Transforming Your Syllabus with an Equity Mindset: The Role of Policy Statements

How do we Manage Policy Statements within an Inclusive Course Syllabus?

Our Designing a Motivational Syllabus course, based on the book by the same name, guides college instructors through the process of re-thinking and re-inventing a course syllabus.

Although many may view the course syllabus as a logistical document that is rarely used after the course begins, it can actually be a powerful tool for setting the tone of your course, inspiring and motivating students, and working towards educational equity.

When revisiting the syllabus, the role of course policies often incites much debate.

Are they required? Are they necessary? Do students actually read them? Do we have to use our institution’s language?

The many policy statements that we include can make the syllabus feel like a transactional document so full of standardized language that no one reads it. As our institutions create more and more ‘boilerplate’ language, the policy section gets ignored even more.

Interestingly, many recommendations about inclusive syllabi suggest putting the policy statements at the end of the syllabus to make the document feel more inviting, to de-emphasize the impersonal feel a legal contract, and to create a sense of a co-constructed learning community.

However, if we take an equity lens to our syllabus, we see that these policies are created to promote inclusion and equity.

These policies are designed to help create a more even entry into our courses and to protect our most vulnerable students. If we do not include many institutional policies, we may be depriving students of the resources and guidelines that have been created to support their success and learning.

So…how do we balance all this?

As you add policy statements to your syllabus, think about ways you could emphasize, customize, explain, or otherwise USE the statements for learning, not just include them.

Here are just a few ideas.

Highlight the Importance

Simply including a number of statements about Mental Health and Wellness, Title IX, Religious Accommodations, Sexual Misconduct, or Student Athlete policies may be well-intentioned, but end up feeling like a laundry list of required language.

Perhaps you include a few pages of required statements, but add a few sentences at the beginning explaining the importance of at least some, if not all of these policies.

Even sharing, “I know you may overlook this standard language included in all syllabi, but I want you to know I am here to support your learning and specifically want to point your attention to…” can help make the policies relevant and meaningful.

Many instructors now include their own Inclusivity Statements that describe how they value and respect diverse backgrounds and opinions and will strive to create an engaging brave space for learning. This, followed by the official policies, can show your value. Putting these ideas in your own words and into the context of your course can be a powerful message for students.

Explain the Meaning in your Course

We have many assumptions about what students already know when they begin our courses. Yet our disciplines and institutions contain many acronyms, jargon and unspoken norms. The norms around learning outcomes, grading, teaching methods, and even the role of office hours can take years to truly understand and navigate and could benefit from additional explanation.

For any standard Academic Integrity or Honor Code statement at your institution, you might consider which aspects are most relevant to your course, and explain the what and why to your students.

For example, “You’ve seen this academic integrity statement before, but here’s what it means in this course…” can help students understand when and where group collaboration is encouraged, and what your expectations are for independent work.  Or, by explaining what plagiarism means in your course, you can avoid the assumption that a student is ‘cheating’ when it may be that they have not yet developed proper citation skills.

Similarly, grading policies about formative and summative assessment might need further explanation so that students truly understand what the high-stakes assignments are. Adding explanation can take the stigma away from a student having to ask, especially if we are giving off the message that this should be obvious to them.

Make Sure they Reflect your Actual Policies

New instructors are often given the advice to be quite harsh in the syllabus because we can always provide exceptions later on. However, as Christine Harrington describes in our online course, it is a privilege in itself to ask for an exception to the rule.

Some students may not know that you will accept late work with a good explanation, or that alternative assignment format may be accepted or even valued, if one only knows to ask. Think about what your actual actions are, as these truly are your policies, and state them up front for everyone to see equally.

Discuss the Complexity

Some policy or statement topics are contextual and play out differently in different courses. Group collaboration may be treated in one course as a smart study strategy that is highly encouraged, yet may be considered on the verge of cheating in another course.

Or, we may have to discuss the complexity of blanket statements such as those about trigger-warnings or creating a safe space for learning. In a literature or film course, it may be appropriate to begin this discussion in the syllabus that there will be some hard content and that you will co-construct norms and work through this with the students. 

In some courses you may want to share that you will discuss concepts that may challenge their beliefs. You may want to share that although the goal is not to make them think just like you, your learning goals for them include building additional perspective-taking skills, expanding their open-mindedness and awareness, and developing empathy.

Normalize Student Support Resources

We expect students to face challenges in their learning and to advocate for the support that they need. Talking about, highlighting, and showing the benefits of student support resources and centers such as your writing center, research center, math/STEM tutoring, learning effectiveness center, etc., can make these incredible resources feel inviting and useful rather than a last-resort option or a sign of weakness.

Often a Writing Center will help faculty members with a grant application or journal article. (Did you know that? It may be available to you and and it’s a great benefit!) Take advantage of these resources yourself, or share your own story of how you reach out to others for support with editing, revision, and feedback. This can help normalize the process of gaining support in our learning.

Find Out More

And, to further our own learning… If there are policies that you do not understand or do not feel are necessary, that is a good opportunity to learn more and discover why they were created in the first place. You may learn about a great resource or discover a student equity challenge you had not been aware of before.

Overall, look at the policy statements on your syllabus, reflect on the ‘why’ behind these policies, and share this rationale with your students, rather than assuming they know.

The syllabus is often the first point of contact that students have with us and our courses. First-generation students or especially those who are unfamiliar with our often-unspoken disciplinary norms can be greatly influenced by this document. Let’s take advantage of it to progress towards educational equity.

Interested in taking a deep dive to transform your syllabus? Join one of our upcoming Designing a Motivational Syllabus courses!

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