction among them is important.
  • Pair students and ask them to interview each other and introduce each other to the rest of the class in a virtual or interactive video class. It can help you and the students learn names and increase comfort with the breakout rooms and cameras before you engage in content-focused conversations.  

 

College Student Mental Health: What Instructors Should Know

Article by Kris Vespia

As a counseling psychologist who is an active teacher and a scholar in the area of college student mental health, I pay particular attention when I hear my teaching colleagues express concern about seeing more students in emotional distress. I am also keenly aware that these student issues do not only present in university counseling centers. They also reach into classrooms and instructor offices. Instructors, though, typically have no formal training in how to respond. How are we as educators to best react when a student self-discloses a trauma during class and begins to cry while other students stare awkwardly at their desks? Or when an advisee softly admits in an individual meeting that they have been thinking about suicide? Or when a student emails to ask for an extension because they are struggling to adjust to their new medication for Bipolar Disorder?

I have had many more conversations about these topics since the pandemic began. I hear from faculty who say they are seriously concerned about student mental health and feel both an obligation to act and tremendous uncertainty about what to do. Layered on top of that uncertainty undoubtedly is the additional strain instructors have also been under, leaving them less able to expend the emotional labor involved in such situations. I am hoping this blog will serve three purposes: a) to provide some context for the mental health issues instructors are seeing, b) to give some preliminary tips for working with students in distress or with mental illness diagnoses, and c) to offer a repository of the mental health resources available to UW-Green Bay students so you can make referrals and consult, as needed.

First, let’s talk context. You should know that you are likely seeing an increase in student distress, but that is not a new phenomenon. College student mental health needs were critical long before the COVID-19 pandemic. A few statistics may help. Almost 20% of Americans have a diagnosable mental illness, and the most common time of initial onset for many of those conditions is traditional college age (National Institute of Mental Health/NIMH, 2021). In fact, the highest prevalence rates of mental illness overall and of serious mental illness specifically are between the ages of 18 and 25 (NIMH, 2021), and that distress appears to have increased over the last decade or more. For example, CDC data show that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, and suicide rates among those aged 10-24 increased over 57% from 2007 through 2018 (Curtin, 2020). Looking at college students specifically, results from two large, national datasets show moderate to severe anxiety and suicidal ideation almost doubled between 2012 and 2017-18 (Duffy, Twenge, & Joiner, 2019). Perhaps not surprisingly then, even though national statistics suggest the majority of people with mental illness (including college students) do not seek treatment, across 150 universities throughout the U.S., counseling center use still went up an average of 30-40% during a 5-year period in which overall student enrollment increased by only 5% (Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 2018).

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made a challenging situation worse. The American Psychological Association (2021) has worked to document emotional and behavioral responses with their Stress in America survey, and they found adults between 18 and 23 (“Gen Z” adults) were the most likely age group to report decreased mental health as a result of the pandemic. On another national survey of 32,754 college students conducted in Fall 2020, substantial numbers reported some degree of depression (39%) and/or anxiety (34%) on answers to a mental health screening questionnaire (Eisenberg, Lipson, Heinze, & Zhou, 2021). And, you are not alone in your perceptions: surveyed faculty from 12 institutions across 10 states also said (87% of them) that students’ mental health had either “worsened” or “significantly worsened” in the pandemic (Lipson, 2021).

I also want to stress that statistics do not tell the whole story. What likely matters more to instructors is that mental illnesses have substantial deleterious consequences for individual human beings – human beings they know and care about. Those effects might include significant pain and distress, negative impacts on relationships, and reduced ability or even inability to function effectively in school or at work. These conditions are not something a person can “snap out of” or a sign of personal weakness or failure. Too many sufferers, however, believe those myths (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2017). Mental illnesses are instead legitimate, sometimes very serious medical conditions; most are quite treatable, but those treatments can take significant time to bring relief. Consider this example. We use the word “depression” casually in everyday conversation as though it is simply a passing mood state. True diagnosed depressive disorders, though, are ranked by the World Health Organization (2017) as the leading cause of disability globally. Blue Cross Blue Shield (2018) has published data that also suggest people with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) have health care costs that average more than twice that of other consumers (i.e., more than $10,000 annually compared to over $4000) due to the costs of treating depression itself and its associated co-morbidities. More importantly, people with MDD and other mental illness diagnoses are more likely to die by suicide, which is the ultimate reason to take these conditions seriously.

In the midst of this sobering picture, there is good news. You can do quite a bit to help as a faculty member with some pretty simple actions. You are also never alone in these situations, and you and our students have wonderful campus and community resources at your disposal. You can view and print a full list here, and specific tips for instructors are included below.

Tips and Resources for Instructors

Click each tip to expand the accordion and read more.

Many students with mental health concerns have symptoms that impact their coursework. In fact, in the national survey of 30,000+ college students mentioned earlier, 83% of them indicated their academic performance had been adversely affected by their mental health in the previous month (Eisenberg et al., 2021). There are countless ways this can happen; let me highlight just a few possibilities. Major Depressive Disorder has a long list of symptoms, but beyond the potentially debilitating emotional impact, a few other common indicators include difficulty concentrating, insomnia or hypersomnia, substantial fatigue, and recurring thoughts of death. Imagine trying to read a textbook page when you are: exhausted from lack of sleep, feeling as though it takes every ounce of energy you have simply to put one foot in front of the other, reading the same words over and over without processing them, and focusing extensively on repeated thoughts of worthlessness or death. As another example, individuals with PTSD may deal with intrusive flashbacks or be so hypervigilant to small noises in the classroom as potential threats that they don’t process instructors’ words. Bipolar I Disorder can come with depressive lows, but we know it also involves manic episodes characterized by grandiosity, racing thoughts, and highly impulsive behavior. This student might start and finish a 15-page paper in one all-nighter and find in the morning that the words they thought were genius at 4 am are only pages of true gibberish. Finally, consider the student with an eating disorder who spends hours each day thinking obsessively about food, exercising compulsively, or hiding their binge and purge behaviors from others – or imagine the person suffering from schizophrenia who occasionally hallucinates and is completely preoccupied with voices in their own head during class time. You should know that of the UWGB students who have official disability accommodations, the greater numbers are for psychiatric, not physical, conditions. And the students with accommodations are likely only a very small fraction of those struggling with mental health concerns. That having been said, a student may be suffering substantially, and you will have no clue. We most frequently cannot “see” mental illness or know when it is happening, and stigma prevents many from self-disclosing. You have likely worked with, been friends with, or loved someone with a mental illness and never known it. People can be very skilled at hiding both physical and emotional pain.

We can help all students, including those who have a mental illness or who are experiencing acute emotional distress, by demonstrating that we: a) understand students’ multiple roles and responsibilities, b) welcome student communication, and c) have a willingness to be flexible. These three things will likely result in students feeling supported and seeking assistance when necessary. Empathy and flexibility can look like and be many things for different people, and it doesn’t have to mean being “warm and fuzzy” or granting every student’s request. If it helps, the greatest problem I tend to encounter is convincing students to accept extensions or an Incomplete because “it isn’t fair to others,” they “didn’t know they could ask,” or they “should be able to handle things on their own.” You may also be surprised by who the students in emotional pain are because they may be doing quite well in your class, but as the oft-quoted meme goes: “Just because someone carries it all so well doesn’t mean it’s not heavy.” If we offer some flexibilities to all students, we don’t need to worry about challenges associated with identifying those most in need. Here are some small but specific examples.

  • Sleep hygiene is very important to mental wellness, and yet we inadvertently encourage late nights or “all-nighters” with default deadline times of 11:59 pm in Canvas or by using early morning times instead. Why not use 5 or even 7 pm?
  • I know instructors who give students one “mental health day” each semester that they can take for any reason and then make up the work another day.
  • Similar to the mental health day, instructors can provide students a “free pass” good for one penalty-free late assignment.
  • Reconsider asking for a “doctor’s note” to justify extensions or absences. Students without insurance may not be able to see a doctor, and not all insurance covers mental health care.
  • Course content can be extremely distressing to students for unpredictable reasons. I do not use so-called “trigger warnings.” Instead, I inform students that I can’t predict what might elicit distress, but all students are free to leave the classroom or stop watching a video in online courses if that happens. They can check in with me later about whether or how to make up the work.
  • Be willing to consult with the Dean of Students, Student Accessibility Services, or Counseling services in the Wellness Center about academic flexibilities for specific students, as needed. Flexibility and compassion are important, but there are times when the most compassionate thing we can do is to encourage a student to take time away to work on their health before returning to school.

Amy Henniges and I worked to create a list of resources for all four campuses, as well as the local crisis lines for each community. They are now located on The Wellness Center website. Review and then bookmark or print this list for future reference. Share the ones for your campus in your syllabus or on the course Canvas site with a note encouraging their use.

Remember that you are not alone when dealing with student mental health concerns. Here is some information, along with some tips, you may find helpful.

Facts to keep in mind…

  • You do not have a confidential relationship with students in the way counselors do. If a student talks to you about suicide, that is something you can and should share with a professional. You also have state mandates to follow related to reporting child abuse and sexual assault.
  • You will not “put the idea in their head” if you ask someone whether they are having thoughts about suicide. A common reaction to that question is the person feeling relieved to share with you.

Strategies for Helping and Consulting

These strategies cover everything from emergencies and urgent situations to proactive strategies to reach all students in your classes.

  • Emergencies: As noted on the resource list provided, in a true mental or physical health emergency, you should call 911.
  • It is possible to call the Wellness Center’s Counseling services and/or Dean of Students Office to ask if someone is available to physically see or virtually meet with a student and explain the situation (if it’s not a 911 emergency, but you still feel the student needs to talk with someone urgently or at least that day). On the Green Bay campus, I’ve even occasionally just walked a student from my classroom to one of those offices. On the Manitowoc and Sheboygan campuses, you can also call the Agnesian number and ask about an appointment that day or for a counselor who can talk by phone.
  • If I’m in a situation where the student is with me (e.g., in my office), and I want to consult about the best resources for them or see if a counselor is available to talk with them, I typically call in front of the student. I want to be transparent and have them know I’m not “talking about them behind their back.” Of course, there can be times when that would not be appropriate.
  • In non-urgent, non-emergency situations, you can complete a “Students of Concern” Report on the Phoenix Cares website. The Behavioral Intervention Team or CARE Team will follow up on the situation. If you are unsure about whether to file a report, call the Wellness Center’s Counseling services or Dean of Students Office, explain the situation, and ask.
  • If something happens after business hours (e.g., a night class) where you feel the student needs to talk to someone, but it’s not a 911 emergency, you can use the community 24/7 crisis line or, in Sheboygan and Manitowoc, you can speak to a counselor at Agnesian 24/7 by calling that number. You can consult with these services for suggestions about what to do, and you can also call and hand the phone to the student.
  • If you are anxious about what to do or afraid you will make a situation worse, even if it seems like it’s a minor issue, find a colleague you trust. Better yet, ask the student about an employee on campus they trust. There’s nothing wrong with telling a student you are concerned about them and want to help, but you want to call someone or bring someone else into your office so that you can all figure out a good plan together.
  • Feel free to raise the issue of counseling or support if a student isn’t asking for your help but mentions stress or personal difficulties in passing. If you encourage and normalize counseling (e.g., “we all need support from time to time”; “people see counselors for everyday problems, not simply for mental illness treatment”), that may make a real difference.
  • Consider professional development in mental health issues. We will have a new opportunity on campus in fall 2021: Kognito trainings. Kognito uses simulated experiential role-plays specific to universities so students, faculty, and staff can encounter and practice in different scenarios. The initial At-Risk Simulation modules are designed to help us: a) recognize and identify signs of distress in self, peers, and students; b) communicate effectively to support someone in distress; c) understand support options; d) effectively refer people to resources; and e) self-reflect and apply strategies for resilience.
Knowing these few tips and resources may help you if you ever encounter an instance when you need to act, whether as an instructor or in the context of your personal life.

About Kris Vespia

Headshot of Kris VespiaKris Vespia is a Professor of Psychology and the Interim Director of CATL for 2021-22. She has published in the areas of mental health services on college campuses, cultural diversity and mental health, and career development. She is also interested in the mental health literacy of college students and the general public.

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 you can have imported into a course by emailing CATL your course URL(s). 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.