Getting Off to a Good Start
We send “cues” to students from the moment we step into our classroom – and even sooner, in some cases – with our course descriptions, syllabi, and Moodle/classroom management sites. Students begin forming impressions about the course and the instructor immediately.
What kinds of cues do we want to send? That we’re excited about the material? That we’re eager to get to know the students? That we have high standards? That we’re hoping a lot of students will drop the course? That we assume the worst of students? That we want to be inclusive?
Building an Inclusive Syllabus
Many of us recycle the same language we’ve used in previous syllabi and think of a syllabus in the same way as we did when we were undergraduates. But perhaps we should think a bit more intentionally about the tone and subtle messages we send, so we are both informative and welcoming. We can try to insure both that students learn what they need to know about the course and that we want to partner with them in learning.
Research (summarized in Palmer et al.) suggests that a syllabus “written in a friendly, rather than unfriendly tone evoked [student] perceptions of the instructor being more warm, more approachable, and more motivated to teach the course.” Approachability can motivate students and make them more likely to seek out a professor when struggling.
Many of us were taught that a syllabus is a contract, and as a result, filled ours with a series of legalistic mandates about what students should NOT do and the consequences breaking the rules. There are two problems with this way of thinking; first, we can’t anticipate every single way students might violate our expectations, and second, that the tone can be off-putting or even adversarial.
Syllabus reformers suggest that faculty describe what students will do in the course (instead of what they shouldn’t do), the interesting questions the course will answer, and why course topics and skills matter. They propose crafting a “learning-centered” syllabus that improves motivation, honestly addresses challenges students might face, and explains the strategies and resources that are available to students when they encounter challenges. They also mention what the instructor expects of him/herself. Small actions, like the use of personal pronouns (like “we” or “you”), send potentially meaningful signals.
A final suggestion for an inclusive syllabus is to make your good intentions known. If you are committed to trying to create a class where every student is welcome, and you intend to be respectful and fair, then say it explicitly – both on your syllabus and on the first day of class.
The provost’s office expects every faculty to include certain information on their syllabus, such as course goals and objectives, and statements related to the Honor Code, disabilities, and religious holidays.
But how you talk about topics like disabilities matters. Consider the following two options described by Tulane’s accessible syllabus project:
- “Students must notify the instructor of accommodations within 2 weeks of class.”
- “If you need accommodations, you have a right to have these met, so it’s best to notify instructors as soon as possible.”
The first example could be read by students as the instructor seeing accommodation as an inconvenient burden, whereas the second reinforces student rights and is more welcoming.
See more options for supportive language you can use regarding disabilities, supplied by Arkansas Tech’s Office of Disability Services (pdf).
The same applies to language about the policies related to religious holidays or the Honor Code. We can simply repeat the boilerplate language the university tells us to use, or we can go further to adapt it to make clear our sincere commitment. (“The Honor Code means a lot to me, so I want to make sure you understand…”) We can also model our commitment by using proper citations for legally permissible photos.
Whatever policies you choose, you can see differences in how a “warm” and “cold” syllabus might express them.
What to assess how inclusive your syllabus is? Use the worksheet created by James Madison’s Center for Faculty Innovation.
A good syllabus is clear and readable. Practices like using headings help all students understand how it is organized and help students with disabilities (who need screen readers) work through the document. Bulleted points, numbered lists, tables or graphics can help highlight certain information. For students with dyslexia, using bold-face is better than using italics, and using a sans-serif font is better than a serif one.
If you create or have students create websites, you can build them with accessibility in mind.
The First Day of Class
If you are committed to values of inclusion and to trying to help all students successfully learn, and you want students to know that, then both your words and your actions matter.
Your words matter not only in the use of respectful language (about groups of students and individuals), but also in terms of explicitly communicating your values of inclusion. All students, but especially those from traditionally marginalized groups, will be listening for cues about how you talk about matters such as disability, religious holidays, gender, and pronouns.
Your actions matter, too.
- You want students to view you as trustworthy and fair, so explain the reasons for your methods of evaluation and how you actively try to insure fairness (e.g. use of rubrics, anonymous grading, etc.).
- When you make promises to students, keep your word.
- If you make a mistake, it’s best to acknowledge it.
Show that you recognize that students’ backgrounds and group identities matter and that multiple components combine into one’s individual identity, which you want to know and respect:
- Begin learning names on the first day (or sooner, with photos in OnTrack)
- Ask them on a confidential information form to share multiple components of their background or things that make them who they are.
- Share some aspects of your own background and identity. (Think carefully about what you share and why.)
- Have students learning about one another and learning each other’s names.
- Don’t stop working on community after the first day of class. The Motivation Research Institute notes that “when students experience meaningful student-student and student-teacher relationships, they are more likely to experience high value” and be motivated to learn.
Show that you expect students to participate actively in class:
- Don’t do all the talking on the first day.
- Design an exercise so that every student is participating in a meaningful activity related to course content or skills.
- Find a way to help students will learn what is expected of them in terms of class participation. In Discussion in the College Classroom, Jay Howard notes that students and faculty can have very different expectations (about matters including hand-raising, if only “right answers” constitute good verbal participation, laptop use, use of names, behavior in small groups, anecdotal evidence, etc.). Howard suggests that unless faculty intervene, students will be tempted to only pay “civil attention” instead of being fully engaged.
- Continue to structure class meetings to insure broad-based participation. If you don’t, the class will quickly fall into a pattern of “consolidation of responsibility” where a small number of students account for the majority of verbal participation.
- Don’t assume the value of your course material is self-evident.
- Help students connect what they are learning to their past, present, or future personal lives and/or the real world.
Ken E. Barron and C.S. Hulleman, “Is there a formula to help understand and improve student motivation?” E-xcellence in Teaching, 8 (August 2006).
Mary Bart, “A Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning,” Faculty Focus, July 29, 2015.
Jay R. Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom; Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. Jossey-Bass, 2015.
Ann C. Orr and Sara Bachman Hammig, “Inclusive Post-secondary Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities: a Review of the Literature,” Learning Disability Quarterly 32, Summer 2009.
Michael S. Palmer, Lindsay B. Wheeler, and Itiya Aneece, “Does the Syllabus Matter? The Evolving Role of Syllabi in Higher Education, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 48:4, July/August 2016.
Jeanne M. Slattery and Janet F. Carlson, “Preparing an Effective Syllabus,” College Teaching 53 , no. 4, 2005.
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi (Norton, 2010), chapter 8 (The Strength of Stereotype Threat: The Role of Cues).
Anne-Marie Womack, et al., “Accessible Syllabus,” Tulane Center for Engaged Learning.