Amy Overman, Qian Xu and Deandra Little publish eye-tracking study of syllabi

Three Elon colleagues collaborated on peer-reviewed investigation of whether syllabus format affects students' retention of course information.

Elon faculty colleagues Amy Overman, Qian Xu and Deandra Little recently co-authored a study in the journal Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.

Overman is a professor in the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Program and assistant dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, Xu is an associate professor of strategic communications and associate director of the Undergraduate Research Program, and Little is a professor of English, assistant provost, and director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning. The interdisciplinary project combined their expertise in psychology, neuroscience, communications, and teaching and learning.

The study, titled “What do students actually pay attention to and remember from a syllabus? An eye tracking study of visually rich and text-based syllabi,” investigated whether undergraduate students processed information about a course differently when the information was presented in a traditional, text-based syllabus versus a visually-rich “graphic” syllabus format. Graphic syllabi have been promoted as an alternative to traditional syllabi, but little research has been conducted to determine whether they actually help students to remember the information being presented. In the study, student participants viewed one of the two syllabus formats while having their eye movements measured, and were subsequently tested on their memory for specific course details (course details were matched between the two formats).

Although eye movements differed significantly between the two syllabus formats, the graphic syllabus format did not produce any benefits in memory for course information; in fact, some course details were remembered better with the traditional syllabus format. The researchers concluded that converting a course syllabus to a visually-rich presentation format may not be particularly useful in helping students to retain information.

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology is a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Psychological Association.