The Welcoming Syllabus

The course syllabus is more than a simple contract or informational document for the students. The syllabus serves many purposes:

  • Welcomes students to the course,
  • Provides information (such as learning outcomes and prerequisites) to let students know if the course is a good fit,
  • Provides information to understand how the course aligns with other courses in a program,
  • Describes how student learning will be evaluated, and
  • Serves as a resource for students throughout the course to keep track of due dates, assignments, expectations, and other resources
The syllabus informs, welcomes, and provides a schedule.

A class syllabus is not only a record of assignments and activities; it is also a representation of who we are as instructors and the goals and ideals we wish to share with our students. The policies we choose to include in our syllabus – and the way we frame required policies – reflect our values and convey to students how we see them as learners and citizens in our classroom.

How the syllabus is written informs learners’ decisions to complete or withdraw from a course, shapes the way they view the course and interact with faculty, and informs their decisions to seek assistance when academic difficulties arise.

Developing a welcoming syllabus is a key first step towards creating an inclusive classroom environment.

Creating a welcoming syllabus also demystifies the language, expectations, and social mores of higher education that students who have historically been discriminated against, and first-generation college students, may not have been exposed to previously.

For example, I add a simple statement to my courses explaining what a syllabus is and why it’s important. Defining the word “syllabus” also helps concurrently-enrolled high school students who may not understand its importance. Defining the term helps to level the playing field and welcomes each student on equal footing.

 The syllabus tone sets the mood for the class and can range from pleasant and welcoming to formal and disciplinary, or even condescending and demeaning.

Language that is pleasant and welcoming can encourage and motivate learners; this is particularly important in courses where students face academic difficulty.

Welcoming language can also help readers recall information more easily than when they believe the language is unfriendly or punitive.

Harsh language in the syllabus can be intimidating and discouraging for some students and, as such, hinders their success.

An example that you can implement right away is to make a simple change from using the term “office hours” to “student hours”. This completely shifts the focus to the students, so they easily perceive that this is time that you have intentionally reserved for them.

Being warm and welcoming by including diversity- focused statements that invite students to interact with faculty and affirming students’ beliefs that you expect them to succeed are effective ways to engage with students through the syllabus.

Welcoming happy face for "Student Hours" and "Diversity Focused"

Less effective are ‘listers’ who specify the books and chapters that students must read each week with no rationale about why they were selected, and ‘scolders’ who provide brief course content and extensive details about the different types of infractions that can result in loss of points and other forms of punishment.

Students perceive the less effective styles and practices as mistrustful; they prompt learners to believe that their instructor does not expect them to succeed.

Other ways to implement a warm, welcoming style in your syllabus are to avoid third person. Instead of “The students will…” use “You will” and “I will” and “We”.

You will, I will, We will

Also, phrase policies in a strengths-based manner rather than framing policies in the context of penalizing students. For example, “You will receive full credit for assignments when completed on time. In instances where an assignment is submitted late, you will only receive partial credit of up to 90% of the total” rather than “For each day late I will deduct 10 percent of the grade”.

Remember that while the syllabus does contain important information about your expectations for students, it should not read like a rule-book. For example, instead of a “course policies” section, you could call it “How to be Successful in this Course”.

Unlike an instructor’s class comments, which may or may not ‘stick’ with learners, the syllabus is a physical document that students can access over the course of the semester. Therefore, it is important that we carefully choose language that welcomes, encourages, and motivates students.

Syllabus language often shapes students’ first impressions of instructors and helps learners discern the faculty’s attitude toward teaching and learning. When students believe language in the syllabus is friendly, they view their instructors as warm and approachable and believe they are highly motivated to teach. When syllabi contain punitive language, students are less inclined to approach an instructor for academic assistance; they do not feel welcome.

To ensure your students feel included and welcome, use an inviting and engaging tone in your syllabus, show your enthusiasm for the subject, express high expectations for your students, and explain how to succeed rather than how to fail.

Read your syllabus aloud. Does it something like something you would want told to you? Is it sending the message you want your students to hear?

Edit your syllabus; welcome your students.

References

Adams, M., & Bell, L. A. (Eds.). (2016). Teaching for diversity and social justice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Chicago, IL: John Wiley & Sons.

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Collins, T. (1997). For openers, an inclusive course syllabus. In W. E. Campbell & K. A. Smith (Eds.), New paradigms for college teaching (pp. 79-102). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

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Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14(3), 319-330.

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Perrine, R. M., Lisle, J., & Tucker, D. L. (1995). Effects of a syllabus offer of help, student age, and class size on college students’ willingness to seek support from faculty. The Journal of Experimental Education, 64(1), 41-52.

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Roberts, Maxine T. Center for Urban Education.  “The Syllabus:  A Tool that Shapes Students’ Academic Experiences” PDF download.

Rubin, S. (1985). Professors, students, and the syllabus. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 56, 31-35.

Smith, M. F. and Razzoul, N. Y. (1993) Improving Classroom Communication:  The Case of the Course Syllabus. Journal of Education for Business, v68 n4 p215-21 Mar-Apr.

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Resources

  • Developing an Inclusive Syllabus (University of Utah)
  • Diversity and Inclusion (Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning)
  • Effect of Syllabus Tone [Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011)]
  • Fuentes, M. A., Zelaya, D. G., & Madsen, J. W. (2021). Rethinking the Course Syllabus: Considerations for Promoting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Teaching of Psychology, 48(1), 69-79.
  • Grunert O’Brien, J. (1997). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. Bolton, MA: Anker.
  • Grunert O’Brien, J. G., Millis, B. J., & Cohen, M. W. (2008). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Guertin, L. (2014, August 27). Getting students to read the syllabus with a syllabus quiz [Blog post]. Retrieved from the American Geophysical Union website at http://blogs.agu.org/geoedtrek/2014/08/27/syllabus-quiz/ 
  • Harnish, R. J., McElwee, R. O., Slattery, J. M., Frantz, S., Haney, M. R., Shore, C. M., & Penley, J. (2011). Creating the Foundation for a Warm Classroom Climate. APS Observer, 24(1).
  • Sample Syllabi, UCLA Inclusive Syllabus Design
  • Sinor, J., & Kaplan, M. Creating your syllabus. Retrieved from http://www.crlt.umich.edu/gsis/p2_1 
  • Smith, R. (2014). Conquering the Content: A Blueprint for Online Course Design and Development San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass