Transforming your Syllabus with an equity-mindset: Part II

teacher giving the test result to his student

In a previous post, Transforming Your Syllabus with an Equity Mindset: The Role of Policy Statements, we explored the dilemma that boilerplate policy statements can make the syllabus feel like a transactional document, yet these very policies are designed to foster inclusion and to protect our most vulnerable students.

Other aspects of the syllabus can also impact the inclusive nature of our syllabi. If we consider how much students’ success in college depends upon knowing how to be successful and feeling a sense of belonging, we can recognize how the syllabus document can act as either an entryway, or a barrier, to student learning and engagement.

In this post, we shift our focus toward a few specific strategies for making the syllabus more inclusive and supportive of an equitable learning environment.

Use an inviting tone

When teaching the Designing a Motivational Syllabus course, we hear numerous stories about students who have dropped a course just because of the syllabus. The syllabus is often the first impression students make about us and our course, and it can get students excited, or sadly, turn them off to the point of dropping out.

An easy change is simply adjusting the tone and language to make sure we give students the sense that we want them to succeed and are here to support their learning. Using “I” statements, articulating how you will provide support, and simply changing language from “participation is mandatory” to “hearing as many perspectives as possible in our class discussions will further all of our learning” can set a more motivational tone for our students.

This syllabus is an ideal space to set a positive tone for learning, share your passion for the subject, and invite students to join you.

Take a look at your own syllabus from a fresh perspective as a potential student…

  • What would be your first impressions of the course? Of the instructor?
  • Does it seem this instructor wants you to succeed and will support your learning?
  • How motivated would you be to take this course?

Show the relevance

We are often frustrated when students do not value our disciplines as much as we do. Especially for those of us who teach required, non-major courses, it can feel that students just look through a syllabus only to know what is needed to get a certain grade and be done with the course.

However, it’s reasonable to expect that students do not see the connection between what they learn in our course and their future careers and productive lives. As instructors, we ourselves often have to work to tease out and articulate the long-term benefits of our courses. The syllabus is a perfect place to make the “pitch” for the benefits of your course.

In looking at your syllabus, how well is the relevance shown?

  • Do you give students a clear idea of not just what they will learn, but why it is important for them to learn it?
  • Can you make direct connections to future careers the students may have and how this course will help them?
  • If you can’t change a dry course description, can you add a few sentences of your own to show students the benefits of the course?

Add transparency

We often forget all the prior knowledge that is needed to grasp everything in our syllabi. From grading rubrics to course policies, there are many elements of the “hidden curriculum”. For example, some students have assumed that office hours are the times when faculty are busy working in their office and are NOT to be disturbed!

Unclear deadlines, assumed expectations, unspoken rules for success, or confusing instructions only add to the mystery. Increasing the transparency of our course, our policies, and our assignments can benefit all students, but can be especially useful for first-generation college students.

In the syllabus, some instructors add a section about “How I Grade” to describe their grading approach and philosophy, or include sections detailing expectations of the students as well as expectations of the instructor. For course assignments, transparency includes not just listing WHAT the assignments are, but also including something about WHY they are valuable for learning and HOW to complete them successfully.

  • Does your syllabus convey the big picture your course? Could you include a content/concept map, flowchart, or table showing the overall course road map?
  • Is it clear to students how the readings, activities, and assignments will help them learn?
  • Do your assignments include a transparent approach describing the purpose, the task, and the criteria for success (see the many great resources from TILT)?

Change your view of the syllabus

If we don’t value the syllabus, we can’t expect our students to do so either. We may need to revisit our own views of this document and find ways to make it useful throughout our course.

Rubin (1988) referred to two types of syllabi writers: listers who use the syllabus as a long list of readings and topics, and scolders whose syllabus is really a series of do and don’t statements. Instead, we can view the syllabus as a document with the potential to encourage, guide, and support students through our courses.

Think of your syllabus as a chance to get students excited about the course and provide a roadmap for success!

To apply these and more ideas, sign up for our Designing a Motivational Syllabus course to be guided through a systematic process to renew and refresh your syllabus into a motivational document!

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

Rubin, S. (1988). Professors, students, and the syllabus. Graduate Teacher Program Handbook, Board of Regents, University of Colorado.