Editorial Record: This article was originally submitted as an AEJMC Public Relations Division GIFTs paper, with a February 25, 2022 deadline. Top papers were submitted to JPRE June 2022, and accepted for publication at that time. Published November 2022.
Matthew P. Taylor, Ph.D. Assistant Professor School of Journalism and Strategic Media Middle Tennessee State University Tennessee Email: email@example.com
“PR in Real Time” is a weekly, problem-based learning activity that provides an opportunity for students to utilize critical thinking skills as they apply course concepts to real-world challenges throughout the semester. The activity promotes student engagement at the outset of class, fosters community in the classroom, draws attention to current events and reliable resources for industry news, and connects course material to tangible, everyday examples. It has been used successfully in an introductory Public Relations Principles course for both in-person instruction and synchronous online delivery.
The activity draws upon AEJMC teaching monographs regarding the use of real-life problems in the PR classroom (Fischer, 1997) and problem-based learning research literature, which articulates a focus on teaching basic competencies of a subject within the framework of authentic scenarios (Hmelo-Silver, 2004; Norman & Schmidt, 2000). It also incorporates elements of the Think-Pair-Share instructional technique (Lyman, 1981).
“PR in Real Time” begins with the instructor presenting a current public relations issue taken from a news outlet or an industry blog. After providing background information on the issue, the instructor poses three to four strategic questions. Examples of potential questions include the following: Which stakeholders does this issue affect? Are there any ethical considerations that need to be considered in this situation? Which PR theories might apply in this scenario? Regardless of the issue, each activity includes a final question that asks students how they would manage the situation.
Students have a moment to consider the day’s discussion questions before exchanging their responses in small peer groups. This initial small-group environment offers a more comfortable discussion space, which has been shown to generate more and better discussion in a larger setting (Barkley et al., 2014). Students are asked to work with the students sitting around them. Typically, students tend to sit in the same seats throughout the semester even without formal seating assignments. Therefore, a natural byproduct of “PR in Real Time” is that it fosters relationships within the classroom.
Following the small-group interactions, students report back on their conversations during a collective discussion of the day’s questions. Responses are cataloged on the white board in an effort to affirm student contributions and to provide a visual reminder of the many considerations and potential solutions PR practitioners navigate when addressing an issue. The discussion concludes with the instructor providing takeaways from industry sources, course materials, and their own expertise. There is often overlap between the class responses and these predetermined takeaways, which provides an added opportunity to highlight student success.
Careful consideration is given to topic selection throughout the semester in order to incorporate a range of industries (nonprofit, corporate, agency), professional interest areas (crisis communication, employee communication, travel and tourism), and identities (among leaders, employees, and stakeholders). As students become accustomed to the types of subjects that work well for the activity, they are invited to submit their own topic ideas using a Google Form. This helps to further engage students in the learning process, to tap into their respective areas of interest, and to diversify course content.
Student Learning Goals
Apply foundational public relations concepts to real-world situations
Identify the relevant stakeholders involved in everyday public relations issues
Evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of various responses to public relations issues
Formulate strategic solutions to open-ended problems
Articulate and support a chosen solution among peers using oral communication
Connection to Public Relations Practice
This activity centers on current events that have a substantial public relations focus. Weekly topic selection allows for consideration of a variety of applicable PR concepts throughout the course of a semester. Meanwhile, the questions asked of students during the exercise and the takeaways provided at the conclusion of the activity allow the instructor to highlight relevant subject matter being taught in the course. While crisis communication scenarios tend to be a reliable source of student engagement, it is important to provide students with exposure to a broad range of PR responsibilities.
Evidence of Student Learning Outcomes
“PR in Real Time” provides perhaps the clearest evidence of student learning over the course of a semester. As the semester progresses, these weekly discussions become more nuanced and increasingly incorporate relevant public relations concepts. Meanwhile, students who have completed the course often mention “PR in Real Time” as their favorite activity and reference specific discussions they enjoyed.
Teaching observations have further supported the value of “PR in Real Time” for student learning. A senior colleague described the activity and its outcomes in the following manner during a peer evaluation of my teaching in a synchronous online course:
Using Zoom’s poll function, Dr. Taylor got the class involved in a discussion of how Gorilla Glue could use the PR principles they’d been learning to respond. Should they respond at all, he asked (45% said yes, 55% said no). Moving on to legal and moral implications, Dr. Taylor let students propose options, including philanthropy (helping her with medical bills and using that fact in their ads), updating the existing warning label, issuing a “holding statement,” using social media, and others. Given that it is still only the third week of the semester, the students’ knowledge, and their ability to apply what they’d learned, were impressive.
Page, J. T., & Parnell, L. J. (2017). Introduction to strategic public relations: Digital, global, and socially responsible communication. SAGE Publications.
Example of Activity
“PR in Real Time”: Fake Phishing Email
First, students are provided with background information about the story using an Associated Press news story. Screenshots of the story are shared in a Google Slides presentation that is projected at the front of the classroom.
The Associated Press (Associated Press, 2022) reports the following:
“Officials at Oregon Health & Science University have apologized to employees after a fake phishing test drew complaints about raising false hopes.
The university sent the phishing test email to employees on April 12 offering up to $7,500 in financial assistance, Portland television station KGW (8) reported Thursday.
The email, from a ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ address, read in part: ‘In response to the current community hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon Health & Science University has decided to assist all employees in getting through these difficult times.’ It included a link where respondents could ‘register’ for COVID-related benefits.
But the offer was not real — it was a test intended to measure employees’ cybersecurity awareness and OHSU’s own technology systems. The test was sent several days after the university sent a message to employees warning them about suspicious emails.
The phishing test was met with frustration from some employees.”
Next, students are shown a rundown of national headlines the story generated and a selection of social media posts that illustrate the magnitude of the issue and the negative attention it attracted. Again, screenshots of these items are projected at the front of the classroom. An example of a Twitter response is as follows: “my university sent an email about providing $7,500 in assistance to those experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic….turns out it was a PHISHING exercise… is this a joke???” (Luong, 2022).
Having the necessary background context, students are now asked to consider a series of questions about this issue that are projected at the front of the classroom so they have them as a guide. Students are provided a moment for personal reflection before meeting in small groups to discuss their answers.
Questions to Consider:
What is your emotional reaction to this situation?
What would you want your employer to say or do in response to this?
Which area(s) of public relations are most relevant to this situation?
Which stakeholders should we consider as we plan our response?
Following the small-group discussions, the class reviews each question collectively. Student responses are written on the white board by the instructor throughout this discussion.
The activity concludes with the instructor providing outcomes and takeaways. These include the following:
The organization’s statement: “This week, as part of OHSU’s regular exercises to help members practice spotting suspicious emails, the language in the test email was taken verbatim from the actual phishing email to ensure no one else fell for the scam. That was a mistake. The real scam was insensitive and exploitative of OHSU members – and the attempt to educate members felt the same way, causing confusion and concern. We sincerely apologize to the OHSU community.”
Analysis from “The Daily Scoop” blog: “OHSU’s response includes a direct apology to the community affected by the exercise and validates the emotional response of many critics. However, the university did not address the issue on social media, where much of the backlash is still lingering. It’s a good reminder to meet your audience where they are, especially in times of comms crisis.”
The professor’s takeaways:
The importance of internal communication
Internal communication can quickly become external communication
Integrated communication: work together with other departments in an organization
Takeaways from the textbook:
“Evaluating Employee Communication:
Measure and evaluate how communication reaches internal publics, as you would with any PR campaign. Consider your messaging outputs, outtakes, and outcomes.
Was it well timed?
Was the content truthful and accurate?
Did it have relevance for the specific receivers?
Was it accessed and read or reviewed?
Did it result in its objectives (inform, shape opinion, or encourage behavior)?” (Page and Parnell, 2017, p. 258).
To cite this article:Taylor, M.P. (2022).PR in real time: A problem-based approach to generating engagement and learning. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(3), .101-108. https://aejmc.us/jpre/?p=3238
Editorial Record: Original draft submitted to JPRE July 26, 2017. Revision went under
review July 20, 2018. Manuscript accepted for publication November 2, 2018. Final edits
completed January 22, 2019. First published online January 31, 2019.
This study takes a mixed-methods approach to understanding
how graduate student education and engagement are intertwined, as well as the
ability of an ongoing Twitter chat to increase both. As more strategic
communication master’s programs utilize hybrid and online course components,
finding new and innovative ways to help students feel oriented, engaged, and
part of a community leads to increased success for both students and
departments. The analysis includes the chats themselves, a mixed-methods survey
to chat participants, and memoing completed by the researchers (faculty chat
participants and the chat moderator). Key findings for graduate student
engagement include the importance of building both online and offline
connections, the ability of Twitter chats to increase fun and reduce stress,
and to gain both tacit and explicit knowledge. Finally, the project offers
practical suggestions for programs looking to start their own chat series to
improve student engagement.
Keywords: graduate student community, student engagement, Twitter chat, social media, hybrid online education, professional development
One Liners and Catchy Hashtags: Building a Graduate Student Community Through Twitter Chats
Research on social media use in the
general population has skyrocketed over the last few years, but most has been
focused on either American adults at-large or specifically college students,
largely ignoring graduate students. According to the National Center for
Education Statistics (2017), three million graduate students enrolled in
programs around the country in the 2017-2018 academic year, a group large
enough to be research worthy. For undergraduate students, student engagement
and student achievement are positively correlated (Carini, Kuh, & Klein,
2006); it stands to reason that similar interactions would occur at the
Twenty-nine percent of American
adults who have at least a college education (a group that would include
graduate students) are using Twitter, higher than individuals with any other
level of education (Greenwood, Perrin, & Duggan, 2016). Social media, in
general, is known to improve communication in a classroom setting (Tyma, 2011)
and to help student perceptions of engagement and quality of education
(Rutherford, 2010). Research that does exist on Twitter usage in the classroom,
while focused on undergraduates, is positive (Fraustino, Briones, &
Janoske, 2015; Tyma, 2011).
This project focuses on how social
media use may impact engagement and education at the graduate level.
Specifically, it looks at the impact of Twitter chats that are promoted and
moderated by a specific department with a master’s program in journalism and
strategic media in the context of a mid-sized Southern university. The
department in question was particularly interested in these questions, as it
has both on-campus students and online students who take classes together and
synchronously, making it necessary to find unique, creative ways to engage
students regardless of whether they are participating in person or only online.
This project employs a qualitative content analysis of the Twitter chats and researcher memoing, as well as a qualitative and quantitative online survey to understand the impact of the chats on student engagement and education. The study reviews literature on how technology and student engagement currently interact and ends with suggestions on incorporating similar chats into other master’s programs.
This review builds on current
literature related to synchronous hybrid graduate programs, addresses knowledge
of current approaches to student engagement, particularly at the graduate
level, and explores the role that technology plays in this process.
Synchronous Hybrid Graduate Programs
Online asynchronous courses—those that do not have a specified meeting place or time—have received criticism because of the feelings of isolation they can induce (Liu, Magjuka, Bonk, & Lee, 2007) and the lack of real-time interaction (West & Jones, 2007). Because of the noted shortcomings of online asynchronous courses, a number of post-secondary institutions are utilizing synchronous hybrid delivery as a course option where on-campus students participate simultaneously with online students via web conferencing services (Roseth, Akcaoglu, & Zellner, 2013). This offers the convenience of an online format for students and creates a greater sense of community for students by being able to engage with one another in both auditory and visual manners (Henriksen, Mishra, Greenhow, Cain, & Roseth, 2014).
Park and Bonk (2007) examined online and residential students’ learning experiences in a synchronous environment. While most interaction for the students in their study was primarily task-related and focused on accomplishing course assignments, non-task related interaction was observed in the form of “humor, compliment, encouragement, or voluntary offer of additional supports” outside of the official course time (Park & Bonk, 2007, p. 252). Butz, Stupnisky, Pekrun, Jensen, and Harsell (2016) explored the role that emotions play in student achievement in synchronous hybrid graduate courses. Results from their study indicated that success in such courses positively correlates with student enjoyment and negatively correlates with anxiety and boredom (Butz et al., 2016). Additionally, findings suggested that although students initially enjoy this type of environment for engaging with courses, the novelty of the delivery system tends to decrease over time. This is in line with earlier research that suggested instructors need to experiment with new tools to enliven student participation in technologically mediated programs (Hrastinski, 2008). This need to innovate and consider the holistic student experience is a major focus of student engagement literature.
Astin (1984) defines engagement as
“the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the
academic experience” (p. 297). This can be understood as the time and effort
students devote to educational activities, which are comprised of both in-class
and out-of-class engagement (Kuh, 2009). Research has shown repeatedly that
student engagement is positively associated with desired outcomes for
institutions of higher education, such as psychosocial development and academic
success (Junco, Heibergert, & Loken, 2010).
Universities often focus more
resources on undergraduate student engagement for a variety of reasons,
including a greater number of students enrolled at the undergraduate level, a
belief that academic units are meeting the needs of graduate students, and an
assumption that graduate students already know how to navigate institutions of
higher education (Fischer & Zigmond, 1998; Pontius & Harper, 2006).
Research on student engagement concentrates on the undergraduate level as well.
In their seminal study, Chickering and Gamson (1987) propose seven principles
related to engagement in undergraduate education: (1) student/faculty contact;
(2) cooperation among students; (3) active learning; (4) prompt feedback; (5)
emphasizing time on task; (6) communicating high expectations; and (7)
respecting diversity. These seven principles have heavily guided subsequent
student engagement dialogue, research, and practice. Kuh (1997) even posited
that this list of seven principles “is one of the most widely disseminated
documents in American higher education” (p. 72).
However, there is a growing recognition
that graduate students face a very different campus environment from
undergraduate students and often bring in external circumstances that may make
engagement more challenging (Pontius & Harper, 2006). Therefore, Pontius
and Harper (2006) proposed their own seven philosophical principles for
engagement in graduate and professional education: (1) eradicate
marginalization among underrepresented populations; (2) provide orientation to
the institution beyond the academic unit; (3) invest resources in communication;
(4) facilitate community-building and multicultural interaction across academic
units; (5) create engagement plans for students; (6) enhance career and
professional development; and (7) systemically assess satisfaction, needs, and
outcomes. Individual departments should consider how these principles can guide
and improve programs and initiatives to better engage graduate students.
Cohort programs—groups of students who begin a program of study together—are becoming increasingly common in higher education to increase student retention and graduation rates, mainly in traditional, non-online programs (Lei, Gorelick, Short, Smallwood, & Wright-Porter, 2011). Even if a department does not intentionally follow a cohort-based educational program, students naturally form groups around similar interests, shared classes or both (Hubbell & Hubbell, 2010). Martin, Goldwasser, and Galentino (2017) found that graduate students in cohorts develop closer bonds than students in non-cohort programs, and that these close bonds positively influence student engagement. Because a cohort-model generally requires a more traditional educational format (in-person and on-campus), graduate programs that offer distance education options may need to consider alternative routes for engagement. This is where technology may help to facilitate closer bonds and a cohort-mentality among students, offering the benefits of a cohort to all students.
Janson, Howard, and Schoenberger-Orgard (2004) reflected on their experiences as graduate students and the needs they had for emotional and academic support. One way that they were able to reduce isolation and improve engagement was through virtual discussions, although this study predated the development of Twitter. However, this virtual environment did provide stewardship opportunities to help orient new members to the community so that important documents could be saved and information shared (Janson et al., 2004). Relatedly, Kimble, Hildreth, and Wright (2001) discussed the role that virtual communities could play in managing both explicit knowledge (knowledge that can be easily codified and shared) and tacit knowledge (knowledge rooted in experience, which is less accessible). As Janson et al. (2004) explained, “Humans need other humans to surface and share tacit knowledge” (p. 177, italics in original). Therefore, opportunities for real-time virtual engagement results in not only helping to build the community but also in facilitating the sharing of vital information, which can help students gather knowledge that may not be easily accessible any other way.
Social Media in the Classroom
In addition to engagement benefits,
incorporating social media use into a program can improve important digital
skills. More than 90% of college students use some form of social media, and
most consider themselves experts (Smith, Rainie, & Zickuhr, 2011). However,
that self-assessed digital expertise does not always translate to actual
professional skill (Kinsky, Freberg, Kim, Kushin, & Ward, 2016; Melton
& Hicks, 2011). This lack of connection between living in a digitally
saturated environment and actual digital competency must be mitigated in the
classroom with additional training and exposure to social media (Toliver,
2011). Experiential learning in the classroom setting provides students with a
structured space to gain “expertise using technology” and the skills necessary
for both the professional and academic worlds (Madden, Winkler, Fraustino,
& Janoske, 2016, p. 203). Including this type of training in the classroom
benefits the students and the faculty, keeping everyone up to date on the
latest developments and polishing skill sets (Kinsky, Freberg, Ehrlich,
Breakenridge, & Gomes, 2018).
Also, social media-based
interactions can encourage rich, meaningful dialogue and critical discussions
of various topics (Moody, 2010), and social media in classrooms allows for the
exploration of new ideas and different ways of completing tasks, while learning
important and practical media skills. Social media usage in the classroom
provides students with experience in the production and sharing of information
quickly and clearly (Locker & Kienzler, 2012), and it provides training in
basic social media skills, including how to manage a large amount of
information and respond to it effectively.
Furthermore, the use of Twitter in
and out of the classroom can be beneficial to both students and faculty (Hull
& Dodd, 2017). Because of the interactive nature of Twitter, both students
and faculty who use Twitter in the classroom report being more actively engaged
in the learning process (Bowen, 2012; Virtanen,
Myllärniemi, & Wallander, 2013). Also, students who use Twitter reported a
higher grade point average at the end of the semester than non-Twitter users
(Junco, Merson, & Salter, 2010). Twitter is easily accessible, increasing
the availability of course content, instructors, and other educational
resources (Van Rooyen, 2015). According to Hull and Dodd (2017), the use of
Twitter in the classroom may involve all seven of Chickering and Gamson’s
(1987) seven principles of good practice in undergraduate teaching. Hull and Dodd
(2017) argue the incorporation of Twitter into assignments and discussions
makes learning interactive, which allows students to see knowledge “as dynamic
rather than being based on the fixed materials of a textbook” (p. 94). In
addition, Twitter allows instructors to interact with students outside of the
classroom and to provide additional feedback or information relevant to class
(Hull & Dodd, 2017).
Fraustino, Briones, and Janoske
(2015) find that Twitter chats in the classroom provide an experience that may
benefit students with varying learning styles because each student has the
opportunity to individually and effectively process information in their own
way. Aside from reaching diverse learners, Twitter chats also provide students
with the opportunity to network with students and instructors that they may
otherwise never have met in person or interacted with beyond a surface level.
These critical networking skills give students experience in navigating,
building, and maintaining relationships in a social media environment
(Fraustino et al., 2015). In addition, Twitter chats provide participants with
an opportunity to better connect with their instructors who were able to
demonstrate a personal side during the chat, thus forging a better student-instructor
relationship in the classroom (Fraustino et al., 2015).
Based on this literature review, the
following research questions are posed:
RQ1: How are Twitter chats used to
connect and engage graduate students with their department?
RQ2: How do students make sense of
the Twitter chats as part of their graduate education?
RQ3: How do students make sense of
the Twitter chats as part of their engagement with a graduate school community?
Data collection and analysis for
this project included qualitative observation of Twitter chat interaction from
three professors; qualitative analysis of all seven Twitter chats (1,736 total
tweets, ranging from 111 to 357 tweets per chat, with an average of 248 tweets
per hour-long chat); and an online quantitative and qualitative post-only
Twitter chats have been administered twice a semester by the master’s program of a single journalism and strategic media department at a mid-sized Southern university, which includes students studying news journalism, public relations, and advertising. The chats began in fall 2015, for a total of seven chats at the time of data collection. All seven chats were moderated by one of the researchers, who is also the assistant director of the graduate program. The chats were held at both the beginning and end of each semester to help students build initial connections and to reflect upon what they have learned by the end of the semester. The chats last for one hour; have a general topic (examples have included journalistic coverage of the Olympics, crises in the field, and connections between the field and politics); include general discussion and the chance to ask questions about the program or department; and occur during at least one graduate class, to ensure a base level of participation. Participation for students taking that class was mandatory but had no impact on their grade in the course; other graduate students not taking the course were informed of the chat via email and a post to the department’s graduate student Facebook group; students were strongly encouraged to participate.
Because all classes in the department are a mix of in-person and online students, as well as full-time and part-time students, the chats were a mix as well. The chats had a total of 32 unique participants, ranging from 10 to 23 users per chat (based upon class attendance on that particular night and the ability or willingness of students outside of the course to participate), with an average of 17 users per chat. (Individual chat numbers may be slightly different from unique participants, as most users participated in more than one chat, and since the chats happened over multiple semesters, some participants graduated and others joined the program during this time frame). Most often, chat participants were students, with three to six faculty members joining each chat.
All responses and contributions used
in this paper included a department hashtag to make following the conversation
feasible during the chats themselves. For the purpose of anonymity, the hashtag
and the handles and/or names of participants were removed from the results.
Qualitative data. Data were analyzed via a grounded theory approach, with constant comparative coding to identify and establish themes (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). Line-by-line coding established emerging themes, which were then combined into axial coding categories. All three researchers were in contact throughout data analysis.
All three researchers also memoed about their experiences with the chats and what they noticed about student engagement. Memoing is a way for researchers to write “clear descriptions” of how they are interpreting the data as “a final component of analysis . . . an insightful, interpretive exercise” (Warren & Karner, 2010, p. 242).
Quantitative data. A post-only survey was administered online via Qualtrics. Since the program is relatively small and researchers wanted to preserve anonymity, no personally identifying information was collected, participation was voluntary, and students were not offered anything in return for their participation. Students were asked to participate via the graduate program’s Facebook page, and they survey was administered in each of the four graduate courses offered in the semester. Of the 31 graduate students in the program at the time of survey administration, 16 participated, for a participation rate of 51.6%. Students self-reported participating in an average of 2.5 chats apiece, with half of students (50.0%) participating in 3-5 chats during their time with the department.
Two scales were adapted and combined
to create the survey: the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) (Junco,
Elavsky, & Heiberger, 2013) and the Sense of Belonging Scale (Good, Rattan,
& Dweck, 2012), where questions were adapted from math to the area that
students study. The open-ended questions from the survey were adapted from
Welch and Bonnan-White’s (2012) questions on Twitter enjoyment.
Students were asked 46 Likert-type
questions adapted from the scales discussed above; four quantitative questions
related to their Twitter usage and participation in the chats; and four
open-ended questions were used to describe their experience with the chats and
how they believed the chats affected engagement and education.
RQ1: How are Twitter chats used to connect and engage graduate students with their department?
The chats allowed graduate students to not only engage with one another, but also with the faculty, established through themes of accessibility to online students, tacit knowledge, explicit knowledge, and integrating knowledge across classes.
Accessibility to online students. Survey results indicated that 69% of students felt the department “very much” or “quite a bit” emphasized attending campus events and activities. For a graduate program that offers a completely online degree program, though, this emphasis for on-campus students can feel isolating for online students who do not live near campus. To account for these geographic limitations, the Twitter chats offered a way for all students to equally participate in an event. This response from the qualitative survey feedback indicates the importance of these types of online events:
As an online student, chats connect me more so than any other offered activity outside of the classroom. It reinforces the community connection….that I am in fact a member of this college community and not just an outsider looking at dozens of emails of things I can’t attend or participate in because I can’t attend classes on location.
One online graduate student participated in the first
departmental Twitter chat and said, “I’ve only been in the program for one week
and I’m enjoying interacting with my professor and classmates so far.”
Twitter chats also offered the
opportunity for students who had completed coursework and were writing theses
or capstone projects to still feel like they were part of a graduate community.
In the survey, one student wrote, “I am currently not enrolled this semester
and still interact with my professors and classmates.” A student who was not
able to participate in the Twitter chats one semester noted feeling like they
were “missing out on the conversations with other students and faculty.” By
creating a consistent and ongoing Twitter chat series, students could actively
develop community and relationships regardless of their locations.
Tacit knowledge. Twitter chats also offered a way for students to share
insider advice and tips with each other that may not have been previously
shared. For example, one Twitter chat conversation focused on giving tips for
success to each other. This was incorporated into a visual design course where
students tweeted a graphic they had created with advice for their fellow
students. One student tweeted out advice for research topics in the courses:
“Pick a damn good topic for mass comm theory. Your life will be so much easier
if you use it for mass comm research methods, too.” Faculty members also
responded with their advice for success in graduate school. As one faculty
member tweeted, “There will be stress. Find one day a week that you do
something for yourself.” In an even earlier Twitter chat, students were asked
about the best things they have learned in the program. One student responded,
“I learned that sometimes it’s good to just…write! Forget the formalities and
be free! [A local author] helped me with that :).” This tacit knowledge sharing
also translated into more in-person interactions for some students. In the
survey feedback, one student wrote that, “I enjoyed it more because it got the
class to have more discussion outside of the Twitter chat.” In reflecting on
the Twitter chats, the faculty moderator said that “It’s our online beer after
class (except we’re also still in class), a chance to reflect and share on what
we know and what we’re doing.”
Explicit knowledge. Although less frequent than community building and tacit knowledge sharing, the Twitter chats also offered an opportunity for graduate faculty to share important reminders and updates with students. Explicit knowledge sharing helped to reinforce information and deadlines that were available online and in emails sent to all graduate students, but that may have been forgotten or overlooked. For example, in one Twitter chat, the moderator took the opportunity to see if students had any questions about the graduation process: “And speaking of forms, who has questions about advising or candidacy or what you have to do to get out of here? #dontleaveus.” Similarly, she shared “a quick reminder, for those of you graduating this semester (!!!!!)—forms are due to [the graduate director] tomorrow!”
Integrating knowledge across classes. Twitter chats also provided an opportunity to both share and reinforce knowledge gained from graduate courses. Each Twitter chat consisted of thought-provoking questions designed to encourage conversation about issues related to the fields of study. Students then were encouraged to apply their course knowledge and professional experiences (along with relevant and humorous GIFs). For example, in a Twitter chat a few days before the 2016 presidential election, one of the questions posed was “What has the election taught us about social media usage in professional settings?” Student responses included “I’ve noticed how often social media commentary can become news,” “It’s too often used for off-the-cuff ‘reporting’ that lacks proper context,” and, “You really need to control your campaign staff, too. Low level staff can say something and cause an issue.”
One of the challenges of a professionally oriented graduate program is helping students to see the connection between classroom work—particularly theory and research methods—and their future career options. In a chat from April 2016, the moderator tweeted, “Make your profs feel good: how can you take what you learn in the classroom and apply it to real world experiences?” One student responded that it is a good idea to “Build off of real world things we created . . . like our content creation assignments!” Another student responded, “Networking tip: Talk with absolutely everybody – and their moms and dads.” However, in the humorous spirit of the chat, one student did respond to this question with “I’m drawing blanks tbh ;).”
RQ2: How do
students make sense of the Twitter chats as part of their graduate education?
While students did gain both tacit and explicit knowledge, they also worked to integrate the chats into their overall educational experience by building stronger connections overall, peer relationships, and faculty relationships.
Stronger connections overall. Students came into the Twitter chats with social media experience and knowledge already in place—nearly all participants (93%) reported using Twitter outside of the departmental chats, and 73% reported using Twitter in other classes or programs of study. Furthermore, many students saw the connection between the Twitter chats and social media training for a future career or career advancement; however, many of the respondents saw the stronger connection to the graduate program, faculty, and their peers as the most important educational outcomes. The majority of respondents described their overall quality of education in the program as “excellent” (50%), followed by “good” (31.25%), and “fair” (18.75%).
Many students pointed to the Twitter
chats as a way to boost their connection with fellow students and with faculty
members. The Twitter chats provided a space outside of the classroom for
students and faculty to chat about topics related to the program while also
allowing students a chance to be free of more formal classroom structures. One
student commented, “[The chats] feel like separate time frames that are used to
really get to know the department. I don’t mind that. I like having a space
where this is fun and this is work but we learn from both.” Another reported
that the chats “made me feel more connected, and therefore, more likely to join
in, in class.” Both comments are emblematic of the responses many students
offered. The idea that being more connected to other students and faculty leads
to a greater involvement in the classroom and in the class materials is also
evident in the survey results. Nearly 88% of respondents said they asked
questions or contributed in class often or very often.
Peer relationships. Many students reported a stronger
relationship with their peers as a result of the chats, while reporting a
tangential connection to their grade in a class or a specific learning outcome.
This, however, did not seem to devalue the chats for students. One student,
when asked whether the chats affected grades or classroom performance,
responded, “Not really other than to help foster camaraderie with classmates,”
while another respondent said, “I feel my classroom performance was better
because I’m also invested in my colleagues’ success.”
These open-ended responses were supported by the survey data, as well. The majority of students (75%) surveyed reported that their relationships with other students are supportive or friendly. The remainder of students reported a “sense of belonging” (12.5%), or, for two students, a “sense of alienation” (12.5%). In addition, approximately 82% of respondents reported having conversations with students of a different race or ethnicity often or very often. In addition, nearly 81% of students reported at least sometimes having serious conversations with students who have very different religious beliefs, political opinions, or personal values, which helps to support the goals of the graduate program—to help students gain a broader understanding of the world around themselves and to move beyond that which is already familiar.
Faculty relationships. In addition to stronger
relationships with peers, many students also reported the chats made them feel
like the faculty was more accessible. One student reported, “Twitter chats did
not affect my involvement, but it did give direct access to professors (and
helped humanize them).” Another respondent added, “It probably showed the
professors that we are interested in the department.”
The majority of students surveyed
reported that their relationships with faculty are “helpful” (56.25%) and
“available” (31.25%). In addition, 87.5% of students reported that they had
talked to at least one faculty member about their career plans while in the
program, and 81.25% reported discussing readings from their classes with a
faculty member outside of class at least sometimes.
RQ3: How do
students make sense of the Twitter chats as part of their engagement with a
graduate school community?
Students overall reported feeling
that the Twitter chats improved their engagement with the department community
because it allowed them to “have fun a
little,” interact with faculty, be an active
community participant, and conversely, at times, to feel bored and overpowered.
“Have fun a little.” In the qualitative survey results, many students reported the feeling of ease and comfort the chats gave them. One student said that they “liked being able to interact with students from different classes and just relax and have fun a little. I enjoy people’s humor on the chats.” Another student talked more broadly about how they “loved the sense of community I felt,” and how that was especially important during “the lighthearted moments and the times when, despite the efforts of some, we just let it get silly for a little bit. It was a nice reprieve from the usual stress.” Graduate school can be a stressful experience, something mentioned often during the chats, so students seemed to have extra appreciation for an activity that was connected to the department but was also a chance to talk about how stressful the department could be.
These chats are often a mix of academic questions, reminders about department information, and then Friends quotes, zany GIFs, and questions about zombies. The faculty chat moderator memoed that she:
likes to be there with a group of students, playing songs and talking and laughing about our favorite tweets, or explaining on the fly how to find the perfect GIF or coming up with hashtags together. That’s where I think some of the real work of this comes into play–the chance to have fun with an online conversation that’s also part of an offline experience.
Interact with faculty. Faculty interaction through the chats helped with a student’s perceptions of their educational experience, as discussed in RQ2, but it also offered a chance for students to see a different, lighter side of their professors, increasing their feelings of engagement and connection. One student talked about how they “like the casual atmosphere the Twitter chats create. It allows us to feel more at ease with professors.” Another indicated that humanizing the faculty was important, where they “like the interaction between faculty and classmates outside of the classroom because I can see their true humor and ideas.” One of the faculty researchers memoed about how they are “teaching my first graduate class this semester, and I feel like I knew a few of the students based solely on the conversations we had in the Twitter chats—and they seemed more comfortable with me because they recognized me from the chats, as well.” Faculty were also able to get in on this, using the chats to find out what students wanted, what questions they had, and reiterating the importance of engagement by asking, “any other ideas ya’ll have for grad student fun times? It’s important to stick together!” From the survey, 93.75% of students said they found faculty to be available, helpful, and sympathetic overall; while the Twitter chats may not be able to lay claim to the entire reason for that, the quotes discussed here indicate that they certainly helped support that connection.
Active community participant. One of the best benefits the chats offered was for students to almost immediately feel like part of the community. Over 76% of the students surveyed indicated that they agreed or strongly agreed with the idea that they enjoyed being an active participant in the department, and over 56% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they belonged to the greater academic community. The community building via the chats also acted as an icebreaker, with one student noting that “I liked being able to interact with others in the program. Put a name with a face. It became an icebreaker and helped to create class connections.” The chats also helped students feel more comfortable, and to “assess other personalities and made me comfortable with my classmates and other faculty members.” Finally, one student said, “Professors I’ve had have been involved with each student from beginning of semester to end.”
The chats also served as a way to introduce students to broader communities. In a chat from April 2016, networking and job searching was a main topic of conversation. One professor noted, “I credit #networking at local PRSA events to the job I’m in now!” and another encouraged students to “get in the habit of #networking in your city. Pick biz casual events where ppl you want to meet will be.”
Bored and overpowered. Within the survey, two students (12.5%) did report they felt a sense of alienation within the department; clearly, the chats, and perhaps other factors at work, were not enough to build engagement with every student. One student noted that the chat was “boring. I don’t really see the point in them,” and another student felt like the chats made them “enjoy myself less. I feel like they take away from class time and don’t help at all.” While neither of the students elaborated on the reasons behind feeling this way, one student offered a hint, saying, “I liked the different conversations but I did not like that some participants seemed to overpower others in the Twitter chats.” This is definitely something to keep in mind for future chats, and as the faculty works to continue to improve student engagement.
The main goal of this study was to better understand whether or not a series of Twitter chats for faculty and master’s students was able to build engagement and improve education within the department. These chats allowed the department to build upon Pontius and Harper’s (2006) seven principles of orientation, community building, and the development and assessment of student success and outcomes in order to improve classroom interaction and to increase application of knowledge to the field as a whole. These outcomes were particularly important since the department has both online and on-campus students who all take classes synchronously.
Many graduate programs are
increasingly moving to, or at least incorporating, online options for students
(Best Colleges, 2018), and as these programs continue to focus on student
enrollment and graduation rates, understanding and utilizing methods to improve
student engagement becomes an important focus of research (Junco et al., 2010).
The students studied here were able to have more diverse conversations with
classmates, to be more involved with faculty, to gain more experience with
media tools, and to have additional spaces to ask questions and make
connections, all of which should be goals of effective graduate programs. In
this section, we spotlight main areas of accomplishment, acknowledge that the
goals may not be met for every single student, and offer practical suggestions
for other faculty and programs to implement their own chats.
Student engagement has improved
since instituting the Twitter chats, both within classes and the department,
and also at a level of engagement that students see as necessary for successful
navigation of the job search and application process. Because social media is
such an integral part of a media professional’s world, social media engagement
and networking is education (Fraustino et al., 2015). While faculty are working
to better engage students with their peers and with the department, the Twitter
chats are also helping students to better engage with future clients, readers,
watchers, publics, and consumers. Some students also work to maintain these
Twitter relationships by tweeting outside of the formal chats to each other and
to faculty. Additionally, as the number of graduate students who are Black,
Hispanic, or over the age of 25 continues to increase, being able to hold
conversations with diverse audiences becomes increasingly important (National
Center for Education Statistics, 2017).
The results of this study also reinforce the literature that social media helps to create rich and meaningful relationships (Moody, 2010) in a way that goes beyond what some students may experience in ordinary in-class interactions with students and faculty. Engagement increases success, particularly engagement that fosters enjoyment and innovation (Butz, et al., 2016; Hrastinski, 2008; Junco et al., 2010). One of the researchers memoed, “Anecdotally, as a faculty member, I can see where the Twitter chats have fostered and strengthened relationships that may not have otherwise happened—even among the faculty.” Offline interaction increases trust among community members, which reduces concerns with sociability, which increases online knowledge sharing, leading to the mix of offline and online interaction seen as the most beneficial component for building community (Matzat, 2010).
This also connects to the importance of non-task oriented interaction in the form of humor and social support (Park & Bonk, 2007). While the levity of the chats may mask some of the skills reinforcement that occurs, most students responded well to the ability to have fun with the chats and used them to humanize their classmates and professors. The chats appeared to increase the willingness to talk about research outside of the classroom and engage with someone different from them. Similar to Hrastinski’s (2008) findings, Twitter chats were also a way to incorporate different technological tools into the graduate student experience.
Keep Our Chats Weird
The humor and social support evident in the chats also allows for a more organic and relaxed building of engagement. Trying to make the chats more structured or requiring students to post a specific number of tweets or replies may make students feel “on,” or compelled to recite answers to formal questions in an orderly fashion. In some ways, the natural conversation flow and amorphous structure of the chats is what makes them not only fun but also successful. In many ways, the chats are more effective at getting the students to interact than the beginning-of-the-year social event, a common method for boosting engagement. There, people select a seating arrangement at the beginning of the night and usually stay there until the end of the social. Mostly, they talk to students and faculty they already know, or they remain flies on the wall without engaging, and the online students are left out almost entirely due to geographic restrictions. In the Twitterverse, the chats allow for more flexibility, potentially fewer awkward social situations, and a greater chance for everyone to be heard and seen.
This flexibility comes through in the skills gained, as well. From a faculty perspective, students are building social media usage skills, networking skills, impression management skills, social media engagement skills, and critical thinking skills (even if just to outdo the last funny meme that was posted). Part of graduate school is teaching students to be part of the broader academic community and to become peers to the faculty (eventually), so this flexibility, skill building, and connection are all good things.
Perhaps relatedly, some students
found the chats to be overwhelming or overpowering, often due to the speed of
interaction, or believing that the information discussed was not interesting or
relevant to them. These students require attention paid to them and a
moderator’s ability to draw them out, but they also gain the ability to
practice having conversations with people different from them or in situations
where they need to network or participate, even if it is complicated.
Typically, visible in both in-person interactions observed by the researchers, and in the analysis performed for this project, Twitter chat nights are upbeat, fun, and exciting. Students like class that night, no matter what happened earlier, and it is powerful to be able to offer them that oasis in what can otherwise be a stressful, demanding, confusing time for them. On Twitter, they do not have to focus on getting the right answer or having the proper insight into a reading; the chat becomes, in a way, the great equalizer, allowing students to engage with a discussion no matter what.
Avoiding the Questions
Some of the more self-reflexive chat
questions, those focused on what students were getting from the program and
able to apply in professional settings, were often the ones that devolved most
quickly into humor and where people didn’t really answer the questions. There
was, however, an impressive amount of discussion about broader topics within
the field, such as the role of social media in the elections and crisis case
studies. People seemed to take these questions more seriously, so it seems like
the best Twitter chats are those that allow for some community building
(through ice breakers and humor) while still focusing on broader societal
questions. It is possible that students are not always aware of what they are
learning or how much they are learning in the moment, and so having a moderator
and a variety of questions and opportunities to answer them becomes helpful.
We See You,
and We Like You
The chats worked well to engage online students, a definite boon for a program that encourages student participation in events where not all students can attend. Here, the online-offline combination is potent. The “offline experience” also seems to exist for the online students as well, since their “offline” piece is being in class, even if that class experience is computer-mediated. Students who were not even taking class during a particular semester, and thus might be expected to be slightly less engaged than others, reported using the chats as a way to continue that engagement, and to feel connected to the community at large. Students can also be encouraged to continue using the department’s hashtag beyond the chats to engage one another, and the faculty, during other classes, guest speakers, or departmental events.
for Starting a Chat
The chats used for this paper were held twice a semester, once at the beginning and once at the end, in order to help students feel connected right from the beginning and to reflect upon what they had learned by the end. Chats were an hour apiece, always the final hour of one graduate class, in order to offer a guaranteed audience for the chat. This class was typically taught by the assistant graduate director, who acted as the moderator. Chats were promoted via class and event announcements and the department’s social media pages. Students and faculty were strongly encouraged, but not required, to participate. Suggestions for starting a chat are included below:
Familiarize students with Twitter chats, and jump in! The
best way to do it is just to start.
Develop a good hashtag that can be used over and over, and
in multiple situations. Check to make sure no one else is using it, and that it
does not mean something unsavory.
Have people introduce themselves, their area of
research/interest, and a great icebreaker.
Pick a topic and 2-3 questions surrounding it (related to
the department/field/class). Have these prepared in advance and within
Twitter’s character limitation.
Use a platform to make the chat easy to follow, such as
Hold the chat during a class time, so a core group of
participants is present.
Be willing and prepared for the chat to go off the rails, at
least a little bit.
Have a moderator, preferably someone who has participated in
Twitter chats before, who can help bring things back to the general topic and
encourage quieter participants.
Make sure other faculty are able to participate and
understand how to best engage students on Twitter.
Limitations and Future Research
While this project has much to offer
in the way of graduate student engagement and community building, it is not
without its limitations. One issue with this project is that the survey only
reached students who are still in the department, and only approximately half
of the students in the department took the survey. Without a pre-test, there is
no point of comparison for knowing how students felt about their engagement and
education before participating.
Future research into engagement
learning could look at what skills develop through engaging, and why students
may not conflate this type of learning with “book” learning. Possible future
research on Twitter chats specifically as a learning tool can also look at how
to foster deeper interactions between faculty members in a program, as this is
not often an interaction method for coworkers, and it would be helpful to model
that engagement for the students. Additionally, as so many master’s programs
expand to include both on-campus and online offerings, it would be helpful to
test our results in other programs or to compare results among multiple
This research project offered a look at the knowledge building, education, and engagement of graduate students participating in Twitter chats within their academic department. For students in the synchronous hybrid program described in this study, the chats offered the benefit of the cohort model (Martin et al., 2017) and a way for the department to improve the experiences of a variety of diverse learners, thus meeting the goals of the graduate program. Twitter chats can be a fun, interesting, exciting way to help graduate students feel more connected to their department and to build the confidence necessary to go out and be successful members of the field and broader community.
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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.
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?
METHODS AND RESULTS
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
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 (www.ssa.gov), 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.
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 –
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.
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.
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).
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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