Your syllabus can be a powerful tool in creating an inclusive learning environment. Too often, we think of it as simply a contract between the instructor and students. But in actuality, it is so much more than this. It conveys your priorities as an instructor and sets the tone and your expectations for the course.
Questions for reflecting on your syllabus
Why do you select the content you do?
What assumptions have you made about the learners in your class?
Are your goals and objectives explicit and free of jargon?
How do you create a tone that is welcoming of students?
How are you demystifying the hidden curriculum or implicit norms of the course?
How can you use your syllabus to communicate the value of students’ racial backgrounds and lived experiences as sources of learning and knowledge by including them in assignments, readings, and other materials?
How can your course design, choice of course materials, or communications in the syllabus promote awareness and critical examination of social inequalities, privilege, and dominant racialized norms within the discipline?
Tone. Your syllabus tone is an important part of creating an inclusive learning environment. Research has shown that when a syllabus is written in a friendly tone, students perceive the instructor as more approachable, welcoming, and motivated to teach the course (Harnish & Bridges, 2011; Ishiyama & Hartlaub, 2002). Conversely, one that is written in a more negative or cold tone conveys a message of punishment and fear, which can hinder learning. An example of something written in a cold tone would be, “Attendance is mandatory. Students more than 15 minutes late will be considered absent.” This is written in a punitive format and indicates that you as an instructor are more concerned with penalizing students. An alternate wording could be the following: “You should attend every class but extenuating circumstances arise that can make this difficult. If you cannot attend a class or will be more than 15 minutes late, please let me know.” While conveying a similar message, this wording indicates to students that you understand that important situations may arise that prevent them from making class, and that you would like them to communicate with you.
Diversity and accessibility statements. A diversity statement and an accessibility statement are great ways to indicate your commitment to maintaining an equitable and accessible learning environment. While it is good to include them on your syllabus and say them verbally, it is important that you commit and maintain these expectations in your daily teaching. Without actions, these statements can create further problems.
Representation matters. Who is represented on your syllabus matters. Do you include individuals of various social identities? This is easier in some fields than others. Begin by asking yourself why you assign the content you do and how do you hope it will advance student learning. Are there ways to replace content with work from others who are from backgrounds that have historically been excluded in your field? However, there are a few words of caution. Be intentional about what scholars work you are assigning and how it will relate to the course learning objectives. Also, it is not enough to simply add a standalone class session or topic related to equity. These topics should be woven throughout the course. Failing to do so will give the impression that these efforts were token gestures.
Whether reviewing a prior syllabus or creating a new one, most of us make some revisions. As mentioned above, the syllabus is a primary tool for helping to set an inclusive, supportive climate for learners. It reflects your tone and pedagogical choices that will make students feel supported and able to succeed, or not. This document contains an incomplete, but initial list of questions to help you make your syllabus more inclusive.