Category Archives: Volume Five

JPRE Special Issue, Vol. 5, Issue 3, Fall 2019

Current Issue

Introductory Letter by CPRE Co-Chairs Judith T. Phair, PhairAdvantage Communications, and Elizabeth L. Toth, University of Maryland

Research Article

Undergraduate Public Relations in the United States: The 2017 Commission on Public Relations Education Report by Marcia DiStaso, University of Florida

Teaching Brief

Ethics Education in Public Relations: State of Student Preparation and Agency Training in Ethical Decision-Making by Denise Bortree, Penn State University

Journal of Public Relations Education, Volume 5, Issue 2

Current Issue

Research Articles

Different Formats, Equal Outcomes? Comparing In-Person and Online Education in Public Relations by Brooke Weberling McKeever, University of South Carolina
Visionary Public Relations Coursework: Leveraging Service Learning in Public Relations Courses to Spur Economic Development Through the Arts, Travel, and Tourism by Christopher J. McCollough, Columbus State University
Students’ Perceptions of Diversity Issues in Public Relations Practice by Nancy Muturi, Kansas State University, and Ge Zhu, University of Iowa
Empowering the Future Practitioner: Postmodernism in the Undergraduate Public Relations Classroom by Stephanie Madden, Pennsylvania State University, Katie Brown, University of Maryland, and Sifan Xu, University of Tennessee

Teaching Briefs: AEJMC-PRD 2019 GIFT Winners

“Think Different”: How to Incite Creativity With a Two-Word Campaign Challenge by Nicole H. O’Donnell, Virginia Commonwealth University
Mining the Gap: Research to Guide CSR Communications Strategy by Janis Teruggi Page, University of Illinois at Chicago
What Are Your Students Doing Over Spring Break? Using Disaster Relief Work to Teach Students About Crisis Communication by Cessna C. Winslow, Tarleton State University
Applying Industry Standards to Public Relations Evaluation: Barcelona Principles (2.0) by Zifei Fay Chen, University of San Francisco
5-Minute Case Talk Assignment in Crisis PR Classes: Empower Students to Explore and Present by Hyun Ju Jeong, University of Kentucky

Book Reviews

Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability, and Ethical Public Relations: Strengthening Synergies With Human Resources Reviewed by Julia Gessner and Denise Bortree, Pennsylvania State University
Spin Reviewed by Cheryl Ann Lambert, Kent State University
Social Media and Crisis Communication Reviewed by Heather Robbins, Pennsylvania State University

A publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC © Copyright 2019 AEJMC Public Relations Division

The Journal of Public Relations Education (JPRE) is devoted to the presentation of research and commentary that advance the field of public relations education. JPRE invites submissions in the following three categories.

  • Research Articles
  • Teaching Briefs
  • Book/Software Reviews

Read the full issue here:

Learn more by visiting the About JPRE page and the Authors / Contributors page for submission guidelines. All submissions should follow the guidelines of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Questions?  Meet the Editorial Staff.

Racial and Gender-Based Differences in the Collegiate Development of Public Relations Majors: Implications for Underrepresented Recruitment and Retention

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted on November 22, 2017. Accepted July 29, 2018. Final edits completed January 19, 2019. First published online January 31, 2019.

This study was funded by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, but the Center did not have a role in the research process.


Kenon A. Brown
Kenon A. Brown, University of Alabama
Damion Waymer, North Carolina A&T University
Ziyuan Zhou, University of Alabama


The current study contributes to the public relations scholarly literature that addresses issues related to the diversity pipeline into the public relations profession. Specifically, the authors seek to determine if public relations students believe that race and gender affected their educational experiences and social development during their collegiate careers. The findings suggest that both race and gender appear to play a significant role in students’ undergraduate public relations experiences, with White respondents and female respondents expressing more positive experiences educationally and socially than underrepresented racial and ethnic persons (UREP) and male counterparts, respectively. Practical recommendations for recruiting and retaining underrepresented students within the major are provided based on the findings.

Keywords: diversity, public relations professional pipeline, race, gender, public relations education

Racial and Gender-Based Differences in the Collegiate Development of Public Relations Majors: Implications for Underrepresented Recruitment and Retention

More than a decade ago, the Public Relations Coalition, an alliance of 23 industry-related organizations, conducted its first diversity benchmark survey. That survey of senior communication managers revealed that the industry needs improvements in recruiting and retaining women and underrepresented racial and ethnic persons (UREPs) (Grupp, 2006). In the early part of this decade, public relations leaders listed diversity recruitment and top-talent employee acquisition as their top priorities (Berger, 2012), and nearly a decade later, Fortune magazine senior editor Ellen McGirt (2018) is trying to answer the same question: Why is public relations so white? Contemporary public relations practitioners see the advantages of creating a diverse workforce, and as such, these leaders have lamented the lack of diversity and have prioritized diversity in public relations (O’Dwyer, 2018). However, progress in the area of increasing the number of underrepresented racial and ethnic persons (UREPs)[1]  working in the profession of public relations has been slow—despite the fact that agencies have attempted to build a pipeline of diverse practitioners. Some would argue that the issue begins in college (underrepresentation in the student body), only to be magnified in practice (see Brown, Waymer, Fears, Baker, & Zhou, 2016; Brown, White, & Waymer, 2011).

With this position in mind, the authors designed this study to examine the collegiate experience of public relations students from an educational and social perspective to uncover any differences students might experience based on their race or gender. The study helps identify areas of need, concern, and opportunity that could improve the academic, professional, and social development of members from underrepresented groups. Such an effort could potentially increase the chances of members from the underrepresented groups entering the profession and advancing to management positions. The authors hope that this study’s findings help facilitate more underrepresented practitioners entering the field of public relations by honing in on recruiting and retaining these groups into the undergraduate major.


The Impact of Racial Diversity in Public Relations

While racial diversity recruitment and retention efforts seem well-intentioned, finding examples of ways that the industry has put into practice measurable objectives for increasing UREPs is far more challenging. As indicated previously, the majority of senior communications managers articulated that the industry needs improvement in UREP representation at all levels (Berger, 2012; McGirt, 2018; O’Dwyer, 2018). In fact, the some board members of the LAGRANT Foundation, a nonprofit established (in part) to increase the number of UREPs in the fields of advertising, public relations, and marketing, highlight their frustration with the current state of affairs stating that the lack of diversity is “completely intolerable” (Vallee-Smith, 2014, p. 3).

Despite the fact that the people representing these UREP groups constitute around 36% of more than 300 million people in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011), the number of people in public relations from these underrepresented groups falls considerably short of reflecting demographics of the general population. For example, a 2010 census of the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) 22,000 professional members showed that only 14% of the organization’s membership self-identified as Hispanic, Black, and/or Asian/Asian American (Nguyen, 2015). The aforementioned 14% statistic represents a 100% increase (doubling) of the percentage of PRSA members from underrepresented groups since 2005 Nguyen, 2015).  In short, racial representation in the public relations industry remains skewed; the Harvard Business Review recently reported that the racial/ethnic composition of the public relations industry in the United States is 87.9% white, 8.3% African American, 2.6% Asian American, and 5.7% Hispanic American (Chitkara, 2018).

In sum, the profession of public relations continues to be a “lily-white” field of women (Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017). This can be deemed a problem of the profession for various reasons. First, research shows that some underrepresented publics, Latinx populations, during times of risk or crisis (e.g., hurricanes, chemical plant explosions, acts of terror), prefer to hear such news from people similar to them (Heath, Lee, & Ni, 2009). Therefore, a practitioner’s diversity might be the difference in underrepresented publics receiving and accepting vital safety alerts and messages intended for them in times of risk and crisis. Second, practitioners’ social-cultural identities likely affect how they perform as public relations practitioners and the messages they create for vast groups of people (Curtin & Gaither, 2007; Vardeman-Winter & Place, 2017; Waymer, 2012b), so it is imperative that organizations continue to prioritize a diverse public relations workforce and make it a visible, high-level, organizational objective. To address these diversity issues, it is equally important that the public relations industry, like other professions, such as engineering, intentionally work with K-12 and higher education institutions to increase diversity in schools in hopes of increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the profession (Waymer & Brown, 2018).

Diversity in Public Relations: The Underrepresentation of Men in the Profession and Classroom

While women attend college more overall than men at rates of about 57% to 43% respectively (Kena et al., 2015), an even greater gap exists when comparing the percentage of women and men majoring in the communication subspecialty of public relations. Reports have indicated that for more than two decades there are more women than men pursuing a public relations major—whereby women constitute more than 80% of the students in many PR programs (Bardaro, 2009; Daughtery, 2014); the gap is even greater for the public relations profession with a difference of 85% to 15%, women to men respectively (see Khazan, 2014; Sebastian, 2011). Yet, when considering the imbalance in the distribution of men and the positions they hold in the profession, a paradoxical state becomes apparent. Men dominate top spots, while women are clustered at the bottom (see Pompper & Jung, 2013; Yaxley, 2012). Furthermore, men in the field continue to earn about $6,000 more than women (even when tenure, job type, education, field of study, location, and ethnicity are held constant) (Chitkara, 2018). Indeed, despite their underrepresentation in the field of public relations, men still represent 80% of upper management positions (Sebastian, 2011) and earn more money.

Scholars argue that the paradox of men constituting the numerical minority in the profession of public relations yet holding the majority of power positions in the industry can be explained by (mis)perceptions (Choi & Hon, 2002; Grunig, Toth, & Hon, 2001). Men are perceived as being more apt to self-promote, to be assertive, and to network with other power players, compared to women who are perceived to be more suited for micro-managing duties, efficiency, and sensitivity (Grunig, Toth, & Hon, 2001).  These misconceptions have dire consequences as Dozier, Sha, and Shen (2013) found that participation in management decision-making was a key factor contributing to pay inequity between women and men in public relations. Despite these prevailing misconceptions and pay disparity, women are making strides in the profession and experiencing positive change in opportunities for senior-level advancement. For example, “Barri Rafferty of Ketchum was appointed the first woman global CEO among the top 10 public relations agencies. Edelman made Lisa Ross, who is black, president of the company’s Washington, DC office,” and in April 2018, “WPP, the parent of Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe, named Donna Imperato the CEO of the newly merged agencies, Burson Cohn & Wolfe” (Chitkara, 2018, para 5).

Even with these recent noteworthy promotions of women to top leadership roles in the public relations industry, men still constitute a numerical minority in the profession. Moreover, when students have been asked about positives and negatives of their undergraduate, pre-professional socialization experiences, many women have lamented the fact that their classmates were almost exclusively women (Waymer, Brown, Fears, & Baker, 2018). To address these diversity issues, it is equally important that the public relations industry, like other professions, intentionally work with K-12 and higher education institutions to increase the representation of men studying the subject in school in hopes of increasing men’s representation and diversity in the profession, a suggestion consistent with insights gleaned from previously presented public relations education scholarship (Rawlins, VanSlyke Turk, & Stoker, 2012).

The Importance of Educational Experience for Career Preparation

While it is important to increase the racial and ethnic diversity and number of men in the public relations field, all of these efforts would be futile if students were not prepared academically, socially, and professionally to enter the industry. To pinpoint the overall skills that students entering college are expected to master across programs, Conley, Drummond, DeGonzalez, Rooseboom, and Stout (2011) conducted a national survey of more than 1,800 faculty members representing 944 courses at 1,897 institutions. The researchers found that top-ranked skills, regardless of subject area, included speaking and listening, reading comprehension, writing, and problem-solving. Other important factors the researchers noted related to developing an overall comprehension of life skills and a mature persona. These can be measured in the form of students adopting effective study habits, managing time efficiently, taking ownership of learning, and demonstrating a variety of cognitive strategies, such as collecting, analyzing, and interpreting information, formulating and relaying ideas, and developing the ability to become more accurate, precise, open-minded, and creative.

The Key to Employability model (Pool & Sewell, 2007) has provided additional insight into the importance of the educational experience of college students and students’ preparation for entering entry-level positions. The model builds from five components that provide a foundation for students to adequately reflect and evaluate their readiness for becoming hired within their chosen career fields, which in turn affects their self-efficacy, self-confidence, and self-esteem: (1) career development learning, (2) experience related to work and life, (3) degree-subject knowledge, understanding, and skills, (4) generic skills, and (5) emotional intelligence. While knowledge about the career field is obviously an important part of any academic program, the hard skills included in this area are suggested as only one part of academic preparation (Pool & Sewell, 2007). Pool, Qualter, and Sewell (2014) discuss that a lack of employment opportunities after graduation can be influenced by a deficiency in competencies related to the remaining areas (i.e., “soft” skills and work-based knowledge), which includes a lack of skills that are more likely to be learned in a controlled professional setting (i.e., internships, practicums). These include demonstrating competency and professionalism, demonstrating abilities to cope with uncertainty and pressure situations, developing self-monitoring and time-management skills, and becoming self-confident, responsible, and adaptable.

Because of the importance of gaining skills through educational experiences, whether it is in the classroom or through professional settings, examining the racial and gender differences in these experiences can help provide insight into areas of needed improvement in order to increase diversity through increasing collegiate success for underrepresented groups. Therefore, the following research questions are posed:

RQ1: Are there differences in public relations students’ educational experiences as they progress in the major based on their racial background?

RQ2: Are there differences in public relations students’ educational experiences as they progress in the major based on their gender?

The Importance of Social Development for Career Preparation

Research has been conducted regarding the social development and involvement of students who participate in extracurricular activities on a college or university campus. Previous research examined the correlation of student involvement and its direct effect on students’ social development and future career success. For example, Wenger (1998) developed and expanded the Communities of Practice Theory, and this is a useful theoretical framework for people studying the importance of developing social skills (Farnsworth, Kleanthous, & Wenger-Trayner, 2016; Wenger, 1998). Simply stated, communities of practice are groups of people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor. Typically, this group shares a common concern or passion for something the group does and learns to do better through interacting regularly. This would presume that the social learning process is more effective when people are like-minded individuals and share common interests or passions. In sum, socially engaging with a community of members sharing similar interests is beneficial to the individual’s social learning and development, which can enhance the potential of future career success (Farnsworth et al., 2016; Wenger, 1998). This is directly applicable to enrichment activities for students that are sponsored by organizations such as Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA).

Several scholars in various disciplines explore social development and career preparedness for learners (see Bronfenbrenner, 2009; Kolb, 2015; Stahl, Dobson, & Redillas, 2018; Wenger, 1998). Most of these works draw from and extend the seminal work of Vygotsky (1978), who found that social interaction, especially with those who are more knowledgeable about a subject matter, plays an integral role in the process of development—both socially and academically. Whether it be experiential learning (Kolb, 2015) or studying the importance of “demonstration schools,”  which are communities of learning and applied research inquiry that exist in an integrative designed space (Stahl et al., 2018), they all relate to and extend Vygotsky’s (1978) notion of the “more knowledgeable other” (MKO).

Vygotsky theorized that interactions with and exposure to such MKO individuals is vital to one’s social development. The MKO concept has clear implications for professional student organizations, such as PRSSA or social organizations like fraternities and sororities that provide students with invaluable leadership experiences. The fact that many departments require students to participate in internships (a form of experiential learning from an MKO) is a testament to the continued applicability of these concepts.

By drawing from diverse theoretical traditions of involvement and social development, one can infer that an important part of college or university students’ success is contingent upon their participation in extracurricular activities that are relevant to their career choice or interests. In sum, research supports the premise that being involved in extracurricular activities is a positive investment for students.

The benefits of such participation enable students to gain higher levels of self-esteem, self-confidence, and leadership abilities, which are all essential skills to master before entering the professional working world (Astin & Sax, 1998; Maruyama, Furco, & Song, 2018). Extracurricular activities also provide college and university students with a network of peers and professionals who share common interests and goals. Students that are involved have the opportunity to gain real-world experiences, which essentially serve as a form of preparation for their futures (Hardin, Pate, & Bemiller, 2013). Students also have the opportunity to work in team settings and foster the ideas of commitment and responsibility while ultimately developing a work ethic. Several research studies in journalism, mass communication, and public relations support this line of research, suggesting the essential nature of extracurricular activities to student development and success (Nadler, 1997; Todd, 2009; Waymer, 2014).

Because of the importance of developing social skills through interactions with peers, educators, and current professionals, examining the racial and gender differences in these experiences can also provide insight into areas of needed improvement at the collegiate level to increase diversity. Therefore, the following research questions are posed:

RQ3: Are there differences in public relations students’ social development as they progress in the major based on their racial background?

RQ4: Are there differences in public relations students’ social development as they progress in the major based on their gender?


This study extends the work of Waymer, Brown, Fears, and Baker (2018); those authors used interviews and other qualitative approaches to uncover themes related to a diverse sample of young professionals and their collegiate experiences, specifically their educational experiences and social development. Based on those findings, the current authors designed this survey for current public relations majors to uncover racial and gender differences in public relations majors’ collegiate experiences. To measure these differences, an online questionnaire was distributed through the use of Qualtrics, a web-based survey research company.


 A convenience sample of 294 current public relations majors was collected from eight colleges and universities: 48 males (16.3%) and 246 females (83.7%). Table 1 provides a description of the eight colleges and universities and the number of participants from each one.

The majority of the sample was white (196 participants, 66.7%), with 28 African-American participants (9.5%), 49 Hispanic or Latinx participants (16.7%) and 21 participants of other races (7.1%). The average age of the participants was 22.3 (SD = 3.57). All students were of at least junior standing and had completed a Public Relations Writing course, or the equivalent, in their curriculum.


Region Type Participants  
Southeast Four-Year Public University 87  
Midwest Four-Year Private University 38  
Midwest Four-Year Private Liberal Arts College 27  
Southeast Four-Year Private Liberal Arts College 33  
Southeast Four-Year Public University 21  
West Four-Year Public University 36  
West Four-Year Public University 22  
Northeast Four-Year Private Liberal Arts College 30


Researchers created a seven-point Likert scale to measure aspects of students’ collegiate experiences based on qualitative research conducted previously by the authors (Waymer, Brown, Fears, & Baker, 2018). The scale items (provided in Appendix A) measured the degree to which the participant agreed with the statements provided. An exploratory factor analysis with a Varimax rotation was conducted to group the scale items, and three factors were extracted: (a) classroom educational experiences, (b) on-the-job educational experiences, and (c) social experiences. Appendix B provides the factor loadings for each scale item, with 51.07% of the variance explained by the three scales. Because the depth of the study relied on specific aspects of students’ collegiate experiences, not a composite satisfaction score for students’ educational and social experience, scale items were analyzed as individual variables. Cronbach’s (1951) alpha was used to measure the reliability of the scales, and all scales were considered reliable (Classroom α = 0.828, On-the-Job α = 0.864, Social α = 0.872).

Questionnaire and Procedure

Once IRB approval was granted, the questionnaire was uploaded to Qualtrics. The researchers contacted representatives from a national sample of universities that offer public relations as a major. Representatives interested in participating in the study were given a web address to distribute to their students. Participants that completed the questionnaire were entered into a drawing to win either a $50 or $100 VISA gift card.

Students that visited the distinct web address were directed to a five-part questionnaire. Section A provided the informed consent form and screening questions. Participants that were not of at least junior standing and participants that had not completed the Public Relations Writing course or its equivalent did not proceed to the questionnaire. Sections B and C provided the collegiate experience scale items. Scale items in each section were randomized to prevent priming effects. Section D provided a thank-you statement and demographic questions. Section E prompted students to provide an email address for the VISA gift card, as well as any additional information for contacts that are providing extra credit for participating in the study.

Once it was designed, the questionnaire was reviewed by a panel of public relations professionals and scholars. Once revisions were made, the survey was pretested among 30 students. The pretest data was used to edit question order and language, as well as make any functional changes. Statistical analyses of the data were computed using IBM SPSS Statistics, version 21.


A multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was used to analyze the research questions. RQ1 asked if there were differences in public relations students’ educational experiences based on their racial backgrounds. The MANOVA revealed significant differences among the 18 statements addressing classroom and on-the-job educational experience between white respondents and UREP respondents (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.872, F (1, 292) = 2.25, p = 0.003, ηp2 = 0.13). Further analysis revealed significant differences in 6 of the 18 statements addressing educational experience:

  • The project-based courses I have taken in college prepared me for my professional goals [MW = 5.95 (SDW = 0.97); MU = 5.68 (SDU = 1.24)] [F (1, 292) = 4.18, p = .042].
  • I have been able to find multiple internship opportunities [MW = 4.95 (SDW = 1.7); MU = 4.48 (SDU = 1.82)] [F (1, 292) = 4.86, p = .028].
  • I am actively involved in student organizations that have helped my professional development (i.e. PRSSA, Ad Team, Bateman, etc.) [MW = 4.57 (SDW = 2.21); MU = 4.01 (SDU = 1.86)] [F (1, 292) = 4.66, p = .032].
  • I have been provided opportunities to gain leadership experience from the organizations I joined [MW = 5.52 (SDW = 1.68); MU = 5.09 (SDU = 1.67)] [F (1, 292) = 4.17, p = .042].
  • The professionals I have met in college gave me valuable insight into the PR profession [MW = 5.66 (SDW = 1.38); MU = 4.91 (SDU = 1.64)] [F (1, 292) = 17.21, p < .001].
  • I regularly seek career advice from a public relations professional [MW = 4.73 (SDW = 1.67); MU = 4.26 (SDU = 1.8)] [F (1, 292) = 5, p = .026].

RQ2 asked if there were differences in public relations students’ educational development based on their gender. The MANOVA revealed significant differences among the six statements addressing social development for males and females (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.873, F (1, 292) = 2.23, p = 0.003, ηp2 = 0.13). Further analysis revealed significant differences in 11 of the 18 statements, with females having a higher level of agreement than males in all 11 statements:

  • The writing-intensive courses I have taken in college prepared me for my professional goals. [MM = 5.21 (SDM = 1.50); MF = 5.76 (SDF = 1.04)] [F (1, 292) = 9.74, p < .01].
  • The project-based courses I have taken in college prepared me for my professional goals [MM = 5.44 (SDM = 1.44); MF = 5.95 (SDF = .97)] [F (1, 292) = 9.28, p < .01].
  • My previous courses helped me understand the importance of ethics and codes of conduct for my profession [MM = 5.42 (SDM = 1.37); MF = 6.04 (SDF = .96)] [F (1, 292) = 14.67, p < .001].
  • My previous courses taught me how to effectively manage communication on social and digital media platforms [MM = 4.90 (SDM = 1.78); MF = 5.44 (SDF = 1.35)] [F (1, 292) = 5.84, p < .05].
  • I have been able to find multiple internship opportunities [MM = 4.06 (SDM = 1.69); MF = 4.94 (SDF = 1.73)] [F (1, 292) = 10.39, p < .01].
  • Other organizations, besides PR and communication-related organizations, have provided me opportunities to practice my professional skills [MM = 4.54 (SDM = 1.77); MF = 5.34 (SDF = 1.64)] [F (1, 292) = 9.23, p < .01].
  • I have been provided opportunities to gain leadership experience from the organizations I joined [MM = 4.88 (SDM = 1.65); MF = 5.47 (SDF = 1.68)] [F (1, 292) = 5.1, p < .05].
  • I have been able to build a professional network of PR and communication professionals [MM = 4.00 (SDM = 1.89); MF = 4.87 (SDF = 1.63)] [F (1, 292) = 10.8, p < .01].
  • The professional network I am developing in college will be beneficial for my career [MM = 5.02 (SDM = 1.55); MF = 5.54 (SDF = 1.38)] [F (1, 292) = 5.57, p < .05].
  • The professionals I have met in college gave me valuable insight into the PR profession [MM = 4.65 (SDM = 1.85); MF = 5.56 (SDF = 1.39)] [F (1, 292) = 15.45, p < .001].
  • I regularly seek career advice from a public relations professional [MM = 4.10 (SDM = 1.68); MF = 4.66 (SDF = 1.73)] [F (1, 292) = 4.25, p < .05].

RQ3 asked if there were differences in public relations students’ social development based on their racial backgrounds. The MANOVA revealed significant differences among the six statements addressing the social development of White respondents compared to UREP respondents (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.816, F (1, 292) = 3.7, p = 0.001, ηp2 = 0.07). Further analysis revealed significant differences in five of the six statements addressing social development.

  • I have been comfortable interacting with other students in the classroom [MW = 6.2 (SDW = 1); MU = 5.9 (SDU = 1.37)] [F (1, 292) = 4.74, p = .03].
  • I have been comfortable interacting with other students in PR and communication-related student organizations [MW = 5.94 (SDW = 1.27); MU = 5.58 (SDU = 1.46)] [F (1, 292) = 4.67, p = .032].
  • I have built a strong support group of fellow PR students (i.e. study group, social group, etc.) [MW = 5.4 (SDW = 1.71); MU = 4.84 (SDU = 1.84)] [F (1, 292) = 6.83, p = .009].
  • Interacting with other students in PR classes is important to me [MW = 5.81 (SDW = 1.3); MU = 5.46 (SDU = 1.53)] [F (1, 292) = 4.25, p = .04].
  • Other students seemed to value my contributions in a PR setting (classes, student organizations, group projects, etc.) [MW = 5.82 (SDW = 1.13); MU = 5.44 (SDU = 1.47)] [F (1, 292) = 6.11, p = .014].

RQ4 asked if there were differences in public relations students’ social development based on their gender. The MANOVA revealed significant differences among the six statements addressing social development for males and females (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.954, F (3, 290) = 2.320, p = 0.033, ηp2 = 0.05) Further analysis revealed significant differences for four of the six statements, with females having a higher level of agreement than males in all four statements:

  • I have built a strong support group of fellow PR students (i.e. study group, social group, etc.) [MM = 4.71 (SDM = 1.85); MF = 5.31 (SDF = 1.74)] [F (1, 292) = 4.75, p < .05].
  • Interacting with other students in PR classes is important to me [MM = 5.23 (SDM = 1.69); MF = 5.78 (SDF = 1.31)] [F (1, 292) = 6.553, p < .05].
  • Interacting with other students in PR and communication-related student organizations is important to me [MM = 5.19 (SDM = 1.83); MF = 5.65 (SDF = 1.42)] [F (1, 292) = 3.929, p< .05].
  • Other students seemed to value my contributions in a PR setting (classes, student organizations, group projects, etc.) [MM = 5.19 (SDM = 1.63); MF = 5.79 (SDF = 1.15)] [F (1, 292) = 9.508, p< .01].


The authors surveyed 294 current undergraduate public relations students. The authors sought to determine if race, gender, or both constructs affected public relations students’ educational and social experiences during their collegiate career. The findings suggest that both race and gender play a significant role in students’ undergraduate public relations experiences.

Findings showed that UREPs were less likely to build a professional network of PR, build a strong support group among other public relations students, and experience comfort interacting with other students in the classroom and in extracurricular activities. These findings have implications for increasing the presence of UREPs in the public relations profession—especially if access to a professional network (or even a social network of peers) is a means for students to gain entry into the profession.

Significant differences between men and women were also found. Women were more likely than males to experience greater satisfaction in both their educational and social experiences, with results showing that females typically get more out of classroom experiences, have more opportunities to network and intern, and gain more valuable leadership experiences. Perhaps the most telling finding is that UREP respondents and male respondents felt that their peers valued their contributions in a PR setting less than their white respondents and female counterparts. These findings along racial and gender lines have implications for UREP recruitment and retention into the discipline of public relations. If targeted strategies are developed to help increase social development for males (an underrepresented group in the major), as well as UREPs, then their satisfaction with the major increases.

When taking the findings on gender into account and coupling them with the preceding findings on race, these findings continue to support the fact that that majority status (white students and female students, in this case) plays a significant role in students’ ability to build social and professional networks and find greater success in the curriculum. The silver lining and key finding, however, is that the negative effects associated with numerical minority status appear to be mitigated if students are able to find and take advantage of adequate means of social development. With that said, greater efforts should be made by public relations education administrators and faculty to ensure that men and UREPs are provided and encouraged to pursue key social development activities. We recognize that this recommendation is idealistic for the following reasons: (1) PR professors are likely taxed with teaching, service, and research obligations; therefore, asking them to inform men and UREPs of specific opportunities might be an unrealistic request. (2) PR professors also have very little say over who registers for their classes, making control over the composition of their classes difficult. Thus, a more feasible strategy might be to talk to men and UREPs who are already in PR classes, and then incentivize them to then encourage peers in these demographic groups—through word-of-mouth—to join them in the public relations courses. The gender and racial/ethnic diversity of the public relations profession depend on such proactive strategies and tactics. The discipline needs to practice what it teaches. Setting clear, definable, and measurable goals and objectives is a cornerstone of public relations campaigns courses, and that knowledge should be transferred to address diversity issues in the student body, which is the pipeline to the discipline.

Recommendations for Public Relations Educators

Based on the findings, the researchers provide six practical recommendations for educators to help progress racial and gender diversity in the field. First, males and UREPs, once in the major, must be informed of the opportunities available to gain professional experience and guidance. Based on the responses to the survey, White students overall (regardless of gender) indicated higher success levels in professional network building. Similarly, female students (regardless of their race or ethnicity) indicated higher success levels in professional network building. White students and female students constitute a numerical majority in the public relations major. Because of this disparity, males and UREP students must be better informed of their opportunities for professional growth.

Second, diversity must start at the classroom level in order for emerging practitioners to embrace diversity at the professional level. Based on the responses to the survey, students in the aforementioned racial and gender numerical majority groups indicated that they have strong peer support groups. Moreover, these students also indicated higher levels of comfort interacting with other peers and students in comparison to UREP and male students. Finally, when compared to UREP and male students, students in the racial and gender numerical majority also indicated that other students are more likely to value their contributions in class and in service. There is an obvious disconnect here, and professors, instructors, and advisors must work to increase diversity in the classroom composition and more holistically embrace diversity education via the curriculum, classroom content, and discussions. This could work by weaving difficult discussions about identity and diversity into mainstream public relations courses, by recruiting males and UREP students to join extracurricular groups, as well as by making groups for classroom projects more diverse.

Third, communities of practice and experiential learning are powerful ways to reinforce learning and for students to develop a sense of belonging as they learn. Programs could create Bateman case study competition teams or host PRSSA activities that might be attractive for men and equally attractive for UREPs. In this way, having students wrestle with the public relations challenges that might resonate with them, such as the recent protest cookout case in Oakland, CA (see Holson, 2018), could attract students because they can learn strategies and tactics to address potential issues of interest.    

Fourth, diverse professionals must be more visible to all public relations majors, and they should be asked to proactively mentor and network with male and UREP students. Males and UREP students scored lower in “agreement that they have built a network of professionals” and “seek career advice regularly from professionals” compared to their counterparts. These differences illustrate a need for a more visible presence of UREP and male professionals, as well as a need for these professionals to be more willing to mentor and network with male and UREP students.

Fifth, colleges and universities should help proactively encourage socialization among students of different genders and racial backgrounds. Results showed that male students, compared to their female counterparts, and UREP students, compared to their white counterparts, not only felt less comfortable interacting with other students, but also did not see the importance of interacting with other students. Providing subtle opportunities to have students of diverse backgrounds interact could help combat these issues, such as creating diverse groups for group projects and leadership committees for extracurricular groups. 

Finally, professors and instructors must proactively discuss racial and gender differences related to the public relations industry in the classroom (see Waymer, 2012a; Waymer & Dyson, 2011). Both UREP and male students scored less in agreement than their counterparts in the dimension of “Other students seem to value my contributions in a PR setting.” Part of this could stem from a lack of substantial focus in the classroom on the racial and gender disparities in the industry. Discussing these differences in major courses could help to balance classrooms and remove this stigma of disrespect.

Limitations and Future Research

This study only considered race and gender as factors for increasing diversity. Obviously, there are other cultural and social factors that play a part in building a diverse profession. Studies that look at other forms of diversity (e.g. disabilities, sexual orientation, international origins) could offer more insight into this need. In addition, this survey treated all non-White races and ethnicities as one group. Future studies should attempt to gather a larger sample size and a more racially/ethnically representative sample in order to examine specific differences among races and ethnicities and pinpoint specific challenges and issues facing these groups as well—as opposed to grouping them into one category.

This study only looked at students that were advanced in the public relations major, targeting students that have taken at least PR Writing. It would be helpful to interview or survey incoming students to see if there are initial challenges that they face while adjusting both to college and to the public relations major.

This study also gathered respondents from predominantly White institutions (PWIs). Future research should compare the underrepresented populations at these institutions to similar populations at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). There could be potential differences in the educational and social development among students at these two types of institutions. In addition, it would be interesting to see the educational and social development among White students at HBCUs to see if they experience the same issues that underrepresented students experience at PWIs.

Despite these limitations, this study uncovers substantial racial and gender differences in the development of public relations students and helped identify areas of growth to improve the diversity of the profession’s workforce. It is the hope of the researchers that these findings will help provide insight into the best ways to recruit and retain a more diverse group of majors, which would proactively increase diversity in the public relations field


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Appendix A

Scale Items: Collegiate Development

Classroom Educational Experience

A1: The writing-intensive courses I have taken in college prepared me for my professional goals.

A2: The project-based courses I have taken in college prepared me for my professional goals.

A3: My previous courses helped me understand the importance of ethics and codes of conduct for my professional.

A4: My previous courses taught me how to conduct research properly.

A5: My previous courses taught me how to effectively manage communication on social and digital media platforms.

A6: My previous courses taught me to honor the uniqueness of each individual.

A7: My previous courses taught me the importance of cultural sensitivity and inclusion.

A8: My previous courses taught me the basics of business and financial literacy.

On-the-Job Educational Experience

P1: I have been able to find multiple internship opportunities.

P2: I am actively involved in student organizations that have helped my professional development (i.e. PRSSA, Ad Team, Bateman, etc.)

P3: Other organizations, besides PR and communication-related organizations, have provided me opportunities to practice my professional skills.

P4: I have been provided opportunities to gain leadership experience from the organizations I joined.

P5: I have taken advantage of the professional development opportunities that my school or department provided (i.e. workshops, resume and portfolio help, etc.)

P6: I’ve had exposure to professionals in the public relations field through visits to agencies or corporations, or interactions during campus visits.

P7: I have been able to build a professional network of PR and communication professionals.

P8: The professional network I am developing in college will be beneficial for my career.

P9: The professionals I have met in college gave me valuable insight into the PR profession.

P10: I regularly seek career advice from a public relations professional.

Social Development

S1: I have been comfortable interacting with other students in the classroom.

S2: I have been comfortable interacting with other students in PR and communication-related student organizations.

S3: I have built a strong support group of fellow PR students (i.e. study group, social group, etc.)

S4: Interacting with other students in PR classes is important to me.

S5: Interacting with other students in PR and communication-related student organizations is important to me.

S6: Other students seem to value my contributions in a PR setting (classes, student organizations, group projects, etc.)

Appendix B

Factor Loadings for Collegiate Development Scales

                                    Factor A                      Factor B                      Factor C

                                    Classroom                   On-the-Job                  Social

A1                               0.664

A2                               0.578

A3                               0.636

A4                               0.672

A5                               0.647

A6                               0.709

A7                               0.662

A8                               0.690

P1                                                                    0.648

P2                                                                    0.572

P3                                                                    0.647

P4                                                                    0.733

P5                                                                    0.591

P6                                                                    0.591

P7                                                                    0.706

P8                                                                    0.668

P9                                                                    0.621

P10                                                                  0.577

S1                                                                                                        0.680

S2                                                                                                        0.723

S3                                                                                                        0.771

S4                                                                                                        0.839

S5                                                                                                        0.773

S6                                                                                                        0.686

Eigenvalue                  2.029                           7.469                          2.758              

% Variance                  8.46                             31.12                           11.49

Universities Used in the Study

[1] For a discussion of why “UREP” is used as opposed to “minority,” which is a term under attack in various disciplines, or even the more politically correct “African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American” (AHANA), which does not account for persons that are the by-product of interracial UREP unions or other UREP groups that might encounter racism in the United States such as Arab Americans, see Waymer (2013).

Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators: Insights and Advice from the C-suite of Leading Brands


Patricia A. Swann, Utica College

Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators: Insights and Advice from the C-suite of Leading Brands

Editors: Matthew W. Ragas and Ron Culp

Emerald Publishing, 2018

ISBN: 9781787438217 (paperback); 9781787145047 (hard cover); 9781787145030 (eISBN)

320 pages

The internet and social media’s powerful influence on today’s communication landscape has been a game changer for public relations, and it has opened an opportunity for the chief communication officer (CCO). As Ragas and Culp note, “You cannot not communicate” in our lighting fast, interconnected world. How an organization responds, however, is often rife with hidden obstacles just waiting to trip up even the most experienced professionals. One word can make all the difference, as the authors point out, citing United Airlines’ passenger-dragging fiasco and their use of the jargony word “reaccommodate” in their clumsy apology. Today’s uber-scrutiny of organizational messages and actions doesn’t leave room for much error. Ragas and Culp’s new book seeks to shed light on how CCOs manage and inspire (“woo”) their organizations strategically.

Point of View

Ragas and Culp are public relations faculty in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago. In 2014, they wrote Business Essentials for Strategic Communications: Creating Shared Value for the Organization and its Stakeholders. This text provided students with the essential “Business 101” knowledge, including financial statements, the stock market, public companies, corporate disclosure, governance, social responsibility, and reputation.

Their new text, Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators: Insights and Advice from the C-suite of Leading Brands, continues their premise that today’s modern communication student needs to understand business in order to help organizations communicate effectively. Where their first book gave students a solid business foundation, this book takes the reader into the mind of the senior communication professional.


Following the book’s table of contents is a list of 46 communication professionals representing corporate, agency, higher education, and philanthropic organizations. Contributors include communication executives from General Electric, General Motors, Edelman, MillerCoors, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, and Levi Strauss & Co. to name just a few. Guest contributors give their take on their organization’s DNA such as history, culture, structure, products/services, and challenges, all within the sphere of communication. Contributors give their views on the phrase “business acumen” and how it applies to their personal work success.


In Part 1, the chapter “Advising ‘The Room Where it Happens’: The Business Case for Business Acumen,” presents the book’s justification for what follows. Ragas and Culp quote Bob Feldman, co-founder and principal of PulsePoint Group, that “basic business skills are still required,” and “the need for basic leadership skills is stronger than ever” (Feldman, 2016, as cited in Ragas & Culp, p. 6). Feldman noted that to get a seat at the table, professionals would be judged on their professional “stature, business acumen and performance” (p. 7).

Each chapter represents one organization and a mix of executives, including its CCO. Executives are featured in boxed interviews called “Career Spotlight” and “C-suite View,” which focus on career advice and supplemental information.

Part II, titled “Communications, Business Acumen and the C-Suite” (chapters 2-4), presents Weber Shandwick’s Gary Sheffer, senior corporate strategist, who details the challenges of General Electric’s complex acquisition deal of the French company Alstom; MillerCoor’s Peter Mario, chief public affairs and communications officer, explains why he decided he needed to hone his business acumen and go back and get an MBA.

Part III, titled “Finance and Investor Relations” (chapters 5-6), includes Kathryn Beiser, a former communication executive for Discover Financial Services, explaining how “numbers need a storyteller” to explain to investors and other stakeholders the company’s strategy and accomplishments in its financial filings (p. 52). Carole Casto, vice president of marketing and communications for Cummins, Inc., details some of the key investor relations communication activities—quarterly earnings releases, annual meeting of shareholders, and the analyst day.

Part IV, “Human Resources and Employee Engagement” (chapters 7-9), provides a much-needed look at this employee-focused practice area. Often forgotten or lopped off due to time restraints, this section explains how communication practitioners at Starbucks work closely with their “partners” because customers say the positive human interaction is the main reason for return visits (p. 69). For this reason, company culture is important. Corey duBrowa, former senior vice president, global communications for Starbucks, says Starbucks’ partners often identified key issues early, which helped Starbucks address them earlier. Anne Toulouse, vice president, global brand management and advertising at Boeing, offers her experience of working with HR and communications. She advises practitioners to get a mentor and “pull deep knowledge” (p. 85) about your field.

Part V, “Corporate Strategy, Innovation and Legal” (chapters 10-13), features a journalist’s transition into corporate communication for Southwest Airlines. Another chapter deals with the importance of strategy in business and provides some sage advice from a Walgreens Boots Alliance communication executive to make sure your assumptions are right (p. 109). Mark Bain of Upper 90 Consulting gives a brief introduction to the legal department and why communication professionals should interact with the legal staff.

Additional sections include Part VI, “Marketing, Brand, and Data Analytics” (chapters 14-16); Part VII “Social Responsibility and Transparency” (chapters 17-19); and Part VIII “Communication and Corporate Transformations” (chapters 20-22). Part IX sums up the book with Ragas and Culp providing observations and conclusions about the contributors’ advice (Chapter 23).

The book also provides readers with short biographies of contributors, resources on business acumen, a glossary, and an index, which are useful.


For public relations programs that provide a business foundation, this book is valuable because it reinforces basic terminology and business concepts from a CCO perspective. It’s conversational in tone and is a quick read. It tells us how top communication professionals view their roles and duties in today’s organizations.  It would be a good supplemental textbook at the undergraduate or master’s level for strategic communication or public relations courses that introduce or focus on leadership and management concepts such as a case study course.

If you are looking for detailed information about how communication executives accomplish specific strategy or tactical tasks, you’ll need to find another alternative. It does not show, for example, how research contributes to strategic planning and implementation of tactics or how to form effective fast-acting social media teams. Instead, the book discusses the strategy, counseling and leadership side of managing the public relations function—all important to understand.  The sidebar “C-Suite Views” that discussed CEO expectations for their CCO or what it takes to succeed in the role were particularly interesting.

The book’s design could have benefitted from a more readable typeface for the “C-suite View” sidebar features., and the black-and-white photos of contributors are somewhat hazy.

Overall, it is exciting to see a book like this one, and I hope this is just the beginning. For years, our field has discussed the need for developing business IQ and understanding the expectations of professional communicators within the C-Suite. Here is a book that does both.

Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job


Denise Bortree, Penn State University

Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job

Authors: Marlene S. Neill and Amy Oliver Barnes

Business Expert Press, LLC, 2018

ISBN: 9781947098640 (paperback);  9781947098657 (EISBN)

150 pages

In an age of misinformation and fake news, the role of public relations professionals increasingly includes guiding organizations toward transparency, integrity, and ethics. In addition, professionals are taking stock of their own personal ethical decision making, as they encounter ethically murky situations in the work world. In the book Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job, authors Dr. Marlene Neill, APR, assistant professor at Baylor University, and Amy Barnes, APR, associate professor at University of Arkansas, Little Rock, offer advice for today’s public relations professionals. The book addresses important questions about providing ethical counsel, leveraging personal influence to persuade leadership’s ethical decision making, and deciding when to walk away from a job.

Packed with research and interviews with senior professionals, the book brings together decades of research on public relations ethics and presents it in an accessible way that’s useful for practitioners, researchers, and students. Moving from topic to topic, the book offers a map for someone who is building personal influence as an ethics counselor or someone who is currently facing an ethical dilemma. Frequent stories and quotes from the profession give the reader a good sense of how professionals understand and address ethical issues. It is clear that the authors have spent years in public relations practice and bring that experience, along with their strong research skills, to this topic. Chapters wrap up with a summary of the key points and “Questions to Ponder” that give the reader an opportunity to reflect on their own experiences and how they may match (or not) the experiences shared in the book.

Ethical Principles and Ethics Counsel

The first chapter of the book introduces basic ethical concepts and explains more advanced ethical principles, establishing the purpose and value of the book to public relations. It then argues the need for public relations to be the ethical conscience of the organization, stating that the department’s unique position as a boundary spanner and environmental scanner lends it to this role. However, the authors argue, being an ethical conscience is a challenging position. “This role takes courage as it often involves providing less-than-welcome advice to people who may outrank you” (p. 14). The rest of the book helps instruct readers about how to prepare for and implement this role.

Role of the Ethics Counselor

Having established the need for ethics counsel and argued that public relations is uniquely qualified for the role, the book moves on to answer the next important question: “So what can public relations do to earn respect so that their counsel is valued?” (p. 19). Chapter 2 explains how “power” and “influence” help fuel successful advocacy and how public relations professionals need to have influence in order to act as counselors to senior management. Internal organizational structures and personalities can create barriers to influence in public relations. One of the most important ways to build influence is through building relationships and coalitions as discussed in Chapter 3. As the authors point out, internal collaborations can raise challenges for the ethics counselor, and this chapter offers suggestions for addressing these challenges.

Advice from Senior Professionals

Sometimes the best way to make an ethical decision is to hear what others have done. Chapter 4 allows the voices of senior professionals to guide the reader through the process of building and leveraging influence to advocate for an ethical cause. The professionals share their struggles and the outcomes (good and bad) of their own attempts to offer counsel. In an interesting twist, the chapter also looks at how gender might influence the way public relations professionals engage strategies to influence management. The results of a study of PRSA Fellows and Page Society members found that male and female leaders find different strategies to be more successful. The chapter wraps up by sharing strategies to avoid when offering ethics counsel.

Chapter 5 builds on the advice in Chapter 4, and the authors dig deeper into the issue of leveraging allies and coalitions to advocate for an ethical cause. Insights offered in this chapter aid the readers in understanding the political dynamics of organizational settings. These include suggestions to help identify influencers within an organization and ways to gain access to current coalitions. As the chapter says, “Being politically savvy also means knowing who sits on influential committees and how decisions are made in an organization” (p. 59).

When Ethics Counsel Fails

Chapter 6 begins by making an important observation, “Sometimes ethics counsel falls on deaf ears” (p. 67). What if an ethics counselor implements the strategies recommended in this book but is unable to convince management to reconsider an ethical decision? According to the authors, three options exist: drop the issue, appeal to someone else, or find another job. How to decide which is the best option is the subject of Chapter 6. By offering examples and principles to consider, the authors help the reader clarify the importance of the issue they are addressing and how best to move forward. When should a professional consider rocking the boat or becoming a whistleblower, as the chapter title suggests?

Practical Advice for Ethics Counselors

So how does a professional prepare to become an ethics counselor? Chapter 7 offers many suggestions, including mentorship and training. The authors argue that one role of ethics counselors is creating an ethical culture in an organization by communicating values, building structures that encourage ethics, and rewarding ethical behavior. Chapter 8 defines ethical culture and explains its value for the organization. In Chapter 9, the authors share practical guidance that would help new public relations professionals perform more successfully in any organizational setting. These nuggets of advice come from senior practitioners and range from “young professionals need to build business literacy” (p. 101) to “leadership involves listening to the concerns of various stakeholders” (p. 112). The book wraps up (Chapter 10) with suggestions for engaging with ethics topics every day. These bits of advice include reviewing codes of ethics, reading case studies and blogs, and talking to others about ethics. This is good advice especially for young professionals, and the last two chapters make this book not only a reference for senior practitioners but also a good source of information for young practitioners alike.


Who can benefit from reading this book? Faculty, including both teachers and researchers, would appreciate this book. At only 140 pages, it could easily be added to a reading list for a graduate or undergraduate course on ethics. The writing is clear, and topics in the book follow logically, allowing those who have not worked in the field to understand the importance of ethics. Researchers will appreciate the way the authors weave together decades of research on public relations ethics and demonstrate how it translates to real-world practice. The book also identifies areas where more research is needed.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say all senior public relations professionals should read this book. In a communication environment ruled by social media, organizations that are caught acting in unethical ways will experience public reprimands with far-reaching consequences. Preventing mistakes like this begins by creating a culture of ethics within the organization that allows employees to raise ethical issues when they see them. This book offers excellent advice to both senior and junior professionals that would help create such an environment.

Overall, this is an excellent, well-researched book, and it presents professional dilemmas and solutions in a way that resonate as authentic. I would strongly recommend this book to students who are preparing for the work world or public relations professionals who want to improve the effectiveness of their ethical counsel.

Disclaimer: The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, directed by Denise Bortree, partially funded the authors of this book; however, the Center does not financially benefit from its publication, including any sales of the book.

Does Your PR Course Syllabus Excite, Intrigue, and Motivate Students to Learn? Syllabus Designs and Student Impressions on the PR Course and the Course Instructor

Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE August 11, 2018. Manuscript accepted for publication September 12, 2018. Final edits completed January 21, 2019. First published online January 31, 2019.


Daradirek “Gee” Ekachai, Marquette University
Young Kim, Marquette University


The purpose of this study is to examine how a format of a syllabus influences student motivation and engagement in a public relations course and students’ impression of the course and course instructor. This study conducted focus group interviews and a lab experiment with undergraduate student at a large university in the Midwestern United States to examine how a format—design or length—of a PR course syllabus can affect student motivation, engagement, and impression of the course and course instructor. Results from the two focus group interviews were mixed, but students’ preferences were geared toward the long version of the visually appealing syllabus. Findings from the experimental study show no effect of syllabus design on student engagement. However, the visually appealing syllabus had an effect on student motivation, and its short version produced positive impressions of the course and course instructor.

Keywords: course syllabus, syllabus designs, student engagement, impression on course and instructor, public relations education

Does Your PR Course Syllabus Excite, Intrigue, and Motivate Students to Learn? Syllabus Designs and Student Impressions of the PR Course and the Course Instructor

Scholars have paid special attention to how teachers can engage college students in the classroom and have called for more research to advance theory and best practices (Mazer & Hess, 2016, p. 356). Instructional scholars have suggested that teachers be agile in creating and adapting course curriculum, especially the course syllabus, to engage college students in the classroom (Hosek & Titsworth, 2016). It is argued that the course syllabus can provide a first impression that may directly influence the interests and motivation of college students, possibly leading to their engagement throughout the semester (Ludy, Brackenburg, Folkins, Peet, & Langendorfer, 2016).

Despite a growing body of public relations education research, public relations scholars have not paid much attention to the importance of a course syllabus design and its implications or effects on student learning. Recently, public relations educators and professionals have recognized the importance of visual communication in public relations practice and education. Richard Edelman (personal communication, June 21, 2012), president and CEO of Edelman, called for “more informative visuals” and “visual representation of information” at the Edelman Academic Summit. Academics have also noted the importance of visual communication in PR education and student learning (Gallicano, Ekachai, & Freberg, 2014; Sisson & Mortensen, 2017). Hence, it is more appropriate for PR educators, in order to practice what they preach, to consider whether or not they should include visual elements in their course syllabus to interest, motivate, and engage students.

By conducting two studies—focus group interviews (Study I, N = 10) and an experimental study (Study II, N = 81), this study aims to examine the extent to which the design of a PR course syllabus could influence student motivation and engagement in a PR course, as well as students’ impressions of the course and course instructor.


A syllabus is typically seen as a legal document or a contract between an instructor and the students concerning the overall plan of the course, course objectives, student learning outcomes, course expectations, class activities, assessments, and course policies (Fornaciari & Dean, 2014). If the syllabus contents are carefully crafted to create conceptual unity, then they can engage students (Canada, 2013). A syllabus can set a tone for the students and create first impressions on the first day of class that might inspire them to further engage for the rest of the semester (Ludy et al., 2016). 

According to Fink (2012), a course syllabus plays a variety of functions, such as a communication mechanism, a planning tool for instructors, a course plan for students, a teaching tool or resource, an artifact for teacher evaluation, and evidence for accreditation. Many of these functions are more or less instructor-oriented. Therefore, more attention and research should be spent on how to construct and design a syllabus to motivate and engage students (Ludy et al., 2016). With this in mind, this study seeks to understand how syllabus design influences students’ engagement, motivation, and course impression.

Student Engagement and Course Syllabus

Student disengagement is one of the utmost concerns for educators and has been linked to deviant behavior at school, low academic achievement, and absences (Harris, 2008). To enhance student engagement, scholars have paid special attention to using visual images in the classroom. The findings indicate that using visual images in the classroom can stimulate active learning and enhance student engagement, appeal to students’ attention (Liu & Beamer, 1997), increase their interests (Rankin & Hoaas, 2001), and boost satisfaction and participation (Hagen, Edwards, & Brown, 1997), leading to pleasant classroom experiences (Ulbig, 2010). Visual images can also enhance the classroom experience by helping students better understand abstract concepts (Levin, Anglin, & Carney, 1987). Results from an experimental study by Ulbig (2010) suggest that the use of visual images in class presentations imparted by an instructor increased student classroom engagement and student attitudes about the course in general.

Following similar rationales from such studies, other scholars have placed more efforts on how the format or design of the course syllabus (i.e., visually appealing or text-oriented syllabus) impact student interest and engagement. Palmer (2009) offered suggestions on how to use a course syllabus to set a tone of engagement by suggesting required contents in the syllabus: clear, specific learning outcomes; class format; student behavioral expectations; and professional behavioral expectations. Canada (2013) agreed, stating that a well-crafted syllabus can serve as an initial point of engagement for college students by using plain and direct language, friendliness, and humility to appeal to college students. Thus, the format can convey the instructor’s style, voice, or enthusiasm to the students, leading to student engagement (Hockensmith, 1988).

To better grasp the effects of syllabi arrangement on student engagement, Ludy et al. (2016) conducted qualitative and quantitative surveys that compared student perceptions of a text-rich contractual syllabus and a graphic-rich engaging syllabus and found that a visual or graphic-rich syllabus can benefit instructors who seek to gain favorable initial course perceptions by students. Their study concludes that while students reacted positively to both designs, students judged the visual syllabus to be more appealing, comprehensive, and suitable to student engagement than the traditional contractual syllabus (i.e., text-oriented syllabus; Ludy et al., 2016). Applying previous research reviewed on student engagement and syllabus design, this study proposes the following hypothesis:

H1: Those who read a visually appealing syllabus will be more likely to engage in a PR course than those who read a text-oriented one.

Student Motivation and Syllabus

It is imperative that instructors understand the underlying components of motivation as they pertain to student engagement (Oblinger, 2003). While similar to engagement, motivation remains its own separate variable (Appleton, Christensen, Kim, & Reschly, 2006). Motivation has been conceptualized as the direction, intensity, and quality of one’s energies (Maehr & Meyer, 1997), answering the question of “why” for a given behavior (Appleton et al., 2006), belonging (Goodenow, 1993), and competence (Schunk, 1991). Simply put, motivation is tantamount to a student’s ability to engage with the course information (Appleton et al., 2006).

According to Wigfield and Eccles’ (2000) model of motivation, student motivation and engagement stem from the intrinsic knowledge of responsibility, which means that students must value the course syllabus to become motivated and engaged by it. Therefore, the combination of a student’s value of the course and the perception of his or her likelihood to succeed leads to higher levels of motivation (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). However, many students enter higher education with a lack of academic responsibility, which suggests the belief that instructors are responsible for students’ learning outcomes and desires should be met (Buckner & Strawser, 2016).

With regard to the association between students’ motivation and the course syllabus, Bishop (2006) argued that facilitating student ownership over course materials increases student creativity and motivation. Nilson (2010) also asserts, a syllabus might not only be “the road map for the term’s foray into knowledge but also a travelogue to pique students’ interest in the expedition and its leader” (p. 33). In addition, scholars agreed that student-friendly explanations (e.g., explanation of course assignment and a list of campus resources) and warm and friendly language on the syllabus can increase student motivation to learn (Richmond, Slattery, Mitchell, & Morgan, 2016).

Recently, Ludy et al. (2016) also found that visually appealing syllabi highlighted with different colors and underlining or bold print leads students to be more motivated to learn the course than text-oriented or contractual-style syllabi. In this regard, scholars suggest that students’ intrinsic motivation should be taken into consideration when crafting syllabi (Fornaciari & Dean, 2014). Based on the literature about student motivation, this study examines the extent to which the syllabus design (visual-oriented vs text-oriented) influences student motivation to learn in the PR course. The following hypothesis is posited:

H2: Those who read a visually appealing syllabus will be more likely to be motivated in the PR course than those who read a text-oriented one.

Impression of Course, Instructor and Syllabus

Researchers have examined how the course syllabus affects students’ impressions of the course, as well as impressions of the instructors (e.g., Jenkins, Bugeja, & Barber, 2014). Matejka and Kurke (1994) argued that the course syllabus conveys a first impression on the first day of class; it is a statement of preliminary work that instructors put into the course. Furthermore, Saville, Zinn, Brown, and Marchuk (2010) conducted an experimental study that compared a brief version of the course syllabus (e.g., a two-page document with general course information on course objectives, exams, and policies) with a more detailed version (e.g., a six-page document with additional information on course objectives, exams, and policies) and found that the detailed version resulted in higher student impressions of the instructor’s effectiveness.

Grounded on Saville et al.’s (2010) findings, Jenkins et al. (2014) conducted an experimental study and found that including different kinds of syllabus information may influence initial impressions of the instructor. They suggested that “a lengthier or more detailed syllabus is not necessarily more beneficial; the addition of restrictive course policies is critical” (Jenkins et al., 2014, p. 133). In addition, Ludy et al. (2016) corroborated the previous research by finding that a more-detailed syllabus increased students’ positive impressions of the instructor. However, they did not find impact of the visually engaging syllabus on the impression of the instructor. Therefore, this study proposes the following hypothesis to provide further evidence about whether the syllabus design impacts students’ impression of the course and the course instructor:

H3: Those who read a visually appealing syllabus will be more likely to have a positive impression of the course (H3a) and the course instructor (H3b) than those who read a text-oriented one.

Effects of Syllabus Length

The length of a syllabus (i.e., how much information should be included) has received much attention from scholars (Becker & Calhoon, 1999; Saville et al., 2010). In general, scholars agree that a detailed syllabus is better than a brief one because the detailed syllabus provides students with important course information and influences students’ perceptions of teaching effectiveness (Fink, 2012; Richmond et al., 2016). In particular, a detailed syllabus could communicate that a teacher cares about his or her students—one quality of effective teachers (Buskist, Sikorski, Buckley, & Saville, 2002)—but a less-detailed syllabus could lead students to have a negative perception that a teacher is not interested in students’ learning or is not approachable (McKeachie, 2002). Subsequent studies also indicate that a lengthier syllabus can influence the positive impressions of instructor effectiveness (e.g., approachable, creative, effective communicator, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and prepared; Jenkins et al., 2014; Ludy et al., 2016). Specifically, Saville et al. (2010) suggested that a detailed syllabus serves a communicative function, providing students with information about a course, as well as a motivating function, encouraging students to do well in the course.

Despite the benefits of having a detailed syllabus, other research indicates that students tend to either ignore or have difficulty remembering a great portion of syllabi (Smith & Razzouk, 1993; Thompson, 2007) and tend to get bogged down in details (Leeds, 1992). Fornaciari and Dean (2014) also argued that the length of andragogy syllabi has “shifted from long contractually detailed to short[er] and more flexibly constructed” to optimize adaptability for student learning (pp. 712-713). Thus, there has been mixed evidence in previous studies.

Moreover, there is no study that examined the possible moderating role of syllabus length on the effects of a visually appealing syllabus. To fill the research gap, this study proposes the following research questions regarding main and interaction effects of syllabus design and length on student engagement, motivation, and impression:

RQ 1: How will the length of a syllabus affect student engagement in the PR course?

RQ 2: How will the length of a syllabus affect student motivation in the PR course?

RQ 3: How will the length of a syllabus affect student impressions of the course (RQ3a) and the course instructor (RQ3b) in the PR course?

RQ 4: How will the length of a syllabus moderate the effect of syllabus design on students’ engagement in the PR course?

RQ 5: How will the length of a syllabus moderate the effect of syllabus design on students’ motivation in the PR course?

RQ 6: How will the length of a syllabus moderate the effect of syllabus design on students’ impression of the course (RQ6a) and the course instructor (RQ6b) in the PR course?


To test the hypotheses and research questions above, two studies—two focus group interviews (Study I: FGIs) and one experimental study (Study II)— were conducted. One public relations elective course was chosen for the course syllabus because the course has a large enrollment, thus more participants could be recruited.  In addition, since it is an elective course, the psychological pressure required to take the course for graduation can be controlled.  The designs of the course syllabus with recommended features were crafted based on previous research, and two different design formats—contractual (i.e., text-oriented) and engaging (i.e., visually-appealing)— were used (e.g., Ludy et al., 2016).

Study I – Focus Group Interviews (FGIs)

FGIs Methods


Researchers often rely on focus groups to collect data from multiple individuals simultaneously to discuss perceptions, ideas, opinions, and thoughts on certain issues. Focus groups are also used to explore issues before a questionnaire for a quantitative research study is developed (Krueger & Casey, 2014). Therefore, the purposes of the focus group interviews (FGIs) in this study were (1) to obtain detailed information about individual and group perceptions and opinions about the syllabus and (2) develop the stimuli for an experimental study (Study II). Researchers recruited participants using announcements in college courses, flyers, and social media posts.

After agreeing on the consent form about the purpose, procedures, statement of privacy, and benefits, students participating in the focus group sessions received $15 gift cards as compensation. A trained moderator conducted both focus groups. Five participants were recruited for each FGI session (N =10). The FGI sessions took place in a quiet and comfortable room. Complimentary beverages and snacks were provided.

 Two FGI sessions were conducted and voice-recorded with students enrolled in communication courses related to strategic communication (e.g., advertising and public relations) at a large university in the Midwestern United States. The information of the course instructor, especially the name, was hypothetically created based on random selection from the list of popular names over the last 100 years, provided by The United States Social Security Administration (, in order to avoid the effects of previous experiences or relationships with the actual instructors. Other information on the syllabus (e.g., course goal, objectives, and policies) was presented the same as it was in the actual class. 

After completing a demographic questionnaire, participants were asked what contents or information they typically looked for in a syllabus and how many times a semester they would refer back to that syllabus. They were then presented with four different versions of the International Advertising and Public Relations syllabus: short and long versions of text-oriented syllabi, and short and long versions of visually appealing syllabi. The short version of text-oriented and visually appealing design contained four pages that included general course information (i.e., description, instructor name and contact information, and office hours), course goals, learning objectives, required readings/textbooks, course requirements (names of assignments and grade scales), and a course schedule. The eight-page long version of the text-oriented and visually appealing syllabi added the following parts to the short version: detailed assignment descriptions, deadlines, and course policies (i.e., assignment submission, professionalism, attendance, communication, academic integrity and other campus resources such as the counseling center and disability center). The text-oriented version was crafted only using black and white colors. For the visually appealing versions, images relating to the course and assignments were highlighted with different colors and styled with bold and underlined lettering based on previous research (Ludy et al., 2016). The first page of each design type is provided in the appendices.

Each participant received the four versions of the syllabus in random order of length and design. After reviewing all four versions, students answered questions about their impression or reaction towards the different designs, their motivation to take the course, their levels of interest and engagement in the course based on each design, their preference among the four designs, and their impression of each course instructor.

FGIs Results

Participants. Among the total participants (N = 10), there were six females. The average age was 21.9 (SD = 2.18). The majority of participants were white (60%, n = 6), followed by Asian or Asian American (30%, n =3), and Black or African-American (10%, n = 1). Regarding class standing, seven students (70%, n =7) were seniors, two were sophomores (20%, n = 2), and one was a graduate student (10%, n =10). Most of them were majoring or minoring in public relations and advertising or communication-related areas (e.g., media studies) (70%, n = 7), and others were sociology (10%, n =1) and business (20%, n = 2) majors.

Analysis. The focus group interviews were transcribed, yielding 45 pages of typed, double-spaced transcripts. The transcriptions did not include observational or non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, speech tones, pronunciation, or pauses reflected in the interviews. This analysis relied on a constant comparative method to interpret the transcribed interview texts for key concepts or themes that emerged from the questions posed (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Attempts were made to find key concepts for syllabus design and length preferences, students’ motivation and engagement in the course, and their impressions of the course and instructor.

General results on syllabus. Students said they have received syllabi with text-oriented designs in most courses they have taken, many with more than five pages. Some mentioned that the visual syllabi mostly came from lower-level courses, while the text-oriented syllabi were from upper-level classes.

When asked what students looked for in the syllabus, most agreed that they looked for the course description, weekly calendars, due dates, textbook information, exams, quizzes, grading breakdowns, attendance policies, class assignments, and papers, if any.

On the first day of class when most of the class time was spent on the syllabus, students said they expected instructors to explain all class expectations. As one mentioned, “I don’t think I actually go read the syllabus besides the class schedule or reference to the assignments. I like having the expectations explained to me by the teacher on the first day.” After the first day of class, students said they would refer back to the syllabus (frequently for some students) when they needed to check on weekly class activities, assignments, and due dates.

Design and length preferences. Most participants preferred the visual design, and some liked the long version over the short one. They commented that the long syllabus with all the information is more “professional” and “looked important.” Although they would keep the syllabus length of eight pages, they wanted the most important parts of the syllabus (such as assignments, class projects, or grading policy) to be on the first few pages. They would not read all pages at first but would know all of the information was there in the long syllabus. One student commented on the visual design of the syllabus: “I like this one because it’s colorful. If you got lots of these on the table, you can find that easier. And I like that the highlights and the words are a little bit bigger than the text one.”

When asked whether they would like to get a short syllabus with additional handouts on assignments provided later, students said they prefer to have an “all-in-one” syllabus with detailed descriptions of all assignments over getting separate handouts. Students pointed out: “That (separate handout) is going to be lost or be thrown out. I’m going to lose it anyway” and “I like keeping the length, and I like keeping the project descriptions and stuff like that in the syllabus because it’s easy to reference.” Another student said:

Here is the thing about the long one: it tells you all the stuff that you have to do…. When I was doing the group project, I would literally have the syllabus on half of my computer screen, so I know I was going through all the components and stuff.

An additional student agreed and explained the reasons for the preference:

I like the long one more. The short one doesn’t have all the information. The short version has all the links, but if you type in all the links, it’s more of a pain to do than if you have the information written in front of you already.

But a few students in both focus group sessions expressed that the long version of the text-oriented syllabus “stressed me out,” “is cluttered,” and is “so much information.” These students prefer a concise version with links to additional information, such as university policies that can be found on a website.

Motivation and engagement. Most students in both sessions commented that, while the visual design of the syllabus looked appealing and interesting, their motivation to learn and engage in class is not based on the syllabus design only. They voiced that it depends on the teacher’s attitude and enthusiasm on the first day of class. Student feedback on this was represented by the following quotes:

  • “It’s about the professor’s personality, course contents, and a lot of things. Sometimes they just give you very simple, not so appealing syllabus, but the class is amazing.”
  • “I don’t think my motivation in the class is going to be based on the syllabus. If the teacher passes the syllabus and was super-excited, then I’ll probably be motivated to come to the class.”

But one student differed and perceived that the visually-appealing syllabus reflected the instructor’s efforts to motivate students. She explained, “They want to make sure you are going to learn something out of the class. And they kind of took the time, so you should take the time to care for the class too.”

Impression of the course and the instructor. Students mentioned that the visual design of the syllabus indicated that the instructor spent time and effort on the syllabus, meaning they care and want students to be successful. Some said that teachers who hand out the visual syllabus are probably more creative and “trying to get a different perspective.” One student remarked: “If the professor gives me a syllabus like this (visual), I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be friends. We will have so much fun this semester.’”

One student noted that she preferred either of the visual designs—four or eight pages—because they indicated that the instructor put time and effort into creating the syllabus.

I think the visually appealing one shows that the professor took time and cares about your success in the class…I mean if I’m handed the 4-page black and white, no pictures versus this one and it’s the same class just taught by a different professor, I’m taking this professor over this one because it shows that they actually care about students.

Some students further noted that the short version of the text-heavy syllabus with no pictures could be interpreted that the teacher was uncaring. One student commented: “They had to hand you a syllabus, this is what you get. Figure it out. Got a problem, let me know. Have a nice day.”

On the other hand, the text-oriented syllabus might convey the seriousness of the course for some students. One student noted that the text-only syllabus made her feel like “I need to work. This teacher means business, and you don’t want to mess around in this class.” For her, the visual designs with colors and graphics made her think that she can “slack off a little bit” and it would be all right to “get away with missing a few assignments.”

In sum, the results from the two focus group interviews showed that most students liked the visually appealing syllabus. However, they did not provide a clear answer in terms of the length of the syllabus and the effect on students’ engagement and motivation in the course. At any rate, most students reported positive impressions of the course and the course instructor when they read the visually appealing syllabus, regardless of the length. To find clearer results with reliable statistical significance, we conducted further analysis through an experimental study.

Study II – Experimental Study

After conducting two FGIs, an experimental study was conducted with the students who did not participate in the FGIs. All sessions of the experimental study took place in a lab setting, equipped with tables and computers that allowed students to read the printed syllabus and answer the questions online.

Experimental Study Methods

Participants. Through announcements in college courses, e-mail, flyers, and social media posts, 83 individuals were recruited from undergraduate communication courses at a large university in the Midwestern United States. Deleting two cases with missing data resulted in a total of 81 participants for data analysis (N = 81). All subjects participated in the experimental study voluntarily and received $10 gift cards as compensation. Ages ranged from 18 to 31 years old, with an average age of 20.83 (SD = 2.41). Nearly 90% (n = 73) were female, and 10% (n = 8) were male. The majority of participants (82.7%, n = 67) were White, 7.4% (n = 6) were Hispanic/Latino, 6.2% (n =5) were Asian/Asian-American, and 3.7% (n = 3) were other races (e.g., Native American). The senior students were dominant (51.8%, n = 42), followed by sophomores (19.8%, n = 16), juniors (18.5%, n = 15), and freshmen (9.9%, n = 8).

Procedures. This study used a 2 (design: text-oriented or visually appealing) x 2 (length: short or long) between-subjects experimental design. The same stimuli from the FGIs were used in the experimental study because all participants in the two FGIs confirmed syllabus contents, design, and length in terms of ecological validity.

The questionnaire for the experimental study was created on Qualtrics. After signing a consent form, student participants were randomly assigned to one of the four experimental conditions, produced by a cross combination of syllabus design (text-oriented or visually appealing) and syllabus length (short or long). According to each condition, a printed version of a syllabus, as a stimulus, was provided for the participants. After reading each type of syllabus, the participants answered questions measuring dependent variables: motivation, engagement, and impression of the course instructor.

A pre-test (N = 21) was conducted to check the procedure (e.g., stimulus manipulation and randomization) and other issues (e.g., clarity of questions), and there was no issue in the pre-test. The main test (N = 81) was conducted by the same procedure confirmed in the pre-test.

Measures. Multiple items in the experimental study were used for each variable and measured on a 7-point Likert-type scale (1= not at all to 7 = very much). All items for main variables were adopted from previous research. 

The 17-item instrument to measure student engagement is from Schaufeli, Salanova, González-Romá, and Bakker (2002), consisting of vigor with 6 items (Cronbach’s α = 0.87) (e.g., after reading the syllabus, I would feel strong and vigorous when I am studying or going to this class), five items related to dedication (α = 0.85) (e.g., after reading the syllabus, my studies in this class would inspire me), and six items about absorption (α = 0.90) (e.g., after reading the syllabus, I feel happy when I am intensely studying for this class). All dimensions were combined into one construct for engagement.

Motivation was measured by one item (i.e., how likely the syllabus motivates student interest in the course), adopted from Ludy et al. (2016).

Student impression was measured in two aspects––impression of the course syllabus and impression of the course instructor. Adapting Saville et al.’s (2010) measures for Syllabus Detail and Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Effectiveness, the impression of the course syllabus was measured with two items (α = 0.89; the syllabus is easy to read and understand, and the syllabus is easy to navigate and find information). The impression of the course instructor was assessed by the students’ feelings about the instructor’s characteristics and expertise (i.e., teacher effectiveness) based on the syllabus (Ludy et al., 2016). Six items (e.g., the course instructor is enthusiastic) measuring the impression of the instructor’s characteristics (α = 0.86) and four items (e.g., the course instructor is knowledgeable) measuring the impression of instructor expertise (α = 0.86) were used in this study.  

Demographic information, including gender, race, major, and school year (class identification), were gathered at the end of the experiment. 

Experimental Study Results

Manipulation checks. Randomization was successful as each condition was all balanced. Each group was almost an equal size, and demographics in each group (e.g., major, race, and school standing) were all balanced without any significant differences at 0.05 (p > 0.05). The manipulation of syllabus design was successful, as intended. To check the manipulation of design and length, the following question was used: “the syllabus provides detailed explanation of obligations for both instructor and student in text-rich design with black and white,” and participants were asked to provide an answer on a 7-point scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree). The independent samples T test revealed that there was a significant difference in the mean scores for the text-oriented version (M = 6.39, SD = 1.02) and visually appealing syllabus (M = 4.18, SD = 2.43) conditions, t(79) = 5.38, p = 0.00. The manipulation for length was checked through the independent samples T test. The result demonstrated that those who received the long version (M = 5.80, SD = 1.86) were more likely to report “the detailed explanation of obligations for both instructor and student” (i.e., course policy) than others who received the short version (M = 4.80, SD = 2.33), t(79) = 2.13, p = 0.03. 

For the length manipulation check, participants were also asked to provide answers to true or false questions about one of the course policies (i.e., late assignments are accepted without any penalty), which was included only in the long version. Those who received the long version (n = 76, 93.8%) were more likely to answer true than others who read the short version (n = 5, 6.2%). There was significant difference between two groups, (1) = 5.20, p = 0.02. Overall, the analyses demonstrated that participants perceived different length and design among conditions as expected.

Testing hypothesis. H1 hypothesized that a visually appealing-syllabus would have a more positive effect on student engagement, and RQ1 and RQ4 asked how the length of a syllabus would affect or moderate the effect of syllabus design on student engagement in a PR course. To test H1 and answer RQ1 and RQ4, a two-way between-groups analysis of variance (ANOVA) was run by using SPSS Statistics 24 for the different effects of syllabus design and length on engagement. For the engagement, any significant main and interaction effects were not found. Differences of visually appealing and text-oriented design (F(1, 77) = 0.09, p = 0.77, Partial Eta Squared (η2) = 0.00), short and long length (F(1, 77) = 0.58, p = 0.48, η2 = 0.00), and an interaction term of design*length (F(1, 77) = 0.84, p = 0.36, η2 = 0.00) did not reach statistical significance in terms of engagement in the course. Therefore, H1 (a more positive effect of a visually appealing-syllabus on student engagement) was not supported.

For the student motivation by different syllabus design and length, H2 predicted that a visually appealing syllabus would have a more positive effect, and RQ2 and RQ5 asked how the length of syllabus would affect the motivation or moderate the effect of syllabus design. ANOVA was conducted again and revealed that there was a significant difference only for design, F(1, 77) = 8.29, p = 0.01, η2 = 0.10. Participants who received the visually appealing design (M = 4.93, SE = 0.30) were more likely to be motivated in the course than others who received the text-oriented design (M = 3.70, SE = 0.30). Therefore, H2 (a more positive effect of a visually appealing syllabus on student motivation) was supported. There was neither a main effect for length nor interaction effect of length and design for student motivation.  

Regarding the impressions of the course, H3a suggested that a visually appealing syllabus would have a more positive effect, and RQ3a and RQ6a asked how the length of a syllabus would affect the impression of the course or moderate the effect of a syllabus design. ANOVA yielded that there was a significant difference only for length, F(1, 77) = 4.65, p = 0.03, η2 = 0.06. The shorter syllabus (M = 5.87, SE = 0.27) was more positively associated with impressions of the course syllabus than the longer one (M = 5.01, SE = 0.27). Hence, H3a (more positive effect of a visually appealing syllabus on the impression of the course) was supported.

For the impressions on the course instructor, H3b suggested that a visually appealing syllabus would have a more positive effect, and RQ3b and RQ6b asked how the length of a syllabus would affect the impression of the course instructor or moderate the effect of a syllabus design in the impression of the instructor in a PR course. To test H3b and answer RQ3b and RQ6b, multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted because there were more than one dependent variable that was conceptually correlated. Impressions for instructor characteristics and experts were measured separately. When there is more than one dependent variable, a MANOVA analysis is preferred over a series of ANOVAs because a MANOVA has an advantage of “the protection against inflated Type 1 errors” caused by conducting multiple ANOVAs independently (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2013, p. 246). Prior to conducting a MANOVA test, a Pearson correlation (r) analysis among the variables for the impression with two factors (r= 0.50, p < .001) was conducted to justify the use of a MANOVA analysis (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2013). Preliminary assumption testing was conducted to check for normality, linearity, univariate and multivariate outlier, homogeneity of variance-covariance matrices, and multicollinearity, with no serious violations noted.

There were the main effects, as well as interaction effect with statistical significance. Specifically, significant differences were found between text-oriented and visually appealing designs, F(2, 76) = 13.65, p = 0.00; Wilks’ Lambda (λ) = 0.74, Partial Eta Squared (η2) = 0.26, between short and long lengths, F(2, 76) = 6.98, p = 0.00; λ = 0.84, η2 = 0.16, and the interaction term of design and length, F(2, 76) = 8.13, p = 0.00; λ = 0.82, 2 = 0.18, for the combined impressions of the course instructor.

When the results for the dependent variables, impressions for the course instructor characteristics and experts were considered separately, significant differences were found only in the impressions on the characteristics of design: F(1, 77) = 13.46, p = 0.01, η2 = 0.15, and length: F(1, 77) = 7.65, p = 0.01, η2 = 0.90. There was no significant difference found for the impressions of the course instructor experts. The mean scores indicated that those who read the visually appealing syllabus were more likely to have a positive impression of instructor characteristics (M = 5.13, SE = 0.18) than those who read the text-oriented syllabus (M = 4.20, SD = 0.18). Also, those who read the short version of the syllabus were more likely to perceive instructor characteristics positively (M = 5.00, SD = 0.18) than those who read the long version of the syllabus (M = 4.31, SD = 0.18). Thus, H3b (more positive effect of a visually appealing-syllabus on the impression of the course instructor) was partially supported.

Regarding RQ6b, in addition, the interaction effect of design and length was found only in the impression of instructor characteristics, F(1, 77) = 8.75, p = 0.00, η2 = 0.10. Those who read the visually appealing syllabus were more likely to have a positive impression of the instructor characteristics when they read the short version (M = 5.85, SD = 0.26) than when they had long version (M = 4.40, SD = 0.26). Post-hoc comparisons using the Bonferroni test indicated that the mean differences (M = 5.85 and M = 4.40) of visually appealing syllabi were significantly different at the significance level of 0.01 (p = 0.004). However, the mean differences of those who read text-oriented syllabi were not significantly different regardless of the length differences–the short version (M = 4.22, SD = 0.25) or the long version (M = 4.17, SD = 0.26) (See Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Interaction effect for design × length for the student impression of the course instructor characteristics. 


This study aimed to examine the extent to which a format or a design of a PR course syllabus influences student engagement and motivation for the course and the impressions of the course and the course instructor. Two studies—focus group interviews and an experimental study—revealed that (1) the design and length of a syllabus did not make any difference for student engagement in the course, (2) a visually appealing design made a difference for motivation in the course, and 3) a visually appealing syllabus mattered for the course impression and the course instructor.

In both studies, students preferred visually appealing syllabi with different elements of design. They found the visually appealing syllabi to be more interesting but not significantly engaging. Focus group participants preferred a visual design, and some liked the long version over the short one. However, the design of the syllabus did not necessarily motivate them to learn or engage in the class. This finding is similar to a result in the experimental study, which indicates that student engagement in the course was not influenced by differences of syllabus design, length, or the interaction of two independent variables. It could be plausible that the participants may be highly engaged already in the course itself, demonstrated by the high mean scores across independent variables (above 4 on a 7-point Likert-type scale). Also, the finding could be caused by consistent tone and style in the syllabus languages across the different designs that might generate different psychological or emotional factors (e.g., students’ sense of belonging or emotional climate), which can be influential for engagement (Soria & Stebleton, 2012).

In the experiment, however, the visually appealing syllabus was positive with statistical significance for student motivation in the course, consistent with findings from FGIs in this study. The findings are also in line with previous research that accounts for the positive effect of visualized contents in students’ classroom experience (e.g., Ulbig, 2010), as well as student motivation in the course (e.g., Ludy et al., 2016). Not surprisingly, the results indicated that the course instructor can stimulate more active learning from students through visual images or contents of the course syllabus. However, this result could be limited to the general motivation for the course due to a single-item measurement. Further research should be conducted to provide more fruitful results indicating more detailed motivations related to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

Regarding students’ impressions of the course, there were inconsistent results across the two studies: the FGIs and the experiment. The participants from the focus groups also preferred a long version because they wanted complete, step-by-step instructions of assignments in the syllabus. However, the results of the experimental study demonstrated that students who read a short syllabus would be likely to think that the syllabus is easy to read and understand, as well as to navigate and to find information. In addition, the experimental study found that the shorter syllabus is better for positive characteristics of the course instructor such as being approachable, personable, creative, enthusiastic, and open-minded.

This result indicates that additional information for the longer version, such as assignment description with deadlines, course policies, and other campus resource information (e.g., counseling and disability center), is not beneficial for positive impressions of the course, as well as the course instructor. In this regard, this study extends the previous research about preferences for a lengthier or more detailed syllabus regarding course effectiveness (e.g., Ludy et al., 2016). Contrasting with the findings from the previous research, this study suggests that the syllabus is sufficient for itself and course instructor effectiveness if it contains general information about the course, textbook, categorized assignments with grade scale, and course schedule. Also, this could be added into the empirical evidence for how flexible syllabus features or contents should be included in support of researchers who advocate for the shorter and flexible construction for the syllabus (Fornaciari & Dean, 2014).

This study also found that the visually appealing syllabus can generate positive impressions of the course instructor, compared to the text-oriented one. Based on the focus group interviews, students perceived the instructor who designed a visually appealing syllabus to be more creative and caring. In the experimental study, the positive characteristics of the instructor were also influenced by length, particularly short—a result of an interaction of length and design. Especially, the effect of the visually appealing syllabus on the impressions of the course instructor became stronger when students read the short version, as the post-hoc test revealed (See Figure 1). This result demonstrates how important a visually appealing syllabus is for perceived course instructor effectiveness––that is, design matters in an effective syllabus. The plausible explanation for the finding is that current students have more familiarity and enjoyment of being provided with a variety of visualized inputs (Phillips & Trainor, 2014).


As a pragmatic implication, the results provide insight into the importance of making syllabi a well-crafted document by using visually appealing contents. As some participants addressed in the FGIs, visualized content is not limited to visual images but can be achieved by underlining or highlighting text with different colors or bolded letters. By doing so, PR course instructors can benefit from the positive impressions of their course, as well as themselves, as the first impression may be weighted more heavily than other sources of information (e.g., instructor reputation; Buchert, Laws, Apperson, & Bregman, 2008). More importantly, the results for the length (i.e., a short syllabus) indicate the elevated importance of the type of information that is included.

Furthermore, these results provide meaningful insight into how course instructors build and develop relational rapport with their students through the course syllabus. Relational rapport with the course instructors is of paramount importance to college students (Morreale & Staley, 2016). It can increase students’ class participation, affective learning, and satisfaction with the course (Frisby & Myers, 2008). By creating a short, visually appealing syllabus, instructors can build relational rapport with students and expect positive results subsequently. Thus, the results in this study provide the need for the course instructors’ efforts on the syllabus for teaching effectiveness, as a well-designed syllabus can help them increase student learning (Monaco & Martin, 2007).

Limitations and Future Research

There are some limitations that should be addressed for future research. Both studies, the FGIs and the experimental study, relied on a convenience sample as the researchers recruited students based on availability at a Midwestern university. Although this nonprobability sample was cost-effective and efficient for this study, more studies are needed to replicate and generalize the results. In addition, the PR course selected (International Advertising and Public Relations) may have contents or topics that students are already interested in, which could have resulted in high scores on their likelihood to engage, regardless of the design and length. Different PR courses should be used in future research. Prior attitudes for the course should also be controlled in future research. With today’s increasing use of online syllabi on the web, a comparison between a printed, visually oriented syllabus and an online web version should also be explored in future research.


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Appendix A: The first page example for text-oriented syllabus used in the study

Appendix B: The first page example for visually-appealing syllabus used in the study