Noba Blog

Equity in the Classroom

January 9, 2020

By Deepti Karkhanis and Rika Meyer

As instructors, we are always looking for ways to achieve equity. In other words, instructors strive to provide equal opportunities for success to their students. This can be achieved through accessible course design, thoughtful and equitable practices, and academic resources. However, sometimes it can be overwhelming to start putting equitable practices into action. Therefore, we decided to put together some clear, tangible tools you could use today to start making changes and promote educational equity in your classroom and at your institution.

Calling on students

In psychology classes, we cover many topics that personally relate to everyone. Instructors typically ask students to apply what they learn in class to their life and pull examples from their lives to help them understand a concept. I think this is a great way to show the utility of what we learn in class. However, we need to be mindful of practicing inclusion in a way that it doesn’t hamper student morale. To implement this, I don’t call on my students by name when I ask questions to the class. I do this because when instructors do this, it usually immediately increases anxiety in the student that is called on. This doesn’t always mean I have the same students speaking up in class. I think you can continuously work on the classroom environment to enable students to feel comfortable speaking up. For the students who never speak up in class, I already have students type/write down their responses that I can immediately see on my iPad in class. Therefore, I can give them a voice by bringing up points not made by the students who already willingly shared in front of the class.

About a year ago, one of my international students came to my office hours and thanked me for that practice. She said that the academic environment she was used to was not one where there is a lot of discussion, so the transition to a classroom where it was split into lecture/activities/discussions each class, she was intimidated with speaking up. However, in small group discussions, she participated in lively discussions and was one of the most engaged students in the classroom. Each student “participates” differently, who are we to say that ‘raising your hand’ means engaged?

An image of colorful paperclips
For instance, one way that equitable class participation can be practiced such that each student is given an opportunity to share their idea and/or ask a question is the “paperclip” method. Provide each student with two or three paperclips at the start of class that they can use as talking chips. Each time a student contributes to the discussion and/or asks a question, they turn in a clip with the goal being that all students use up their clips. This strategy encourages students who tend to monopolize classroom participation to save their clips for their most thoughtful questions and comments. One could also extend this method into participation notecards, which less vocal or shy students can turn in at the end of the class or even pass it down during class so the instructor can read out their thoughts and/or questions.

Re-thinking your late-work policy

An image of an hourglass and a clock
Why do we have late policies? Instructors will usually say, “To teach them the importance of turning things in on time,” or “To teach self-reliance.” We agree that those are important skills to learn. However, many students of color face more challenges and daily hassles compared to a typical student. For example, having to stay home to care for a sick child, working a full-time job while being a full-time student, or having to take two buses to school for 2 hours instead of driving 30 minutes to campus. Non-traditional students also have additional challenges. For example, an older, non-traditional student may be writing a paper for the first time in 30 years. Perhaps they may need more time for an assignment like that. These types of anecdotes made me re-think my late policies. To address this, one can have students come and speak to the instructor if they need an extension before the due date comes. This encourages students to seek the help they need and allows me to get to know them better. One could also consider using a late-work contract for paper submissions wherein a student commits to turning in the work on a later date so that as an instructor you are not stressing about missed grading. Or even perhaps turn the writing assignment into an opportunity to learn writing (see Learning Writing by Rewriting blog post on Noba).

Guest speakers and videos should represent professionals of color.

Several of us resort to a combination of lecture and activity when teaching a course. From both the UDL and equity perspective, it is a good idea to show short videos during class time to help further explain the concept(s) being taught. When choosing videos to show, be mindful to look for speakers that are coming from different backgrounds, nationality, and even accents. It allows for students to be receptive of professionals from other parts of the world. It also helps validate and motivate students of color in our classrooms to see themselves at higher posts in the field. On the same lines, it is a good idea to invite speakers (when possible) to present research or real-life content to the class. Again, looking for speakers in the community, who are inspirational and belong to marginalized sections of the society can help promote educational equity.

Normalizing failure.

A hand holing a piece of paper with the words "I can't" written on it and a pair of scissors in the other hand cutting the piece of paper.
When striving for educational equity, it is necessary to create an environment when it is safe to fail. Life is already very demanding and stressful for our students, and adding to that stress level doesn’t help learning. Taking out time to pause and share people’s failures and what they learned from it, is a good way to normalize and neutralize it. As their instructor, providing personal anecdotes about failing reminds the students that no one is perfect, and that failure can be seen as an opportunity to grow. Is it a good idea to celebrate failure? Yes, absolutely! If a class bombed a group discussion, it is a good idea to focus on the 1-2 positive points made rather than focusing on what students got incorrect. The misconception(s) can be corrected during lecture and/or future assignment.

Open Educational Resources

Mindfully selecting and using textbooks that are OER, and monitoring the costs of the textbooks assigned by our colleagues can help increase access to content among students. There are several repositories where instructors can find the various OER texts in psychology. For e.g., Open Textbook Library

Bringing snacks and water to class, especially during test days

Food insecurity is a growing problem in the college student population. Although many campuses have been working towards reducing this insecurity with food banks and the availability of affordable food, students are still coming to class hungry. Bringing healthy snacks (e.g., fruit, crackers), particularly on test days, not only helps to address this issue in the classroom, but also helps to create an environment where students feel like they are cared for and understood. One can also incorporate class activities that involve healthy. For instance, I demonstrate the ‘schedules of reinforcement’ when teaching the Conditioning and Learning Noba Module by bringing in protein/cereal bars to reinforce class participation behavior.

Equity can be a hard goal to achieve in the classroom without actively critiquing your syllabus, activities, and assignments. Is your syllabus demonstrating inequity to begin with? What are ways you can make your class as a whole equitable? Are we creating a welcoming and inclusive learning environment? These are ongoing challenges we should tackle as instructors. Some instructors may ask: “Am I making my class too easy?”, “Am I teaching them the skills necessary to be successful professionals?” While these are all questions we should be asking, at the same time, we should also be asking, “Are we creating barriers to learning?”, and strive instead to make learning fun and accessible to all.

A poster that reads "Learning is fun when" Providing these responses: "You can choose when you learn", “you love what you do”, “it is fun to fail”, “the environment is inspiring”, “you feel safe”, “you are appreciated for who you are”, “it becomes a healthy addiction”.
Image Credit: Sharkey134~enwiki. Describes the different conditions necessary for learning to be fun. This poster was created by the Fun Academy to illustrate the Fun Learning philosophy.


Deepti Karkhanis is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Bellevue College, WA. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Psychology from Delhi University in India, and her Doctoral degree in Applied Developmental Psychology from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. She is a developmentalist whose teaching interests include Lifespan psychology, General psychology, Cross-cultural psychology and Positive psychology. Dr. Karkhanis explores a variety of pedagogical topics such as collaborative testing, student-teacher rapport, positive psychology in classroom curriculum, and teacher training on social justice and educational equity.

Rika Meyer is an Assistant Professor in the Child and Adolescent Development Department at California State University, Northridge. She received her BA in Psychology from UCLA and her MA and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She currently teaches Developmental Impacts of Abuse and Neglect and Helping Children Cope with Medical Environments. Her research interests include chronic pain and stress in children, adolescents, and their families, and ways to promote academic success from childhood to emerging adulthood.

How to Read Scientific Papers

November 13, 2019

By Noah Jacobson and Robert Biswas-Diener

Scrabble tiles spelling "Research" on a pile of other Scrabble tiles
Although you undoubtedly learned the basics of the scientific method in primary school, you probably don’t have tons of experience reading scientific articles published in professional journals. These articles can be intimidating, tedious, and downright confusing. It can be easy to get lost amidst fancy figures, daunting statistics, and technical vocabulary. The key to navigating the tough terrain of scientific articles is to understand their various parts and to approach reading them in a systematic way.

Fortunately, the blueprint of a psychological research article is relatively universal. With the exception of a few specific types of articles, such as literature reviews and meta analyses, psychology articles consist of five basic sections: an abstract, introduction, methods, results, and conclusion/discussion. Below, I will explain each of these parts. Learning this universal structure lends itself well to clearing up confusion and understanding these technical articles.

Parts of an article


The abstract of an article isa simple summary of the entire article. It is usually a single paragraph long and appears right at the beginning, just after the list of article authors. Abstracts generally describe the topic in which the researchers are interested, such as prejudice or the way children learn to read. In just a few sentences, the abstract provides an overview of the study (or studies) that the researchers conducted and a summary of their main findings. Abstracts are helpful in that they contain a snapshot of everything you need to know about the study in order to determine whether you want to read the study in greater depth. This can save valuable time if you are evaluating a number of articles for their potential inclusion in a term paper.

Let’s say, for example, that you want to write a paper on the links between health and happiness. You search several databases for key terms and find dozens of articles on the topic. You cannot, of course, read all of these papers. There simply isn’t time. Instead, you can review abstracts to get a better sense of those that might be the most relevant for your paper. You might be able to exclude, for example, research on children because that is too niche for your paper. You might focus, instead, on those papers that deal specifically with the immune system or those that talk specifically about positive emotions. Abstracts help you preview and organize your approach to curating and synthesizing research.


Psychological research papers begin with an introduction. You can think of the introduction as the “why” portion of the paper. That is, the introduction places the current research in the context of past research. This is called a “literature review” and researchers often spend a couple pages describing the findings of previous research and supplying references for these earlier studies. This helps researchers make a case for why their current research is relevant and important. They might argue that their research helps fill in a gap in our existing knowledge, or adds new evidence to support a theory, or helps clear up a confusion created by contradictory results from earlier studies.

Let’s take a look at a specific example. In a 2001 article, researchers Robert Biswas-Diener and Ed Diener investigated the happiness of people living in poverty. That’s pretty straightforward. Even so, they wanted to provide readers with background to better understand the issues related to their study. The introduction to their article includes economic, historical, and social information about Kolkata, India, where they conducted their research. It also contains a brief review of the research literature showing that income is related to happiness and they provide some potential explanations for this relationship. Finally, they make an explicit case for their study by saying that their research extends earlier studies by using a unique sample: people living in dire poverty (Biswas-Diener & Diener, 2001).

The introduction is a great way to learn about the major findings in a field in the span of just a few short pages. It can also be a helpful resource for identifying other articles that might be relevant to your project.


An image of five test tubes with substances of varying colors bubbling inside them
The introduction section gives way to the Methods section. This is where articles start to get technical. As the name implies, this is the portion of the article that describes how the researchers conducted their study. Typically, the methods section is—itself—divided into a number of sub-sections, each dealing with a different aspect of the study. Most methods sections describe the:
  • Sample. This is a description of the people who participated in the research. Older articles refer to these people as “subjects” and newer ones refer to them as “respondents” or “participants.” The methods sections usually gives a brief description, such as identifying if they are students, or retirees, or people who share a clinical diagnosis. The researchers usually report on the relevant demographic variables related to the sample such as age, gender, educational level, or national or cultural background. There is usually a table of numbers that acts as a visual description of these background variables.
  • Measures. Here, you can find a description of the various measures that the researchers used. These can include standard tasks (such as the Stroop Task or the “Uses for a brick” task), questionnaires (such as the “Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale”), or biological measures (such as saliva cortisol samples or genetic markers), or behavioral observations (such as seeing how close strangers versus friends sit to one another). Typically, researchers provide a brief description of their measures, with references to the ways that these measures have been used or validated in the past.
  • Procedure. Not all studies include a description of procedures. Experimental studies—those conducted under controlled conditions—often do. This is especially the case if the researchers are using deception or creating an artificial situation. For example, social psychologist Dov Cohen once had a colleague “accidentally” bump research participants as they passed each other in the hall to see how they might react (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz, 1996).

Interestingly, you do not necessarily have to read an entire research article in the order it is written and this is especially true of the methods section. It may be that you simply want to get a broad understanding of the research and reading the introduction and the results is sufficient for your purposes. It may be that you circle back and read the methods section once you have determined that the article is relevant to your interests. If you ultimately include an article for discussion in your term paper, you should definitely read the methods section.


Graph depicting the results of Cohen and colleagues (1996) Culture of Honor Study. To learn more about it, please read the original study cited in the References or visit the Research Methods in Social Psychology module on the Noba website.
Image Credit: Noba Project
The results section follows the methods section. The results section is usually one of the most technically complex and mathematically oriented sections of any research article. The results section can be intimidating because it includes Greek symbols, long equations, and numbers galore. For example, you might come across a head-scratching phrase such as “F (2, 77) = 8.39, p < .001.” Don’t be frightened! Psychological researchers use a variety of statistical analyses to determine if research findings are “significant” (a term that means the results were not due purely to chance).

Understanding the results section can be made easier by remembers key sources of information to keep an eye out for: figures and tables. These clear graphics present the numbers in an easy-to-digest and more visually-friendly format. Figures display a relationship between things using an illustration. For example, a figure might show the number of suicides for each age group across multiple years. This is an easy way to see how the suicide rate has changed over time and to identify specific parts of the population (age groups) that have changed the most. Figures can include charts such as bar charts, graphs such as line graphs, and plots such as scatterplots. Tables, by contrast, provide lists of numerical findings in columns or rows. Common types of tables include demographic variables (such as average levels of age or income), the average results of key variables (such as the average self-esteem scores of participants who completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale), or correlation matrixes (in which the strength of a relationship between a variable and all other variables is reported).


An image outline of a human head with gears inside it and a question mark beside it
The final section in a paper is called the discussion (and sometimes the conclusion). It is here that the researchers discuss their overall findings. There are elements of the discussion section that commonly appear across all types of papers, although they are not explicitly labeled. Keep an eye out for:
  • Summary. Here, the researchers repeat their main findings and discuss them in the context of their original hypothesis or their relationship to earlier research.
  • Explanation. Here, researchers occasionally provide some theory to explain their results. Sometimes these are hypothetical and sometimes they emerge from data gathered in the study itself. Researchers also sometimes admit that their study results were contradictory or unexpected. In these cases, they try to advance some explanation of why this might be the case.
  • Limitations and further study. Almost all research articles, conclude with the twin pillars of limitations and suggestions for further study. In the limitations portion, researchers identify the strengths of their study but also acknowledge that there are weaknesses as well. They might point to the sample, for instance, as a way of suggesting that their findings are preliminary and will not necessarily generalize to all people. A discussion of the limitations of a study should not be interpreted as invalidating the study. Instead, it is an acknowledgment that science works like a patchwork quilt, with each study providing a simple piece of the overall fabric of knowledge. Researchers typically conclude with a few specific suggestions for further research. If you are interested in a career in research, these statements can be a gold mine of open areas to explore!

In Conclusion

Like any difficult skill, reading psychological science - or any science for that matter - gets easier the more you practice. Learning what is most valuable and what can be passed over saves both time and effort without sacrificing clarity. Once you get the gist of a paper continue on and review the paper in greater depth. Remember, just as an explorer relies on a GPS to find his or her way, you too can rely on the landmarks of any scientific article to keep you on target.


Biswas-Diener, R., & Diener, E. (2001). Making the best of a bad situation: Satisfaction in the slums of Calcutta. Social Indicators Research, 55(3), 329-352.

Cohen, D., Nisbett, R. E., Bowdle, B. F., & Schwarz, N. (1996). Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: An" experimental ethnography." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(5), 945-960.


Noah Jacobson

Noah Jacobson is a psychology and neuroscience major at Grinnell College. He currently works as a research assistant and Peer Educator for Grinnell College’s Department of Wellness and Prevention. He enjoys running, cooking, and spending time in nature.

Robert Biswas-Diener

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.

Metacognition and the Value of Making Connections

November 6, 2019

By Dia Chatterjee

On making connections:

Students often learn difficult concepts as discrete pieces. These discrete pieces of newly acquired knowledge are important building blocks of learning – so it is a time-honored tradition among students to memorize definitions, focus on breaking down complex systems of ideas into individual components. Unfortunately, for a lot of students, the learning often stops at this point. While this form of learning that rests on reducing the larger whole into its component parts is an important first step in acquiring new knowledge and skills, halting the learning process at this stage is obviously counterproductive to deeper learning. That said, then there are students who are more concerned about understanding why ‘thing A’ relates to ‘thing B’. They often engage in eager attempts to learn the big picture ideas. This form of learning is critical for deeper understanding of concepts, but cannot really occur if the more discrete pieces are glossed over.

A nexus depicting various points of connection that are denoted by a different color to show association
Why should it be ‘either-or’ – on the power of “And”:

The question I had been struggling with was how do we move the needle on helping students maximize on both these tendencies? How do we get them to focus both on the discrete pieces and building integrated network of ideas? How might we show them how the different definitions, topics, and processes described over an entire term connect together? Is there value in highlighting such connections for students? And if so, what form should this take?

For the past two academic terms, I have let my students go on a journey of self-discovery. My instinct told me that students would learn better if they engaged in some meta-cognitive thinking about these ideas independently. I decided to put this intuition to a test by implementing weekly study guides where I asked students to connect the definitions learned each week to materials learned in weeks past, and to their own life experiences outside of the class. This blog is a summary report of what I have seen bloom in my classrooms so far.

Chaotic first few weeks:

I realized that asking students to be intentional about making connections across their learning may have been an easy task in my mind, but to them, my ask did not translate well. During the first few weeks, they kept coming back to me with questions about not really understanding what they should write in their study guides. I would repeat the intentionally vague prompt, asking them to make of it what they could to begin with, reminding them that they would not lose points for exploring their own relationship with the materials taught in classes:

Define two-three concepts that spoke to you from that week’s lectures in your own words. That is, what ideas stimulated your intellectual curiosity? You can attempt to see how various concepts fit into your life/work? What makes them meaningful to you? I believe that which we are curious about, and that which we can apply to our own lives, we learn and retain better.

I had to keep nudging them to keep their eyes open to the fact that “Psychology is all around” them, and that if they really paid attention to the class materials, they will start picking up on the connections that the study guides ask them to make. Even with this framing, and even after explaining the assignment again and again, there were those who took a while to really “get it”.

An image of a brain with multi-color connections inside
Explorations in meta-cognitive thinking:

Then came the weeks where between their writing and my feedback, they start engaging in meta-cognitive practices and approach the “Aha” experience of what we mean by making connections. Different students start adopting different styles of writing about the topics under discussion. I have seen the “objective reviewers” who tell me about the state of the world around them while carefully avoiding sharing how the class materials may impact them, or how they may walk away from concepts enriched. I have seen the “immersed writers” who find it incredibly hard not to connect ideas to their own daily lives and who get steeped in the topics in ways that neither them nor I thought possible. Then there are those who I call the “non-believers” – these are students who are not at all impressed by the format of the study guide, will not buy into its intended purpose no matter how much feedback I give them, and will continue regurgitating their definitions like this were a long-form flash card for each unit. In my own explorations with pedagogy, I have made room for all three of these prototypical responses as I do like to pay heed to individual learning styles.

Journaling and journeying to the “self”:

By the end of the term, students realize how the study of psychology permeates their lives. The study guides I receive after the midterms are rich narratives of their own struggles with the material, and many times, struggles with life itself. In these study guides, outside of just reinforcing the concepts learned in class, what they find are outlets for reflection and journaling. I find that the richer the connections to their own lives and the lives they observe, the more meaningful the class materials get for them. In following such writing strategies, they learn that the materials presented are larger than just discrete definitions to be memorized for a test, instead they have practical significance to the lives they lead. I find them bringing up ideas they learned early in the term and connecting these to the materials they have learned later in the term. They share their unique learning journeys by way of organizing the learning experiences in their own unique ways. For example, to some, the units on brain and nervous system may not have made much of an impact early on in the academic term, but these become pivotal when discussing co-morbidity of disorders.

By-products of taking the by-lanes:

There are some benefits of this approach that are interesting by-products. For example, I had not intentionally created this exercise to enable the shy, quiet, ESL, and/or more introverted students find a voice in the classroom. And yet, what I find is that students who never raise a hand in class when I open the classroom for discussions, submit study guides that are a rich and nuanced connections of ideas. They cite the class discussions in their study guides, and use this as an opportunity to “contribute” to class. As a diversity researcher, it is not lost on me that this form of a pedagogical tool helps me draw out voices that are otherwise lost in the haze of extroverted students or students for whom English is their first language. I describe the highlights of some of the study guides in my opening class each week, making sure that these diverse voices are given the space and time to make an impact on other students.

Image of stick figures depicting people standing in a circle using different color pencils
Another pleasantly surprising by-product of this strategy is that weekly study guides build in a low-stakes writing component. This assignment was not designed to be writing intensive, and the study guides are not graded down for poor writing. However, I share feedback when needed and provide information on APA guidelines. I find that over time, students are able to submit higher quality of writing overall. The non-threatening nature of this assignment helps them open up and realize that writing is just like acquiring any other skill set: creating plenty of opportunities for spaced practice and having a willing mind to learn and absorb are the two first steps to effective skill acquisition.

The feedback from the students is another testament to how well this concept works as an educational tool as they report using this method as a study approach for their other classes as well. Early in the academic term, students express dismay at having to write each week – some agonize over how they cannot understand what to do with this assignment, while others think it just a waste of their time as all they were doing was regurgitating their notes anyway. Then once the assignment starts making sense, they undergo a transformation: they express dismay when a holiday hits or during exam weeks, when they realize that they don’t have to write a study guide for that week. Many insist on turning in their study guides even when none are assigned, and when I ask them why they may want to do more, I get answers that range from: “I retain more this way,” to “I find it more fun to learn about ideas when I can see the connections,” to “I don’t just want to memorize concepts, I want to understand them”. A consistent theme that emerges here is that the value of making connections is not lost on them, and in fact, once properly oriented to appreciate the value of meta-cognitive thinking, they cannot help but engage with learning in this form as it leaves them feeling more enriched.

Image of thought bubbles in different colors

Dia Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Salem State University. She completed her PhD in Organizational Psychology at Michigan State University. Dia’s scholarly interests include identity management and diversity, careers, and creativity. In addition, she has worked with several organizations on issues such as organizational strategy, performance management, organizational change, and assessments. As an Organizational Psychologist, Dia takes a scientist-practitioner approach to both her research and pedagogy. In her classrooms, she focuses on building conditions whereby her students can engage in active learning on (a) how evidence-based practice can benefit from scholarly research in psychology, and (b) how rigorous scholarly research can stem from various organizational problems. 

Applying to Graduate Programs in Clinical Psychology: A Guide for Prospective Students, Advisors, and Faculty Part II

September 12, 2019

By Parky Lau, Joseph Rootman, Jill Robinson, & Lesley Lutes

Part 2

Evaluation Criteria

An image of an outline of two heads one large and one small, the small one in front of the large one with a backdrop of the night sky and stars
Although the admission criteria are fairly standardized among institutions (e.g., at least an A- average, research experience), there is a fair bit of ambiguity as to what makes an application successful aside from the quantitative scores observed in GPA and Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores. In the following text, we examine the general evaluation criteria relevant to application development: 1) Academic Background, 2) Graduate Record Examination and Psychology Subject GRE, 3) Skills and Professional Development, 4) Personal Statement, and 5) Tri-Council Funding Application for Canadian Graduate Programs. Note that these criteria are distinct from what students are evaluated on come interview day, such as preparation, professionalism, fit for clinical work/program/supervisor, and other factors outside your control, but a complete review of these factors are beyond the scope of this guide.

Academic Background

An image with two overlapping pieces of paper and a pen
The quality of undergrad institution is likely set in stone. However, for more keen students beginning their undergraduate education, it is advisable to pursue a 4-year honors degree in psychology. No matter the prestige of the institution, students should strive to excel in courses, participate in research, work towards publication, and become involved in the psychology department.Although an honors degree may not be necessary at all institutions, honors programs tend to confer many academic and professional benefits for students, such as designing a research study, writing a thesis document, presenting research at academic conferences, and being surrounded by like-minded individuals who can support and inspire one another to succeed. The vast majority of students will hold an honors degree before entering graduate school. If a student is too late in their program to enroll in the honors program before graduation, they may want to explore the possibility of pursuing a postgraduate honors degree or other avenues of obtaining the necessary research experience. Students may pursue directed studies projects with professors, complete undergraduate upper-level statistics courses, and work in a lab that will allow the student to see a research project through from the initial phases to end product. Additionally, as noted earlier, obtaining an MA within a relevant field, gaining further research experience, and applying to clinical programs at the Ph.D. level may be a reasonable pathway to clinical programs for students feeling unprepared post-BA. Not all institutions will provide students with this opportunity, so it is imperative that interested individuals speak with their academic advisor early in their program.

Undergraduate institutions generally require a minimum cumulative GPA of A- over the last two years (or at least 80%); however, successful applicants typically have a substantially higher GPA. Although having lower marks does not necessarily preclude anyone from admission, especially if they have strong credentials in other areas (the same applies with GRE scores), it is important to note that certain institutions may use this as a benchmark to cull applicants if there is a large volume of applications (which is the case for most programs). For example, UBC uses a minimum first-class standard of 80% GPA as a requirement for entrance to the program. Nonetheless, applicants should not be discouraged but they should be aware that several low or failing grades, especially in psychology-related courses, will not bode well for any application. If this is the case, it would be advisable that the student pursue a terminal master’s degree program in a related field before applying to the clinical program in order to demonstrate competence, success, and productivity at the graduate level.

Graduate Record Examination and Psychology Subject GRE

An image with an outline of a head with a puzzle piece missing and a hand on the other side of the image holding a puzzle piece.
GRE scores on the general test are broken into three sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. Although a scaled score is calculated, what is most important is standing relative to other individuals (i.e., percentile rank). Applicants should attempt to aim for at least the 80th percentile in each section to be competitive. Looking up the statistics of previously admitted students may be more useful than a specific percentile demarcation. This data can often be found under the “student admissions, outcomes and other data” section of institutional websites of all accredited programs. Applicants with lower scores should remember that the GRE is only one part of the application and is unlikely to be the sole deciding factor in admissions. However, given the low acceptance rates, test scores are one of the main metrics used to remove people from the interview list. The Psychology Subject GRE is typically weighted less and is unlikely to be the deciding factor in gaining admission. However, the Subject GRE can be an important factor, especially for applicants that majored in a topic outside of psychology - a low score, in either case, can be a red flag. If you received an undergraduate degree outside of psychology, it is imperative that you take the Psychology Subject test to demonstrate your aptitude for psychology. In many schools, the Psychology Subject GRE is optional, but this varies by school. If an applicant scores well on the subject test, it may offset a less than desirable academic record by demonstrating proficiency in the foundations in psychology and its associated sub-disciplines. If you come across a school that does not require the GRE, be wary as this may be a big red flag. Many of the for-profit schools (as opposed to non-profit public schools) will not require the applicant to submit GRE scores. If it seems too good to be true, it likely is! In other words, if you are not required to put in the grunt work, the education you will receive may be subpar (and expensive) compared to schools that have stringent requirements for admission.

Preparation for the GRE tests will vary from student to student. Plenty of test preparation courses are available (Kaplan, Magoosh, Princeton Review) to help individuals learn the content tested on the GRE. That being said, it is worth noting that the material covered in the general GRE is not inherently difficult to grasp; rather, the variation in test scores comes from speed and accuracy which can only be attained through practice. For students who consider themselves to be poor test takers, that expect to have some trouble with GRE material, or who are not well-suited for independent study, the Kaplan or other courses are likely to be well worth the cost and may be necessary for success on the GRE. This is another case of short term (financial) pain, for long term (financial) gain. In addition to learning the content tested on the GRE, preparation courses also teach “test logic.” An alternative option is to use free online courses (e.g., Greenlighttestprep) or purchase used preparation materials from students who have taken the test in the recent past. For this path of independent study, a local GRE tutor may be a supplementary option for difficult material. Practice tests (e.g., Princeton, Manhattan, Magoosh, ETS), on the other hand, are extremely valuable, if not necessary, in assessing progress. Finally, if an applicant has received their scores and is unsure if they are sufficient for acceptance into desired institutions, we recommend they contact their potential supervisors to ask if they would recommend retaking the test before putting down a deposit for another date. Speaking with supervisors may also be helpful for students torn on taking the psychology GRE which is often optional. Recommended study resources for both the subject and general GRE are listed in the appendix. In summary, students should strive to excel the GRE tests. The short-term financial pain of purchasing a Kaplan study course or attending tutoring sessions may be well worth the long-term professional gain!

Skills and Professional Development

An image of small wooden tiles that spell out "Mental Health".
In this section we discuss the necessary skills and qualifications desired by MA/Ph.D. graduate programs in clinical psychology. Although clinical psychology programs adhere to the scientist-practitioner model, first and foremost students are trained as researchers. The important thing to note here is that clinical programs intend to train their students as clinicians from the bottom up, whereas they have more rigorous expectation concerning incoming students’ abilities and past experience as researchers. Consequently, capacity as an independent scientist is the most important quality to cultivate during undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Research experience can be obtained in many ways: volunteering in psychology or related research laboratories, completing directed studies (i.e., working in labs or undertaking small research projects for course credit), or completing an honors thesis. Importantly, we would embolden those considering applications to join labs in which they have a budding interest and take the initiative to demonstrate to the supervisor their capacity as a researcher. Research Assistants (RAs) often feel grateful for their position and typically perform a variety of tasks such as data cleaning and entry, transcription, and running studies. RAs should feel comfortable asking for more responsibilities and opportunities for professional development should they want to broaden their experiences. By becoming involved in a research lab, applicants put themselves in a position to take on more responsibilities, which may cascade into paid/leadership positions and tangible evidence of contributions (e.g., co-authorships on presentations and potentially scholarly publications). Arguably, the best way to gain admittance into graduate school is to demonstrate a capability to conduct graduate-level work. The gold standard here would be a publication or several presentations, but any evidence that the applicant can think like a scientist (study development, hypothesis generation, etc.) would also lend well to an application. In that way, the nature of lab’s focus (e.g., health, cognitive, animal-based) is less important; rather, obtaining experience and applying yourself will foster these invaluable skills and allow supervisors to write strong letters.

Given the emphasis on research potential, applicants should demonstrate their proficiency to conduct research - namely understanding and applying research methodology and statistical analysis. Applicants should strive to do very well in courses involving research methods and statistics and should not be afraid to take additional advanced courses (or retake one of these critical courses if they did not obtain a strong grade – if permitted). Application committees will pay particular attention to grades in courses related to research methodology and statistics. In conjunction, applicants can also take the initiative to help their supervisor or graduate students design research materials and ask to assist in analysis. A letter of recommendation that speaks about how a student helped design a study or present research at a conference will go a long way in furthering an application.

Applicants may wonder whether they should delve into a single stream of research in one lab or volunteer with multiple labs to gain experience - the age-old question of breadth or depth. The answer, albeit arduous, is that a mix of both would be ideal. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, and both can lend well to an application. The benefits of gaining depth into a field of research will inform an appreciation for the work being conducted. An applicant’s extensive training and research may be looked upon favorably by potential supervisors who study a similar field during application periods.

Although depth in training is invaluable, applicants should not neglect obtaining a breadth of research experience as well. Research labs often operationalize and examine variables and hypotheses in different ways and train their RAs to do a variety of unique tasks. Consequently, they will develop a large range of marketable skills. Working in multiple labs may also confer a more nuanced understanding of research, however, quantity is not analogous to quality. Students should strive to excel in whatever position they hold; doing a great job as an RA in one lab will hold more weight and confer a stronger letter of recommendation than performing less than optimally in 2 or 3 labs.

Lastly, clinical psychology programs are multi-faceted and often require that students wear many hats each day and throughout the program. Students may find themselves in a lecture in the morning, meeting a client afterward, consulting on research in their lab, submitting an abstract to a conference, and spending their evening writing an academic paper. As such, programs are seeking individuals with exceptional organization and time management skills. Learning to effectively switch between different hats in your roles as a graduate student is an incredible skill that will serve you well throughout your career. Students who succeed in graduate school are those who are self-directive and able to manage a heavy and demanding workload. The workload of clinical psychology programs can lead to burnout, mental health concerns, and general unhappiness if not managed appropriately. Students who are successful in these programs are those who are insightful about their mental health, self-care, and work-life balance. Programs are not looking for students who are immune to stress and mental health issues. Instead, they are interested in the students who have insight into their own health and are able to make adjustments when less than ideal circumstances crop up (as they will in graduate school). Students who demonstrate high degrees of self-awareness and self-reflection and who are proactive in caring for their physical and mental health are the students that succeed in graduate school.

Personal Statement

An outline of a head with the sky and clouds inside
The personal statement is perhaps the most time intensive portion of the application outside of the GREs. With that in mind, we recommend applicants start drafts in September. While each school requires a unique personal statement tailored to that program, a lot of programs have several different required questions which tend to ask variations of the same question. Typically, a program will ask a question to the effect of “What makes you a good fit for our program?” Responses to this question will vary from person to person but there are a number of areas that we recommend covering. Specifically, the primary goal is to prove that the applicant can think and act like a clinical scientist as evidenced by research experience, coursework, GPA, GRE, and any other experiences and skills they have obtained. Applicants will also want to outline goals for their future and how this specific program will help them attain those goals.

First, many people start with a personal anecdote about why they want to pursue clinical psychology but launching into a deeply personal montage may be regrettable. These introductory statements should be used to quickly lead readers to the reasons why clinical psychology is appealing to the applicant. Applicants must be conscious of how much information they disclose. They should refrain from saying that they are interested in Clinical Psychology because of their own (or a loved one’s) past experience with mental health concerns (refer to the “Kisses of Death” mentioned previously in the article). Rather, they should express their passion for a specific area of research and focus on the innate desire they have to conduct meaningful research. While some applicants end goal may be to focus on clinical practice, these MA/Ph.D. programs are interested in applicants that are passionate about research as well. It is important that applicants present a balanced picture of themselves. If applicants have no affinity or interest in research, it might be advisable to pursue other career options (e.g., Psy.D.).

Following this, the bulk of the statement should highlight how past experiences have been preparatory for entering a rigorous clinical psychology graduate program. Here, they should point to their overall GPA (highlighting their psychology marks) and any awards or scholarships they hold. Applicants should avoid simply restating their CV. Instead, they should expand on what they learned from their research experiences and link them to their success in the MA/Ph.D. program. Recycling old ideas should also be avoided. If one research experience taught the student to run proper analyses, applicants should make sure that the next experience they speak to expands on and provides them with new knowledge or opportunity. Applicants should aim to cover time management, self-motivation, experience working with clinical populations, writing and communication skills, professionalism, statistics training and experience with study designs. Applicants should use concrete examples to prove that they have the experience to manage the rigor of a clinical psychology graduate program.

Finally, applicants will want to end their statement with a section that refers to the reasons why this program is the best fit for them. Here, they will primarily be discussing the fit with their supervisor(s) and their research program. It is also good to briefly point out other unique portions of the program (refer to their clinical handbook) that are of interest. Most programs request a statement of approximately 2 single-spaced pages in length. Applicants should use all the space given. Applicants should aim to have someone edit their statement and incorporate useful feedback. Applicants should scour the document for typos (e.g., repeated words, mixed up letters, etc.), grammar, and formatting before sending it off.

Tri-Council Funding Application for Canadian Graduate Programs

An image of a group of students talking and laughing
The Tri-Council funding application is relatively straightforward. First, applicants need to decide which funding agency will best fit their research proposal (i.e., NSERC, SSHRC, or CIHR). For clinical students, CIHR (clinical research) and SSHRC (social research) funding agencies often fit the bill. Applicants should review the agencies respective mandates to ensure they are applying to the proper agency. Applicants may also send a summary of their proposal to each agency to determine whether their proposal fits within the mandated guidelines of the agency. The application requires two academic recommendations, a Canadian Common CV (CCV), and a hypothetical research proposal. The doctoral award also requires a list of research contributions, an online application, and a recommendation from your department head. Creating a CCV requires applicants to input their current CV into the format required on the government website.

The hypothetical research proposal will likely be a maximum of 1 to 2 pages in length (not including references) and should include the following sections: background, objective and hypothesis, methods, and significance. When considering a potential project, the most important factor is feasibility. Applicants should choose a research project that is manageable and can be completed throughout their masters. Moreover, applicants should keep in mind that no one will hold them to this project; rather, this proposal is a means of assessing their ability to formally write like a scientist. Few resources are available to guide applicants through writing this proposal, but they should seek out professors and graduate students in their program for guidance. Their scholarly writing center, college of graduate studies, or library may also host Tri-Council application writing workshops as these grants often span several disciplines. For more resources, prospective applicants can find the Tri-Council Funding awards information and application process at the links in the Appendix section.

Funding Opportunities in the United States

Funding opportunities in the United States vary greatly from program to program in the following areas: tuition, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships. In regards to tuition, there are some programs, such as Louisiana State University that provide full remission of tuition. Some programs also guarantee teaching or research assistantships. For instance, Arizona State University typically provides doctoral students with 20 hour-per-week graduate teaching or research assistantships. While a full discussion of differences in funding of clinical programs in United States is beyond the scope of this guide, The Graduate Study in Psychology, 2019 Edition book provides a more comprehensive discussion of these individual funding opportunities. With respect to federal agencies, there are also funding opportunities from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Final Thoughts

A young woman resting her head on her arm which rests of an a pile of books
Before concluding, a few miscellaneous pieces of advice are worth noting. Applicants should remember that it is very common for individuals to apply multiple years in a row, with acceptance rates ranging between 5% and 8% of all applicants per year. Students should not be discouraged if they have been rejected on their first, or even second, try and they should take the time in between application years to bolster their experiences. If need be, applicants should rewrite the GRE or volunteer with different populations to gain clinical experience. Applicants should feel comfortable reaching out for help. Graduate students and your supervisors have been through the process and are often willing to help in more ways than might be expected. Finally, applicants may wonder if they should take a year off before applying. While in theory, applying in their final year of undergrad cannot hurt, applicants must recognize that this application process is no small or inexpensive feat. With that in mind, applicants who juggle the application process with their coursework might be negatively impacting their ability to excel in their commitments. If they are struggling to balance 5 courses, study for the GRE, complete an honors thesis, and volunteer in a research lab(s), their applications may suffer. Many people take a year or more off after completing their undergraduate degree. The most important thing is not that you take a year off, but rather, it is what you do with that year. Work as a full-time research assistant. Work on publishing your thesis. Keep doing research with your mentor and colleagues. Submit, attend, and present at local, regional, or even a national conference.

No matter the path that a student takes, the key is to remember that it is often a long and arduous process to becoming a clinical practitioner or research scientist in clinical psychology. Everyone will pay their dues at some point throughout the process. Some students pay in the beginning by obtaining first class grades in all their undergraduate courses, some students pay in the middle by completing a terminal master’s program to demonstrate their ability to conduct high-quality research, and still others will pay at the end by taking an extra year in their Ph.D. to complete their dissertation following their internship/residency.

In summary, we hope this guide has given applicants, advisors, and faculty a greater understanding of the components that should be considered before applying for clinical psychology programs. We encourage students and advisors to use the research and data regarding applications to make informed decisions about how and when to apply to clinical psychology programs. While clinical psychology programs can certainly be competitive, many people have managed to succeed in these endeavors and an applicant equipped with the knowledge shared in this guide is already one step ahead in the process!


American Psychological Association. (2019). Graduate Study in Psychology, 2019 Edition. American Psychological Association.

Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process. Teaching of Psychology,33(1), 19-24. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3301_5

Canada Graduate Scholarships – Master’s Program Resources.

Choukas-Bradley, S. (2011, October). A Student’s Perspective on Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide Sophie Choukas-Bradley, M.A. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from

CIHR Doctoral Research Award.

Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program Doctoral Scholarships and SSHRC Doctoral Fellowships.

Prinstein, M. (2017). Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from


General Resources

Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology

A Student’s Perspective on Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide Sophie Choukas-Bradley

Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process

CPA Accreditation Website

GRE Resources

Greenlight Test Prep

Quizlet Basic GRE Words and Quizlet Advanced GRE Words

GRE e-rater (to be used in order to get a sense of GRE score)

Crash Course Psychology (used as Joey’s primary resource for subject GRE studying with great success)


Jill Biography:

Jill M. Robinson, M.A. is currently a graduate student in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of British Columbia | Okanagan. Her research interests include cognitive models of substance use as well as prevention and intervention of adolescent substance use. Jill currently works with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and substance use disorders.

Parky Biography:

Parky Lau is a Master’s student in the clinical psychology program at Ryerson University. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, Parky obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He currently works in the Sleep and Depression Laboratory under Dr. Colleen Carney examining cognitive factors related to the development and maintenance of insomnia. His professional interests include mentoring undergraduate students, attending research conferences, and playing an active part in shaping organizations within Ryerson University. Parky can be reached by email at [email protected]

Joey Biography:

Joseph Rootman is a Master’s student in the clinical psychology program at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan Campus. He moved to the Okanagan after completing his undergraduate education in Psychology at the University of British Columbia – Vancouver campus. He is currently a researcher in the Therapeutic, Recreational & Problematic Substance Use Lab under the supervision of Dr. Zach Walsh. Joseph’s primary research interest surrounds the use of Cannabis as a substitute for other, more harmful, drugs. Beyond research, Joseph is the Chair of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy – Okanagan Chapter. Joseph can be reached by email at [email protected]

Lutes Biography:

Dr. Lutes is a Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at the University of British Columbia - Okanagan Campus. Dr. Lutes is a clinical health and registered psychologist whose area of research is in developing innovative cognitive and behavioral treatment interventions focused on lifestyle change and chronic disease management for conditions such as obesity and diabetes and their co-morbid psychological correlates including distress, depression and well-being. She also does research/advocacy/policy change in the area of integrated primary care and training the next generation of psychologists for healthcare delivery in the 21st century. She has secured over $7 million dollars in grant funding, published over 60-peer-reviewed publications, and had over 100 oral presentations to date. She is on the national executive of the Canadian Council for Professional Psychology Programs (CCPPP) and is on the editorial board for the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. She is the director of the healthy weight clinic and the Centre for Obesity and Well-Being Research Excellence (CORE) at the UBC. Dr. Lutes can be reached at [email protected]

Applying to Graduate Programs in Clinical Psychology: A Guide for Prospective Students, Advisors, and Faculty Part I

September 5, 2019

By Parky Lau, Joseph Rootman, Jill Robinson, & Lesley Lutes

Part 1

Clinical Psychology: An Introduction

An image of a brain and a Greek letter Psi superimposed on it
As a practitioner, clinical psychologists often conduct assessments and provide evidence-based therapy to a variety of individuals that exhibit some form of psychopathology. Clinical psychologists are also trained as scientists and can be found working in research or educational settings such as academia and research centers, as well as clinical settings, including hospitals and private practice clinics. It is not uncommon for clinical psychologists to divide their time among clinical practice, academia, and research. As such, a vocation in clinical psychology can be rather versatile, making the degree and associated training programs highly-sought after. Clinical psychologists have undertaken extensive coursework, research, and clinical training in their field, have completed one year of internship/residency prior to completing their graduate degree, and have formally underwent the registration process with the licensure body (e.g., The College of Psychologists of British Columbia) in their province/territory or state (e.g., North Carolina Psychology Board).

Clinical MA/Ph.D. Programs in the USA and Canada

Clinical psychology MA/Ph.D. programs adhere to the scientist-practitioner (Boulder) model, which underscores the importance of the relationship between empirically validated research and delivery of evidence-based treatment to clinical populations. As such, students are trained to be scientific researchers as well as clinicians. Canadian graduate programs in clinical psychology typically offer a combined Masters (MA) and Doctoral (Ph.D.) program, as opposed to just the Ph.D. The MA program lasts approximately 2 years, and the Ph.D. program extends this by another 4-5 years (including a year of predoctoral internship). Although the clinical MA and Ph.D. are usually distinct programs, it is common that those applying to the MA program continue into the Ph.D. Many programs will not accept students who plan to terminate their studies after completing the MA, although most clinical programs will accept students at the Ph.D. level if they have completed an MA in other relevant fields (e.g., counselling psychology). Indeed, students who believe they will not be accepted to a clinical program directly from undergrad (due to low GPA, lack of research or other factors), may benefit from obtaining an MA in one of these other fields and applying to clinical programs at the Ph.D. level (or at the master’s level with sometimes an ability to “fast track” to the Ph.D. after the first year with good performance and a paper/review/comprehensive). All states and most provinces, with the exception of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nova Scotia, require that students hold a Ph.D. in order to gain licensure as a clinical psychologist with the regulatory body of that state or province. On the other hand, US programs typically only include the Ph.D. program, where students obtain an MA on route. For example, in North Carolina, students only enter the Ph.D. program, where they get an MA as a part of their Ph.D. Their timing is usually four years of assistantship funding, and they are usually on an internship in their fifth year.

A cup with round plushies depicting various human emotions such as joy or sadness. The cup has a Greek letter Psi on it and a word Psicologia written on it.
When preparing applications, two crucial aspects students should consider include the number of institutions they wish to apply to and the quality of these institutions. With respect to the first point, acceptance rates are low. Typically, 5-8% of applicants receive an offer of admission. Therefore, it is the norm for prospective students to apply to multiple programs to increase their odds of acceptance. Some experts recommend applying to between 12 and 15 programs to maximize the chance of gaining admission. However, applications can be expensive and time-consuming, so it is generally advised that students avoid applying to programs that they have no intentions to attend or cannot spend the time needed to submit a high quality, tailored application. On the other hand, given the low acceptance rates, applying to multiple programs can be seen as a short-term investment for long-term gain as a professional. Applicants that are considering the number of schools they should apply to can take this as an opportunity to flex their researcher muscles by looking at school statistics, journal articles on acceptance rates and talk to experts in the area. Using these types of information to make informed decisions is a central tenet of clinical psychology, so it makes sense to apply that skill to admission processes as well!

Second, it is strongly recommended that applicants prioritize institutions whose doctoral program are (or in the process of being) accredited by the American or Canadian Psychological Association (APA/CPA). Students going to/graduating from unaccredited programs will experience at best, a more detailed, drawn out, and delayed process of registration/licensure. At worst, there is the slight possibility of being unable to register as a clinical psychologist upon completion of their program if their program does not meet the registration guidelines set forth by the state/province/territory. The APA/CPA sets out strict standards for which clinical programs must obtain to ensure that students are competent to practice independently. Generally, licensure bodies will examine the quality of the applicant’s education, internship, and experience to determine their fitness to register as a clinical psychologist in that territory.

For applicants interested in crossing borders it is worthwhile to know that, since the First Street Accord was signed in 2012, the APA Commission of Accreditation (CoA) recognizes the standards established via CPA accreditation are equivalent to those set by the APA (and vice-versa). As such, crossing borders to train as a clinical psychologist is certainly a viable option. That being said, there are some important differences between Canadian and American institutions. First, while CPA accredited clinical Ph.D. programs typically provide funding through a combination of Teaching Assistantships (TA), Research Assistantships (RA), or remitted tuition to cover tuition and some cost of living, the same is not true of all American institutions. Specifically, tuition at some American institutions far outweighs funding income, so for Canadian students looking at American programs, this is worth considering.Likewise, government funding opportunities can be limited for international students in both countries. For more information, see the book Graduate Study in Psychology, 2019 Edition by the American Psychological Association for specific differences between institutions in their funding package. This book also provides excellent information from application to acceptance among a variety of other useful information regarding applications.

The consequence of these funding differences is that American students may feel pressured to complete their program with haste to avoid going too deeply into debt. This is made more difficult by the fact that the number of face-to-face clinical hours required by internship programs is lower in Canada than the US. Institutions accredited by the APA or CPA have demonstrated the necessary rigor to develop highly trained clinical psychologists. Graduating from an APA/CPA accredited institution confers professional benefits and is necessary for obtaining an internship/residency through the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centres (APPIC) as well as facilitating the search for employment after graduation (some prominent employers, such as Veterans Administration, also require graduation from an APA/CPA accredited institution). It is also much less likely that a student exiting a non-accredited program will secure an accredited internship relative to those who exit accredited programs.

Finally, although an in-depth examination of other degrees, such as the Psy.D. or counselling psychology is beyond the scope of this guide, it is worthwhile to mention these alternatives. These programs may be of interest to those whose passion is oriented towards clinicalpractice or for those who wish to work with populations that exhibit less extreme or pervasive mental health concerns (e.g., relationship issues, stress management). For a further look at the Psy.D., counselling psychology, and other related fields of studies, please consult Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology by Dr. Mitchell Prinstein. Similarly, this guide is intended for those who are interested in applying to clinical psychology programs which differs from those who have completed a clinical program and are applying to internship. Applicants applying to internship are directed to resources beyond the scope of this guide (e.g., Match Made on Earth for Canadian Students, the Internships in Psychology APAGS workbook for both Canadian and US programs).

The Application Process

An outline of a head, which contains a brain made up of various gears and an image of a lightbulb superimposed on it.
Applying to MA/Ph.D. graduate programs in clinical psychology is often a difficult and confusing process and can take several months to adequately prepare. Generally, the list of materials applicants will need to assemble for programs include: 1) Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores;2) the Psychology subject test (if required); 3) a list of institutions and associated supervisors of which to apply; 4) three (or more) letters of recommendation (LOR); 5) official transcripts; 6) an updated curriculum vitae (CV); 7) a statement of intent (personal statement); 8) completion of the general application; and 9) paying of the fee to apply to the program.

In addition, although rarely explicitly stated on institution websites, most CPA accredited institutions expect Canadian students to apply for external government funding from one of the Tri-Council agencies (CIHR, SSHRC, or NSERC). With the competitive nature of these admissions, skipping this step may be considered a “kiss of death” as some institutions will be forced to disregard applicants that have not applied for any external funding. For Tri-Council funding applications, the materials applicants will need are: 1) the Canadian Common CV (CCV); 2) two LORs; and 3) a hypothetical research proposal. Often, programs will ask applicants outright if they have applied for external funding, such as Tri-Council funding or the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS). While American students are not eligible for Tri-Council funding, applying for international funding opportunities (often listed on institutional websites) instead may benefit American applications to Canadian institutions.

Preparing for the GRE (and the Psychology subject test if required) is a time-consuming aspect of the application process and applicants should allocate at least 2 to 4 months to studying for this exam. The exam should be taken as early as possible to ensure that there is sufficient time to report scores as well as retake the test if necessary. Note that while the General Test can be taken throughout the year, the Psychology Subject test is offered only a few times per year. It can take several weeks to receive official scores, so applicants must plan accordingly. If the application deadline occurs before scores are obtained, applicants may be rejected. By late summer or early fall, applicants will also want to consider which institutions they would like to apply to. Several factors worth consideration include the quality of the program, the match of the research supervisor, richness of the training offered, practicum placements, potential funding opportunities (which may be more limited if you are crossing borders), length of time typically spent in the program, geographical location and feasibility of moving, the culture and atmosphere of the university and, perhaps most importantly, the “fit” between student and mentor. Truthfully, this truly is the most important fact. Based on research data, this the #1 predictor of satisfaction in graduate school. Each institution typically provides information on their university webpage about faculty and their research interests. Applicants should note that it is important to determine if the faculty of interest is accepting new students for the upcoming round of admissions. Faculty may not accept students one year for a variety of reasons (e.g., sabbatical leaves, administration duties, maternity leave, current size of the lab) and applicants must be wary of wasting their time or money applying to a supervisor who is not accepting students. As such, applicants should confirm that their faculty of interest is taking applications for new graduate students by examining their website or sending them a direct email. Although not a necessary component in some programs, faculty members may appreciate an effort to contact them, especially if keen insight and enthusiasm into their work is demonstrated. However, for other programs it is a requirement. For example, at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan Campus), students are required to contact potential mentors to ensure that there is a good potential match as a necessary first step to determining a good fit for the overall program. The initial contact with potential supervisors should include a brief introduction of who the student is, their research interests, and why they are interested in working with the supervisor. It is advisable that the student attach their CV to the email as well. When contacting prospective supervisors, it is important that applicants represent themselves as polite and professional in their correspondence. Accordingly, e-mails must be proofread before being sent and should demonstrate that the sender has inquired into the faculty’s research. However, while you should be open to a meeting, it is not recommended that you ask/require to meet talk with the supervisor before applying. While some supervisors will want to talk with each student before, others have 10-20 students applying to work with them each year and really do not spend a lot of time at this level, on in depth interviewing of candidates. Until the full application is in and reviewed by them and the graduate admissions committee, it is impossible to know if a student will meet the requirements to proceed to an interview.

Applicants will also want to reach out to their current supervisors and/or professors for letters of recommendations. Most programs will require 3 academic references. For some schools, but not all, a professional reference may be submitted in substitution for an academic letter. It is essential that referees are willing to provide a strong positive testament to the applicant’s abilities and can speak to their potential success in a primarily research-based graduate program. Reference letters that offer faint praise or that are critical of the applicant can be damaging to an application (for other so-called ‘Kisses of Death’ see Appleby & Appleby, 2006). Applicants should aim to facilitate the process for referees by ensuring that referees have plenty of notice (4 to 8 weeks in advance of the application deadline) that they will require a letter in the future. Applicants may draft a list of the schools they will apply to and provide a step-by-step guide on how to submit the LOR to each school (electronically and/or by physical mail) for referees’ convenience. Applicants should also provide referees with direction by identifying examples where they have proved their capacity to succeed in a clinical research program. Further, applicants should also send references, an updated CV, a set of transcripts, and background information about the program to which they are applying. The more information the reference has, the easier it is to write a strong letter. And, appreciate that while this is critical and paramount for you, faculty likely have 5, 10, -20 others letters they are writing for students for various programs and scholarships with different deadlines. Therefore, ask them when they would like the gentle reminders for submission (i.e., 2 weeks, 1 week, 3 days before). Also, make sure to tell them the actual deadline, not when you like the materials in. While this may cause you anxiety, a faculty typically has numerous deadlines at once and they are just doing the best they can. Remain calm and professional as you provide those gentle reminders – consider this your first test of handling clinical stress!

Official transcripts, CVs, and the personal statement can be completed and submitted electronically any time before the application deadline – and should be done well ahead of schedule. This will help to mitigate unforeseen circumstances such as the 2018 postal strike in Canada - which delayed regular mail by several weeks. However, gathering feedback from peers and supervisors on the written portions of the application is imperative. Do not hesitate to start this process early. Applicants will want to complete an initial draft of written portions several months prior to the deadline to ensure enough time to make necessary revisions. Applicants should spend ample time editing and revising their personal statement to ensure no typos, spelling or grammar mistakes are present. It is strongly recommended that applicants have at least one other person read the letter of intent. In the following sections, we will provide additional content and stylistic information regarding the personal statement.

As noted earlier, an oft-neglected but necessary part of graduate applications, specifically in Canada, is applying for external funding from the three federal granting agencies (Tri-Council): CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC. Applications are due December 1st for those applying to MA programs and mid-September for those applying to Ph.D. programs. These applications require two academic references as well as a short research proposal. Each funding agency may require different information. Applicants will want to give themselves an appropriate amount of time to become familiar with the literature required to write a strong research proposal. And make sure to adhere to the guidelines – to the t! For example, at one institution, programs will not forward applications for full review if they exceed the page/word limit. This would disadvantage the candidates that had met the word limit which could be cause for a grievance. Consider this another test of your clinical acumen, just like a therapy session. Can you find a way to say what you need to in the most eloquent and parsimonious way within the time confines allowed? Note that your proposed study does not have to be carried out; this is simply an exercise of the ability to clearly communicate a potential research idea in a scientific manner. It is important to understand that this information reflects the current funding status in Canada in January 2019. Information and government funding opportunities may change in the future.

For a more comprehensive and detailed timeline for suggestions as to when these components should be completed, as well as information on interviews after the application period, please refer to Dr. Sophia Choukas-Bradley’s Tips for Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide.


American Psychological Association. (2019). Graduate Study in Psychology, 2019 Edition. American Psychological Association.

Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process. Teaching of Psychology,33(1), 19-24. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3301_5

Canada Graduate Scholarships – Master’s Program Resources.

Choukas-Bradley, S. (2011, October). A Student’s Perspective on Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide Sophie Choukas-Bradley, M.A. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from

CIHR Doctoral Research Award.

Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program Doctoral Scholarships and SSHRC Doctoral Fellowships.

Prinstein, M. (2017). Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from


General Resources

Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology

A Student’s Perspective on Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide Sophie Choukas-Bradley

Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process

CPA Accreditation Website

GRE Resources

Greenlight Test Prep

Quizlet Basic GRE Words and Quizlet Advanced GRE Words

GRE e-rater (to be used in order to get a sense of GRE score)

Crash Course Psychology (used as Joey’s primary resource for subject GRE studying with great success)


Jill Biography:

Jill M. Robinson, M.A. is currently a graduate student in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of British Columbia | Okanagan. Her research interests include cognitive models of substance use as well as prevention and intervention of adolescent substance use. Jill currently works with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and substance use disorders.

Parky Biography:

Parky Lau is a Master’s student in the clinical psychology program at Ryerson University. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, Parky obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He currently works in the Sleep and Depression Laboratory under Dr. Colleen Carney examining cognitive factors related to the development and maintenance of insomnia. His professional interests include mentoring undergraduate students, attending research conferences, and playing an active part in shaping organizations within Ryerson University. Parky can be reached by email at [email protected]

Joey Biography:

Joseph Rootman is a Master’s student in the clinical psychology program at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan Campus. He moved to the Okanagan after completing his undergraduate education in Psychology at the University of British Columbia – Vancouver campus. He is currently a researcher in the Therapeutic, Recreational & Problematic Substance Use Lab under the supervision of Dr. Zach Walsh. Joseph’s primary research interest surrounds the use of Cannabis as a substitute for other, more harmful, drugs. Beyond research, Joseph is the Chair of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy – Okanagan Chapter. Joseph can be reached by email at [email protected]

Lutes Biography:

Dr. Lutes is a Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at the University of British Columbia - Okanagan Campus. Dr. Lutes is a clinical health and registered psychologist whose area of research is in developing innovative cognitive and behavioral treatment interventions focused on lifestyle change and chronic disease management for conditions such as obesity and diabetes and their co-morbid psychological correlates including distress, depression and well-being. She also does research/advocacy/policy change in the area of integrated primary care and training the next generation of psychologists for healthcare delivery in the 21st century. She has secured over $7 million dollars in grant funding, published over 60-peer-reviewed publications, and had over 100 oral presentations to date. She is on the national executive of the Canadian Council for Professional Psychology Programs (CCPPP) and is on the editorial board for the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. She is the director of the healthy weight clinic and the Centre for Obesity and Well-Being Research Excellence (CORE) at the UBC. Dr. Lutes can be reached at [email protected]

Learning Writing by Rewriting: Providing Multiple Deadlines for a Final Paper

July 10, 2019

By Alan Chu


“I have read through all my students’ final paper, indicated mistakes, and offered suggestions for improvement. Am I wasting my time and energy?”

Does this voice sound familiar? Instructors who use writing as an assessment-- including me-- find that many students do not have good academic writing skills. When we design helpful writing assignments, such as research papers, they often fail to deliver on their promise. Some typical problems of final papers include:

  • An inability to follow important details of the instructions
  • Difficulty expressing ideas clearly in writing
  • Trouble following citation styles.

Another core problem is that many students do not actually learn from writing a final paper. Many students procrastinate until the end of the semester (even if you warn them the very first day of the semester!), and barely have time to organize their thoughts. Additionally, based on research evidence and my experience, helpful feedback is almost impossible due to instructors being busy entering all of the grades and students not reading feedback after the semester is over.

So, what can we do? If we use final paper as a summative assessment of course objectives, we should provide students with multiple assessments throughout the semester to prepare them for writing the final paper. 

An image depicting deadlines: An alarm clock, a notebook and various numbers lying around it

Setting up Multiple Deadlines

Setting up multiple deadlines for various parts of a final paper is one effective way to implement formative assessments that lead to the summative assessment in writing. I teach a Research Methods in Psychology course in which students have to conduct a group research project and submit a final individual research paper (about 10–12 pages). Most of my students have never written a research paper before and thus struggle with writing their first one. Instead of writing a whole paper at once, I help students to write their final research paper in parts and submit corresponding drafts in the order of Introduction, Methods, Results, and the whole paper with Discussions. I clearly lay out specific instructions for students to focus their time and energy for quality writing of each part. If any part does not pass the proficiency standard listed in the rubric, students have to rewrite that part and resubmit it. Based on the detailed constructive feedback given on each draft, students submit their final paper at the end of the semester by rewriting each part and put them together in one piece. In this way, students have sufficient time throughout the semester to learn how to write adequately the first time and rewrite a better product to fulfill course objectives. 

A graphic depicting an assignment containing Title page, Context, Literature Review, Purpose and Hypothesis and being graded on the Novice to Competent to Exemplary scale between 0 and 2

Providing Feedback

Having multiple deadlines may help students understand and execute the final paper with a better quality, but this approach alone may not maximize learning without adequate feedback. One of the key challenges faced by instructors is providing feedback that students want to and actually use. Research indicates that instructor comments are often useless because students frequently do not attend to or understand the feedback. Furthermore, the feedback students appreciate (i.e., general positive comments) is not necessarily the feedback (i.e., constructive criticism) that could best support their learning. Thus, it is “not inevitable that students will read and pay attention to feedback even when that feedback is lovingly crafted and provided promptly” (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004, p. 20).

One way to encourage students to use the feedback is to convince them that doing so can improve their final grades. Similar to how researchers resubmit a manuscript to a journal for publication, I ask students to highlight each of the revisions that they make in their final paper and assure that making all of the suggested changes appropriately can result in a high or even perfect score on their paper. Instead of providing proofreading services that have been shown ineffective, the content of the feedback should surround some big ideas regarding structure and organization (e.g., theories and significance), support of arguments (e.g., literature review), and important technical details (e.g., citation style). In courses that instructors cannot possibly provide detailed feedback for separate parts of a final paper, instructors may give students credits for writing a brief outline with some arguments for support, followed by providing constructive feedback. In order to enhance student likelihood of using feedback, instructors can foster students’ growth mindset, rooted in Carol Dweck’s research, by providing encouraging feedback such as “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” 

An image depicting a Fixed vs Growth Mindset and the challenges, obstacles, effort, criticism and success of others and how those differ between the two mindsets.
Image Credit: The Growth Mindset Andreas Pizsa

Practical Perspectives

What is students’ take on writing a final paper with multiple deadlines and feedback beforehand? In my anonymous course evaluation, over 80% of my students stated that having multiple deadlines and instructor feedback were the most helpful things for completing their final paper. Some students also mentioned having writing samples and meeting with the instructor were important for their writing. However, a small group of students, particularly the less engaged, may not like this approach due to the fact that revisions represent a greater amount of work. Additionally, having multiple drafts and providing helpful feedback to each of them increase instructors’ workload. Therefore, in conclusion, I would like to offer some caveats for using this multiple-deadline approach:

  • Make sure students understand why it is beneficial for them to write the final paper and how having multiple deadlines and drafts can help. For example, I show students some requirements for psychology graduate program applications, which emphasize good writing skills and research experience.
  • Set up deadlines that are not too close, and yet not too far, from one another. My class meets twice a week, and I set deadlines that are one week apart for three different parts of the paper; students are able to receive my feedback (both written and verbal) prior to submitting the next part. I deliberately plan my calendar to ensure both students and myself are typically not very busy, such that the writing and grading can be completed in a timely fashion. The final paper submission are three weeks apart from the previous draft to allow students time to revise and ask questions deemed necessary.
  • Consider the number of students in a course. I only have 25 students in my research methods course, so I can dedicate time and energy to provide helpful feedback to each part of the paper. For instructors who teach larger classes, they shall consider training graduate teaching assistants to provide intended feedback, or offering a framework for undergraduate students to complete peer review and provide feedback for classmates. Research shows that both reviewing classmates’ work and having work reviewed by classmate can benefit and learn from the process.

Enjoy grading your final paper next time!


Dr. Tsz Lun (Alan) Chu’s is an Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. He teaches research methods in psychology and conducts research on motivation for sport and exercise. Alan is also a sport psychology consultant who works with athletes and coaches on mental skills training. To practice what he preaches, Alan is highly involved in sports, specializing in table tennis as a competitive player and an internationally certified coach.


Carver, M. (2017). Limitations of corrective feedforward: A call for resubmission practices to become learning-oriented. Journal of Academic Writing, 7(1), 1-15.

Gibbs, G., & Simpson, C. (2004). Does your assessment support your students’ learning. Journal of Teaching and learning in Higher Education, 1(1), 1-30.

Winter, J. K., Neal, J. C., & Waner, K. K. (1996). Student and instructor use of comments on business communication papers. Business Communication Quarterly, 59(4), 56-68.

Brave Teaching: Using the Fearless Teaching Framework to Infuse Your Course with Evidence-Based Strategies

July 3, 2019

By Virginia L. Byrne (@virginialbyrne) and Alice E. Donlan (@alicedonlan)

Most faculty want to be excellent teachers. We want to use evidence-based, cutting-edge teaching practices. We want our students to love coming to class and really learn the course content. We want stellar student evaluations. We want to dazzle our department chairs and deans.

But you know what most faculty don’t want to do?

Dedicate lots of time to reading decades of education research.

This is why our Fearless Teaching Framework is a useful tool to help improve college teaching. We distilled decades of research and theory on teaching and learning into set of recommendations for university instructors interested in improving their teaching.

The Fearless Teaching Framework is a conceptual model of the four pieces of effective teaching that promote student engagement and motivation: classroom climate, course content, teaching practices, and assessment strategies (Donlan, Loughlin, Byrne, 2019). Each piece represents aspects of the course that an instructor can control and change as they develop into a better teacher.

A graphic detailing the Fearless Teaching Network: A square with writing on the four sides: Practice, Assessment, Climate, Content
The Fearless Teaching Network. Image used with the permission of the authors.

We distill our full literature review (Donlan, Loughlin, Byrne, 2019) into these brief suggestions:

Climate – When students feel that the classroom climate is supportive, they are more likely to ask questions, ask for help, support their peers, engage deeply with material, and achieve academically. Instructors have the power to structure the learning environment so that students feel a sense of belonging and that their voices and questions are welcome.

A supportive climate is fostered both in how the instructor establishes the classroom climate at the beginning of the course and how they interact with students throughout the semester. For example: 

At the beginning of the semester, the instructor:

  • Clearly states that they want students to succeed.
  • Positions themselves as a partner in meeting the course objectives.
  • Asks for and uses students’ preferred name and pronouns.
  • Asks students what they need to learn best – whether it be clearer instructions or closed captioning on course videos.

Throughout the semester:

  • When an instance of discrimination, hate, or bias emerge in class or on campus, the instructors is prepared to talk about and address issues that inhibit students from being successful. Learn more about how to handle sensitive topics in class here:
An image of young people smiling at the camera

Content – Students are more successful when the course content is appropriate for their developmental stage and academic ability. Further, students are more likely to be engaged when they understand that the content prepares them for the next courses in their sequence of study, and is relevant to their lives outside of the classroom. In other words, high quality content meets students where they are, and prepares them for where they need to go.

We recommend that instructors:

  • Connect course topics to examples from students’ professional and personal interests – including parenthood and community leadership.
  • Emphasize how the course content can be used in the real world, for example through Problem Based Learning – meaning that they develop a plan in which students need to apply their knowledge to real-world problems. The application of course content to problem solving helps students retain content and self-assess their mastery.
  • Collaborate with colleagues to ensure the learning objectives and content across courses in a major/minor sequence are aligned and build toward mastery.
  • Ask students about their prior content knowledge on the first day of class – maybe in an ungraded pre-test survey – to gauge the incoming knowledge of the group.
Books stacked on a shelf with their spines turned away from the viewer

Practices– When instructors adopt active learning practices and appropriately scaffold new content, students are more engaged with the course material and motivated to learn. We recommend that instructors:

  • Rely on strategies beyond lecturing – such as active learning practices. Structuring learning so that students are required to respond to one another’s ideas, create a product together, or teach each other, can be an effective teaching strategy.
  • Practice Scaffolding: Instructors can motivate students by scaffolding new ideas to pre-existing knowledge, building a scaffolding system to help them learn and practice new content without going too far, too fast.
  • Hold Clear, High, and Reasonable Expectations: By being consistent with praise, corrections, rubrics, and mastery goals, instructors set high expectations that can motivate students to stay engaged. When teachers provide comfort instead of coaching during failure or praise the accomplishment of very simple tasks, it can inadvertently signal that they don’t believe the learner is capable of challenging tasks.
A student wearing a graduation cap and smiling

Assessment – We found that learning assessments are most productive when they are valid, reliable measures of stated learning outcomes and provide students with with prompt and fair feedback. However, often too much emphasis falls on designing summative, end-of-semester assessments. We recommend that instructors make time throughout the semester to provide students with formative feedback on their drafts and design clear rubrics that communicate exactly what mastery looks like.

  • Provide students with formative feedback mid-way through the semester on a project or paper either through instructor feedback or a peer review process. This process allows the instructor to identify students who need additional support in meeting the course objectives, and allows students to reflect on what aspects of the content they understand and what aspects they need to focus on in future weeks.
  • Increase student motivation to study and learn by providing students with a clear rubric. A rubric is a tool that details the gradations of difference between understanding something well and not understanding it at all. Rubrics can require significant effort to construct, but they ultimately decrease the amount of labor dedicated to grading student work by establishing clear expectations.
  • Construct assessments with learning objectives in mind and then work backwards to design a rubric and an assessment structure that align with the objectives. Students are more in control of the grade they earn when they can compare their effort and output against a detailed grading rubric and realistic test grades. Rubrics motivate students to work towards the grade they want.
A person using a ruler and pen in a notebook


From our review of the education theory and research literature, we found that instructors can improve their teaching by reflecting on their teaching within the 4 pieces of the Fearless Teaching Framework and setting a goal to change one thing each semester. We are piloting an evaluative instrument based on the Fearless Teaching Framework that we hope to share with the community soon.

Based on the Fearless Teaching Framework and all the recommendations we provided,

What is one thing you will do next semester to improve your teaching?

Want to learn more about the Fearless Teaching Framework? Check out our article at

Feel free to contact us to talk more about adopting the Fearless Teaching Framework: [email protected] or [email protected].


Virginia L. Byrne, M.S., is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Teaching & Learning, Policy, & Leadership at the University of Maryland’s College of Education. Her concentration is in Technology, Learning and Leadership. She serves as the Graduate Assistant for Research and Assessment at the Teaching and Learning Transformation Center. She earned a Master’s in Higher Education: Student Affairs from Florida State University and a Graduate Certificate in Instructional Systems Design from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Learn more about her work at

Alice E. Donlan, Ph.D., is the Director of Research at the University of Maryland’s Teaching and Learning Transformation Center. Alice leads the research, evaluation, and assessment efforts at the TLTC, and collaborates with faculty and programs across campus to understand ways to improve teaching and learning outcomes. She earned her Ph.D. in Human Development with a specialization in Educational Psychology and a certificate in Measurement, Statistics, and Evaluation at the University of Maryland. 

Examining the Why Behind Your Late or Missed Work Policies

May 8, 2019

By Christine Harrington

We all include policies on our syllabi, often simply copying and pasting them from one version to another. But, how often do we revisit the why behind our policies? What do your policies communicate? How do your policies help and hinder student achievement of course learning goals? Are there any unintended consequences of these policies? These are important questions to consider as our policies can impact student motivation and success (Hutcheon, 2017). Let’s use the example of one such policy—late or missed work—to illustrate the importance of regularly reflecting on and revising class policy.

The why behind late and missed work policies

The primary reason behind late and missed work policies is pretty obvious. Most of us would agree that completing tasks on time is an important life skill. For example, employers expect their employees to meet deadlines on projects and be on time to important meetings. By imposing deadlines and policies related to these deadlines, we can help students increase personal responsibility by developing effective time management skills.

Another reason behind these policies relates to our own—rather than our students’-- time management. As faculty members, we are incredibly busy, juggling teaching, research, mentoring and committee work. When we set deadlines for assignments, we often do so in an effort to manage our own packed schedules. It can very time-consuming for us to accept late work at all different times of the semester or create alternative exams or assignments. 

Image of multiple alarm clocks

What do our policies communicate?

Late and missed work policies typically communicate to students the importance of completing tasks on time. It is therefore important to include these policies on our syllabi (Doolittle and Suidzinski, 2010). However, the nature of these policies and the way in which we write these policies can be very important (Harrington & Thomas, 2018).

Some instructors emphasize the importance of these policies by using capital letters, bolded and larger font, and exclamation marks. These strategies will likely draw student attention to these policies, but there may be potential negative consequences as well. Students may perceive you to be yelling at them (Agger & Shelton, 2017). This approach may communicate to students that you do not believe they know how to responsibly behave. It may convey the idea that you expect them to behave irresponsibly and submit assignments late. This may negatively impact our relationships with students right at the start of the semester and may also decrease student motivation.

Strict late work policies can also send the message to students that the assignments in this course should be their priority. Although we do want students to place a high priority on school, it is important for us to recognize that this course is probably just one of many courses and that our students likely have many other competing responsibilities such as family and work. I’m sure we can all imagine a situation such as the loss of a loved one or a serious illness where we would agree that the course assignment would not be a priority in a student’s life. Strict, rigid policies do not acknowledge these situations.

What are your goals for the course and how do your policies help and hinder student achievement of these goals?

We all have identified learning outcomes for our courses. These learning outcomes are typically focused on students learning content and skills related to our discipline. In most situations, we have not identified specific outcomes related to timeliness even though we recognize the importance of students meeting deadlines. Let’s consider how strict no-late work policies or policies with significant penalties for lateness impact learning. If a student misses an assignment and is not given an opportunity to make-up the assignment, they have then missed out on a learning opportunity.

Policies that allow students to submit work late but with a penalty sound on the surface to be supportive of students, but in some cases, the penalties are so harsh that the reality is that it may not be worth the student’s effort to complete the task late. For example, some instructors have a half credit late policy. What would motivate a student to complete an assignment when the highest possible grade is an F? Late work policies that drop a letter grade for every day the assignment is late does not help a student who is in the hospital for a week or is spending several days with family after a loss of a loved one. Assuming this assignment was directly linked to our course learning outcomes, then this student may not be able to successfully achieve these learning outcomes for the course. 

A pen and a graded paper listing the grade as A plus

Are there any unintended consequences of our policies?

Students can become very discouraged by a zero grade. In some cases, the student may decide to withdraw from the course, especially if they do not see a path toward successfully completing the course. Depending on how much the assignment or exam counts toward the final grade, it may be impossible to recover and pass the course. In this scenario, the student may have learned an important lesson about the importance of being on time, but the primary learning goals of the course were not achieved. Since our primary goal is for students to learn the course content and related skills, this type of policy may not be aligned with our goals.

Late and missed work policies can also impact students from different cultures in different ways. Let’s look at an example. For example, perhaps one of our students had a death in family or was very ill. If approached by a student in this situation, many of us would likely make an exception to the no make-up or late work policy. On the surface, this seems like a fair approach. However, not all students will approach us if we have already communicated a strict no-make up exam policy. If a student comes from a culture where it is not acceptable to challenge a policy and ask for an exception, they would probably not approach us. As a result, we would not be able to make an exception. I think we would all agree that we created policies to be fair not unfair and yet a policy such as this one does certainly seem like it gives an unfair advantage to some students.

I think we would all agree that the final grade should accurately capture whether or not a student was able to successfully achieve the course learning outcomes. Sometimes strict or harsh policies that result in zero grades impact the final grade so that the final grade does not accurately tell the story about whether a student has successfully accomplished the learning goals of the course. It’s important that our policies align to our course goals.

Suggestions for developing and communicating policies

1. Consider accepting late work. Begin by communicating the importance of completing work on time and how doing so will help them learn and succeed in the class, but then also acknowledge that situations may occur that prohibit them from doing so. I have generally found that most students really appreciate this type of policy and do not take advantage of it. If you are worried about this may negatively impact your schedule, you could establish parameters for this policy. For example, you could:

  • Accept late work only during the final weeks of the semester
  • Allow each student to submit a specified number of assignments late.
  • Tell students that very low stakes assignments such as online quizzes can not be made up but that moderate and high stakes assignments can be made up if there is an extenuating circumstance. The rationale for different rules for different types of assignments is that very low stakes assignments won’t negatively impact the final grade as much as moderate or high stakes assignments.

2. Accurately communicate your policy. If your practice is to make exceptions when warranted, then it makes more sense to communicate this in your policy. Instead of saying “no late work will be accepted,” you could instead recognize that situations may arise that prohibit a student from submitting work on time and if this happens, they should come and talk with you. This type of policy not only more accurately reflects the practice, it also communicates to students that you care about their success and recognize that they may encounter stressors in their life.

3. Use positive language. Phrasing policies in a positive way can motivate students (Wasley, 2008). For example, instead of a policy that says no-late work will be accepted, what about having a policy that says all students are expected to complete work on time and to talk with you if life circumstances make this difficult or impossible.

4. Provide a rationale for policies. Students really appreciate it when you share the why behind your policy (Harrington & Thomas, 2018). For example, you could begin by explaining that being able to meet deadlines is an important skill. You could also emphasize how each assignment builds on the previous one and how their classmates will often be counting on them to be prepared for group activities.

5. Consider using 50 as the lowest grade. Zero grades can have a significant negative impact on student motivation and achievement. Grading systems are failure heavy- with failure being represented by approximately 65% of the grading scale. Guskey (2004) advocates for grading scales from 50-100 rather than 0-100. With 50 as the lowest grade, students are more able to recover from a mistake or missed opportunity. In many cases, students can’t mathematically earn a passing grade if they received a zero on a major assignment.

6. Use a series of formative assessments throughout the semester. Having numerous opportunities for students to demonstrate what they are learning is advantageous for many reasons. One reason is that no one grade on an assignment will determine the final grade or outcome for the course. Another reason is that students will have the opportunity to learn from feedback they have received throughout the semester.

7. Structure grading policies to account for possible missed work. Another approach is to build in a “drop the lowest grade” or “only count the highest three grades” approach for different assignment categories. This is quite easy to do in most course learning management systems. The benefits of this approach are that you don’t need to worry about accepting late work and a student’s final grade won’t be negatively impacted by missing an assignment. You will also probably find that the student’s final grade is more likely to accurately capture whether a student successfully achieve the course learning outcomes because outlier grades were removed from the calculation. 

A group of students jumping up for joy having graduated, throwing their caps in the air.

Establishing policies that align to your course learning outcomes can play a critical role in student success. Students will undoubtedly appreciate your flexible policies and be more motivated to learn. For additional ideas about policies, read Designing a motivational syllabus: Creating a learning path for student engagement (Harrington & Thomas, 2018) published by Stylus.

Feel free to visit my website for more teaching and learning resources. You can also email me at [email protected].


Dr. Christine Harrington is a national expert in student success and teaching and learning. She has worked in higher education for almost 20 years. She is currently an associate professor and co-coordinator of the Ed.D. in Community College Leadership program at New Jersey City University. Previously, Dr. Harrington worked as a professor of psychology and student success at Middlesex County College. She also served as the First-Year Seminar course coordinator and the Director for the Center for the Enrichment of Learning and Teaching. Christine also teaches part-time in the Learning and Teaching Department within the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. Recently, Christine served a 2-year appointment as the Executive Director for the Center for Student Success at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. In this role, she assisted all 19 New Jersey community colleges with implementing Guided Pathways to improve student success outcomes.

Christine is the author of a research-based first-year seminar textbook Student Success in College: Doing What Works! 3rd edition, published by Cengage. She co-authored Dynamic Lecturing: Research-Based Strategies to Enhance Lecture Effectiveness with Todd Zakrajsek and Designing a Motivational Syllabus: Creating a Learning Path for Student Engagement with Melissa Thomas, both published by Stylus. She also co-authored Why the First-Year Seminar Matters: Helping Students Choose and Stay on a Career Path with Theresa Orosz, published by Rowman and Littlefield. She was the 2016 recipient of the Excellence in Teaching First-Year Experience award which was presented at the Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience, and the recipient of the 2016 Middlesex County College Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award. She is frequently invited to give plenary presentations at national and local conferences as well as at colleges and universities across the nation.


Agger, B., & Shelton, B. A. (2017). Time, motion, discipline: The authoritarian syllabus on American college campuses. Critical Sociology, 43(3), 355-369.

Doolittle, P. E., & Siudzinski, R. A. (2010). Recommended syllabus components: What do higher education faculty include in their syllabus? Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 20(3), 29-61.

Guskey, T. R. (2004). Are zeros your ultimate weapon? Principal Leadership, 5, 32-35.

Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018). Designing a motivational syllabus: Creating a learning path for student engagement. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Hutcheon, T. (2017). Excellence in teaching essay: Technology bans and student experience in the college classroom. Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from

Wasley, P. (2008). The syllabus becomes a repository of legalese. The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Faculty. Retrieved from

The First Five Minutes of Class: Power of Hitting Pause

May 1, 2019

by Gail Rice



Image of a Pause Button

The good news is this - We can change our lectures into active learning experiences with the simple, small change of adding purposeful pauses. These pauses don’t have to take much time away from delivering content but they will make the difference between minimal learning and exciting improvements in retention.

In an earlier blog we examined the value of pausing at the end of class to reflect on the learning experience. We reviewed literature that supports the idea that learning will have a stronger and more lasting impact if teachers step back and allow learners to reflect and share their summaries and action plans before leaving the learning session.

In addition to closing pauses, there are two other critical times in a learning session when pausing is particularly important:

  • The start
  • The middle (in a longer session)

In this article, we will examine what we might gain from pausing at the start of learning, as well as throughout the lesson to allow learners to personalize and experience concepts for themselves.

Pauses Create a Positive Learning Environment

Pauses provide an opportunity to create an environment which is conducive to learning. When we take a few minutes to pause at the start of class, we create a safe environment, one which communicates that students are valued. Students learn more when they are in a positive environment. It may be good to remind ourselves that people think better when they are happy (McCullough, 2017).

What you can expect from a starting pause

Starting pauses can help with any of the following objectives:

  • Grab attention, focus, and minimize distractions
  • Enhance power of the lesson
  • Create interest, curiosity, and anticipation
  • Bring about positive expectations
  • Connect to prior knowledge
  • Provide a safe environment and create community

So often we assume that these objectives have already been accomplished. We think our students come to class thinking, “I am so excited about this lecture, I have read the assignment, and I have my questions ready.” This may not be the case, however. I am afraid that many times my students come to class not even knowing what the day’s topic is. We don’t take a moment to check our students’ interest, desire, prior experiences, or exposure.

If we don’t take a starting pause to provide ourselves some feedback, we may launch into the lesson and waste time teaching something that is already understood, or, worse, teaching something that no one desires because they don’t see the value of it.

Image of a brain, wrapped with a chain and a lock
Stzabnik (2015) suggests that there are 8 minutes in the learning experience that matter most. “If a lesson does not start off strong by activating prior knowledge, creating anticipation, or establishing goals, student interest wanes, and you have to do some heavy lifting to get it back.” If only we had paused for a moment for a simple introductory experience, everything might have been different.

Ideal learning begins with an experience (Kolb, 2014). Starting pauses offer us opportunities to provide that experience to kick off learning. This activity might involve reflecting, moving, writing, watching a video clip, taking a quick quiz, or responding to questions. The starting pause is usually short—a quick introduction.

Less is More—This is SO Hard for Us to Believe

If we are to truly maximize learning when we teach, we must embrace the fact that we cannot do all of the talking—we must cover less content—we must give up at least a few minutes of our lecture hour. Students learn better when they have opportunities to speak or write about their learning. We cannot ignore the fact that whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning (Bowman, 2011; Doyle, 2011).

Because it is so very hard for us to give up the lectern, it is probably worth our time to review a couple of pivotal studies.

Ruhl and colleagues examined the difference that pausing might make. The study contrasted two classes in which one group had traditional lectures and the other had three two-minute breaks for students to share their ideas with other. At the end of the five-week experiment, each group of students took an examination. The instructors were quite surprised to discover a significant difference between the performance of the groups—and in the opposite direction from what they expected. The group who had less lecture each day performed better on the exam (Ruhl, Hughes, & Schloss, 1987).

Abstract image of a person and their thoughts
Another study supports the idea that less is more. In this study, medical school professors prepared three different versions of a lecture on the same topic—one which was less dense, one of medium density, and one of high density. The higher density lectures had more new concepts introduced and fewer examples provided. Students randomly assigned to each of the three groups took a test immediately after the lectures and then took an unexpected test again 15 days later. The students in the low-density group performed better on both the immediate post-test and, even more so, on the two-week later post-test (Russell, Hendricson & Herbert, 1984).

These studies illustrate the limits of the human mind. Our students are only capable of learning so much new information at a time. If we think we can race along with fast-paced, high-density lectures, we are probably fooling ourselves. Students learn more when we lecture less, when they do more of the talking, and when we pause to ask them how they are processing what we have tried to teach them (Rice, 2018).

Middle Pauses Help Reduce Cognitive Load

Ruhl’s study focused on the benefits of pausing during the middle portions of the learning session. Many, if not all, of our students cannot take in more than about 20 minutes or so of new material at a time (Major, Harris & Zakrajsek, 2016; Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017). We are told that even the best and most entertaining lecturers begin to lose the attention of their audience within 15-20 minutes after beginning (Jensen, 2005). Since most lectures last an hour or so, we may have to plan for more than just a starting and closing pause. We may have to allow for some short learning breaks throughout the lecture to reduce cognitive load.

Reducing cognitive load and keeping students’ attention requires regular mental breaks (Howard, 1994; Major et al., 2016). We know that chunking is a valuable strategy to help us break our teaching into manageable sections. Pauses allow us to chunk. When we pause occasionally, we give our students opportunities to:

  • Refocus
  • Review
  • Relieve cognitive load
  • Retrieve
  • Reenergize

Three Quick and Easy Mid-Pauses

Image of a Book Cover of "Hitting Pause" written by Gail Taylor Rice

The book, Hitting Pause: 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning (Rice, 2018), provides a number of illustrations of teachers who have paused to enhance their students’ learning. There are three pause techniques that are particularly well suited to the middle portion of the lecture. They are in common use and well-known, but worth reviewing.In order to use these techniques, instructors will plan ahead of time for some thought-provoking questions—perhaps writing them down in the margins of their notes, or preparing a slide to project the question. Then they can choose one of these techniques to allow students to reflect and share their ideas.

Think Pair Share

The first of these is the think-pair-share technique, otherwise known as the buzz group, the “turn to your partner” and many other variations (Rice, 2018, MP 24). Simply ask the group to turn to the person sitting close to them, in groups of two or three, and share their thoughts with each other. After a short time, ask for a few to share with the large group and then proceed.

Short Write

Students write their response to the question, either on their notes, or on a card provided by the instructor, or on a blog or with an audience response system, such as PollEverywhere. The Short Write opportunity (Rice, 2018, MP 23) is a nice alternative to the Think Pair Share technique, and has some advantages, such as allowing the more introverted student opportunities to think quietly before jotting down ideas.

Pause Procedure Question

The Pause Procedure Question (Rice, 2018, MP25) constitutes simply asking the question in a powerful way. The teacher says something like this, “I am going to ask you a question. I want each of you to think of your answer and be ready to answer if I call on you.” The beauty of this way of questioning is that the tension in the room is raised for all of the students. They feel self-conscious in front of their colleagues and they will usually exert some effort in thinking of an answer to the question that has been posed. 

Abstract image of a brain raising a hand to ask a question

Barriers to Hitting Pause

Trying something new in our teaching requires a willingness to risk. Those of us who are reluctant to incorporate starting, middle, and closing pauses into our lecture plans may need to remind ourselves of these important ideas:

  • Teaching less can lead to more learning (Ruhl, et al., 1987).
  • Small changes can make powerful differences in student learning (Lang, 2016).
  • Learning is directly proportional to the amount of fun you are having (Pike, 2003).

We might not be comfortable pausing with certain groups we teach. We may be concerned that pauses are too childlike for our sophisticated audiences.

However, when we plan a playful method to ask a substantive question, our students thank us for the chance to test their understanding and get feedback. Usually they don’t mind if they have a little fun in the process.

A statistics teacher reluctantly decided to try a few of these pause techniques in her class. The first one was the stand up, hands up, pair up technique (Rice, 2018, MP36) for a fairly simple mathematical problem—computing a t-test. Later in the class period, the teacher had students in small groups use a simultaneous Round Robin Pause (MP38) for a more challenging question requiring interpretation of statistical test results. The students’ comments at the end of the class period illustrate the value of those middle pauses:

  • “This is the first session in this course that I can truly say I enjoyed. I was always nervous in this class before, but today I relaxed. It was helpful to be able to work together to solve the math problems, as I had a check on my calculations with my partner.”
  • “The “Round Robin” activity was reassuring when we could talk together and use our group consensus to reach a conclusion.”
  • “Thanks for your creativity in planning today’s class. The time flew. I felt that I really understood the t-test calculation and the case we worked on...”
  • “I really learned a lot in class today… Working in groups is much more reassuring than trying to do math and answering stat questions by yourself. Hope for more classes like this.”

The statistics teacher was glad she took a risk and gave students a chance to work together and share ideas. Giving students some pauses to help them feel more confident about their skills and to receive feedback about how well they were applying course concepts to examples similar to what they would have in their upcoming mid-term exam made a big difference.

Even though these breaks take a few minutes of class time, they pay off in big ways.

  • Chunks of learning work better
  • Take a break
  • Let students catch a breath
  • Less may really be more


Dr. Gail Rice is a professor at Loma Linda University, where she directs faculty development for the campus. She teaches for the Harvard Macy Institute for Education in the Health Professions in Boston and the USC Keck Medical School Innovations in Medical Education conference. She presents for organizations and campuses worldwide and has published books and articles for peer reviewed journals on various topics relating to creative, effective teaching in higher education. Her most recent publication is Hitting Pause: 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning, published by Stylus Publications. Gail and her husband, Richard, have devoted their lives to finding fresh and effective ways to teach university students.

You can contact Gail either through her website - , or by email - [email protected]

Hitting Pause: 65 Lecture Breaks to Refresh and Reinforce Learning - Book Discount

Pauses constitute a simple technique for enlivening and enhancing the effectiveness of lectures, or indeed of any form of instruction, whether a presentation or in an experiential setting. This book presents the evidence and rationale for breaking up lectures into shorter segments by using pauses to focus attention, reinforce key points, and review learning. It also provides 65 adaptable pause ideas to use at the opening of class, mid-way through, or as closers.

For 25% off Hitting Pause, follow the link below and use code HP25 when ordering.

Offer expires 12/31/2019


Bowman, S. (2011). Using brain science to make training stick. Glenbrook, NV: Bowperson.

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-centered teaching: Putting the research on learning into practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Howard, P. (1994). Owner’s manual for the brain. Austin, TX: Leorinian Press.

Jensen, E. P. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. (2016). Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success. New York, NY: Routledge.

McCullough, D., (2017, April 17). Interview by C. Rose. The American Spirit, CBS This Morning [Television Broadcast]. New York, NY: Columbia Broadcasting System.

Pike, R. W. (2003). Creative Training Techniques Handbook: Tips, Tactics, and How-To's for Delivering Effective Training (3rd ed.). Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press.

Rice, G. T. (2018). Hitting Pause: 65 lecture breaks to refresh and reinforce learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Ruhl, K. L., Hughes, C. A., & Schloss, P. J. (1987). Using the Pause Procedure to Enhance Lecture Recall. Teacher Education and Special Education, 10(1), 14-18. doi:10.1177/088840648701000103

Russell, I. J., Hendricson, W. D., & Herbert, R. J. (1984). Effects of lecture information density on medical student achievement. J Med Educ, 59(11 Pt 1), 881-889.

Sztabnik, B. (2015). The eight minutes that matter most. Retrieved from

Give your syllabus a makeover and watch your classroom transform.

March 6, 2019

By Kathy Klein

The Course Syllabus: A Discovery Process

A photo of a woman walking in the woods and a caption on the photo that reads: "The course syllabus: A discovery process
Photo by Michelle Spencer on Unsplash
The course syllabus is a tool that can be used to increase student engagement. Research indicates that engaged students achieve higher-level learning. When redesigning a course, I came to appreciate the significance of the course syllabus as a tool to promote student engagement.

To redesign the course, I followed course design principles. I used data collected from previous sections of the course and reflected on student outcomes and needs. I considered appropriate assignments aligned with course objectives. I mapped out engaging content to meet student learning outcomes. I followed best practices to create the “perfect” course. I placed relevant information in the course syllabus. However, looking at the course syllabus as a reflection of the changes I made, I realized that the first impression my syllabus made was not a good one.

To start, the syllabus for my dynamic, engaging, redesigned course was very old-fashioned (Figure 1). This syllabus could easily be created on a typewriter long before computers and Microsoft Word were ubiquitous tools for syllabus creation. In addition to a lack of visual interest and design, the syllabus contained policies and information copied from syllabi to syllabi over the years. These policies and procedures were not written to reflect current perspectives. My syllabus was as exciting to read as a terms of service agreement. This realization sparked a complete redesign of my syllabus in design and content (Figure 2).

Side by side comparison of two syllabi. The one the left is traditional, the one of the right is more dynamic. Figure 1 description: This image is the cover page of my traditional syllabus.  It doesn’t leverage the features of document creation available through programs like Microsoft Word.  The table is not easily read using screen readers or other accessibility devices. Figure 2 description: This image is a redesigned cover page of a more dynamic syllabus.  The syllabus is created from a Microsoft Word newsletter template.  Although the design is more complex, it is read by screen readers with alternative text provided for images.
Syllabi side by side comparison. Link to the template here.

I’d like to share with you what I learned during my discovery process about transforming syllabi to increase student engagement. To begin, a syllabus bloated with content, lacking design, and/or constructed without considering the power of the syllabus to serve as an important student learning and motivational tool is not typically the kind of syllabus that makes a good first impression for a course. Looking at my original syllabus, I realized I was missing an important opportunity to use the syllabus as a powerful tool. I decided to transform my syllabus to promote student engagement and enhance the learning experience.

My syllabus needed to accurately reflect the course redesign, explain course content, demonstrate pedagogical style, motivate students, and promote student learning and engagement. I wanted the syllabus to make an accurate first and lasting impression to encourage student interest and enthusiasm for the course. For more specific information about a syllabus makeover process, refer to Dr. Tona Hangen who had a similar realization about the power of the course syllabus.

The process of creating an engaging syllabus is not limited to adding pictures and columns. Developing a motivational and engaging syllabus requires content, organization, tone, and a learner-centered perspective of the syllabus. My process of syllabus redesign began by exploring basic assumptions about the syllabus. I asked myself Who? What? When? Where? How? and Why? questions about syllabus construction and design. I’m happy to share the resources and information I found to guide your efforts at syllabus transformation.

Who is the audience for the syllabus?

Young people conversing. The image caption reads: "Who is the audience for the syllabus?"
Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash
Answering this question helps articulate the basic importance of a syllabus. A well-designed syllabus provides an important organizational tool for students and instructors. The syllabus assists students and instructors to efficiently plan and prepare for the course. The usefulness of a syllabus is not limited to students and instructors.

A syllabus is evidence of course learning and provides departmental offices, other faculty, and supervisors with pertinent information about the course and teaching methods. A course syllabus is frequently the starting document provided for peer and course evaluation.

A syllabus is sometimes used to offer proof of mastery of specific content when transferring the course credits to another institution or meeting the requirements of a pre-requisite course. As we develop our syllabus it is important to recognize the syllabus may be used for a variety of purposes. For additional information, Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning provides a brief overview of the functions of a syllabus.

What content belongs in a syllabus?

People passing papers to one another over a table filled with laptops, other papers and coffee containers. The image captions reads: "What content belongs in a syllabus?"
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Recognizing the importance of a syllabus, we’ll consider the content that belongs in the syllabus. Kevin Gannon writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education offers practical advice regarding syllabus content. The article provides a good review of recommended content and discusses additional issues encountered when developing syllabi. In addition to required syllabus content that might be mandated by our employers, my ideas for presenting the content to promote student engagement are provided below. Consider your syllabi using the list below. What item(s) is/are beneficial to improve in your course syllabi?

  • Provide an overview, rationale, and schedule for the course to motivate students. Make sure the schedule is easy for students to understand and follow.
  • Clearly define student and instructor responsibilities allowing all to know what’s expected.
  • Develop course level objectives and student learning outcomes that assist students with identifying what they will learn and do in the course.
  • Describe clear assessment/evaluation methods explaining what students must do to be successful in the course. Be explicit and provide exemplary examples, rubrics, and other tools to support the best student work possible. Examples and rubrics do not need to be part of the syllabus, but should be easily available.
  • Foster a sense of community that helps students belong. Use inclusive language in the syllabus.
  • Explain course and University policies so students know exactly what is required. Consider brief explanations with hyperlinks to complete policies.
  • Include difficult to obtain materials. Don’t make students waste time finding and gathering required course materials.
  • Offer learner support and resources. Consider what resources help students learn and succeed in the course. In an online course, this means making sure there is adequate technology support and instructions.

A syllabus that promotes student engagement is easy to read and constructed in a manner that makes perfect sense to the students. The syllabus is explicit and easily understood. Developing syllabus content takes time and should be something we assess anew and improve each time we teach our course.

When do we create a syllabus?

An image of a daily planner, this one is for the month of September. An image caption reads: "When do we create a syllabus?".
Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

The course design process begins with selecting materials and course content. In the earliest phases of the course design process, we develop general course goals. With course materials and general goals, we develop a syllabus reflecting sound course design principles. At this point, the syllabus serves as a planning tool and is ready before developing lectures. The syllabus undergoes frequent revision until we achieve a syllabus that is designed to increase student engagement. Backward design may be a good approach to syllabus development, however, we must be certain the syllabus is complete and ready at least a few weeks prior to the start of the course. The Teaching Center of Washington University of St. Louis provides a useful course planning timeline.

The course syllabus is important. Despite debate over syllabus bloat and required content, we recognize that transforming a syllabus to be learner-centered means that the syllabus is not developed at the last minute. Syllabus development is carefully designed and planned to create a syllabus that is clear, easy to read, and explicit.

Where do students access our syllabus?

An image of a work desk with a computer and paperwork. An image caption reads: "Where do students access our syllabus?"
Photo by Patrik Michalicka on Unsplash
A paper syllabus may be required and provided to students on the first day of class. In online courses, the syllabus may be emailed to students with instructions on how to access the course. The important response to this question is to make sure that students have convenient access to the syllabus. Even if we’re teaching a face-to-face class, posting the syllabus on our learning management system (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle) or other hosting site makes the syllabus available on-demand for students. Unlimited access to a syllabus promotes syllabus use and engagement with course materials and content. Although the sample covers of the syllabi reviewed previously (Figures 1 and 2) are Word and PDF documents, some instructors use other syllabi formats including infographics, Prezi presentations, flip books, google templates and a variety of different formats. The best syllabus format is determined by presenting the course content in a manner that promotes student learning and interest.

With creative syllabus design, we must be mindful of accessibility issues, copyright, and other pragmatic issues. If you’re not ready to fully transform the format of your syllabus, look at Billie Hara’s course map that graphically illustrates how assignments and learning outcomes are connected in her course. Adding a graphic element in the syllabus may make course expectations more explicit.

How do we express ideas in a syllabus and set a tone for the course?

An image of people sitting around the table, two of the people are sitting across the table from each other and shaking hands. An image caption reads: "How do we express ideas & set a tone?"
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Our syllabus makes a first and lasting impression. Students and colleagues judge our teaching, communication, course content, grading rigor, organization skills, and more based on our syllabi. We want to express our course design choices in a manner that clearly expresses ideas and expectations relevant to our course. We have an opportunity to take a warm or cool tone in relaying syllabus information. For example, a cool tone is set by this statement, “Students will attend every class. If a student misses three classes, the student is dropped from the course”. The same information can be expressed in a warmer tone with the statement. “You need to attend every session of our class to be fully engaged in the learning process. If illness or emergency circumstances will cause you to miss class, please notify the instructor by email. Please be aware that as per our University attendance policy, if you miss more than three classes you should drop the class”. To review additional examples and learn more about how the tone of a syllabus relates to student perceptions of a course and the instructor, refer to an experiment conducted by Harnish & Bridges.

Tools to help us evaluate our syllabus content, style, and tone are available from Southern Methodist University, University of Cincinnati, University of Virginia, Cornell University, and Penn State.

Why do we need a syllabus?

An image of a woman with her back to us and hands outstretched to the side. An image caption reads: Why do we need a syllabus?"
Photo by AZGAN MjESHTRI on Unsplash

In answering this final question and summarizing what we’ve discovered in this blog, we realize that a syllabus may:

  • serve as a learning contract or legal document
  • be mandated by the College/University
  • provide a roadmap or guide for students and instructors
  • make course design and content explicit for students
  • create a first impression of the course
  • reflect the content, tone, and organization of the course and instructor
  • offer a tool for accommodation (read Womack, 2017)
  • help students learn
  • explain student responsibility for self-directed learning
  • provide a course schedule
  • include assignment guidelines and rubrics (or directs students to the documents)

We need the syllabus. It is usually required. However, we can do better with our syllabi. We can appreciate the value of the syllabus as a tool that teaches, makes expectations explicit, promotes student success, and introduces the course as a dynamic and engaging learning experience.

I compared data between two course sections where the only change made to the experimental course was redesigning the syllabus to promote student engagement. When comparing student rating scores (IDEA instrument) between the courses, I found scores were higher (statistically significant) in the course with the redesigned syllabus compared to the course with a traditional syllabus. Information on the IDEA instrument is available here: This data reinforced additional data and student feedback from assessment measures throughout the courses. A redesigned syllabus increased engagement and interest in the course content. The students appreciated the planning and relevance of the syllabus to their unique learning needs. For me, I verified the legitimacy of expending effort, thought, and design into the syllabus construction process. I hope this blog assists and inspires you when transforming your syllabi to increase student engagement and learning.

Be sure to evaluate and reflect on the outcomes of a redesigned or newly developed syllabus. To learn more about the entire process of syllabus creation and evaluation, I highly recommend Designing a Motivational Syllabus: Creating A Learning Path for Student Engagement by Christine Harrington & Melissa Thomas.


Fig. 1. Klein, K. (2018). Traditional syllabus cover page, [digital image]. Unpublished.

Fig. 2. Klein, K. (2018). Revised syllabus cover page, [digital image]. Unpublished.


Kathleen (Kathy) Klein is Interim Director of the Center for Learning Design and Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey. Dr. Klein’s role in the Center for Learning Design supports faculty design and delivery of effective courses that promote student learning. She teaches clinical neuroscience, research methods, motor performance, activity analysis, and professional issues. She has varied research interests including the scholarship of teaching and learning and clinical pediatric issues related to health/wellbeing, self-regulation, and executive function. Dr. Klein presents at a variety of conferences and consults for organizations related to best practices in education, professional development, and corporate training. Dr. Klein received her post-professional doctorate degree in occupational therapy at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She completed her BS and post-professional MS in occupational therapy at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Klein can be reached by email at [email protected]