Syllabi are one of the most effective tools for communicating information about your courses, from assignments and readings to policies and procedures. A clear and well-constructed syllabus is invaluable to student success.
Equally important to what you communicate to students, however, is how you communicate in the syllabus. From reading a syllabus, students can infer a lot of information about your expectations, approachability, style, and approach to supporting students.
This blog post, the first in our August series welcoming all of you back for the fall semester, explores some of the strategies you can use to help shape the language of your syllabus to reflect the positive and supportive energy you’ll be bringing into the classroom.
Frame expectations in positive terms
For many students, the syllabus is the first point of contact with instructors, their first introduction to you and to your class. How information is presented is often read as a reflection of your values, approach, and personality as an instructor. For example: including lengthy lists of reasons why late work is not accepted, or strict and detailed lists of unacceptable reasons for being absent from class risk sending a message of distrust and antagonism before even meeting.
This is referred to as “deficit language,” language about what not to do. As UW-Madison’s Instructional Design Collaborative points out in their Make Your Syllabus More Inclusive guide, deficit language “focuses students on negative aspects of the class and their behavior, rather than on meeting expectations,” when we present syllabi in terms of deficit language “we miss opportunities to model and positively reinforce successful actions, behaviors, and mindsets for students (Schmidi, 2022) Removing punishment-based language can take place without substantive change to the nature or requirements of your course policies themselves.
Consider presenting expectations, including learning goals, assignment description, grading, and even course policies, in terms of what students will be able to achieve and the standards you want them to meet. Palmer, Bach, & Streifer (2014), emphasize two aspects of positive language, that is, “communicates high expectations and projects confidence that students can meet them through hard work”:
- the syllabus emphasizes collaboration between students and instructors, with an emphasis on things that students and instructors will do in the classroom, and connections between course content and the broader goals of the course, and
- a tone that tells students that you believe they can succeed by offering tips, strategies, and resources for how to meet those standards and expectations, including office hours, reviews, optional reading or background materials.
Use welcoming and compassionate language
Syllabus language that is warm, inclusive, and positive helps to ease communication between you and your students, creates a more comfortable classroom environment, and encourages students to push themselves to succeed (Harnish et al, 2011, Harnish & Bridges, 2011; Nusbaum et al, 2021).
A wide range of studies indicate that small changes to the tone of policies can make significant differences in students’ experience of a course. For example, changes such as moving from “you” to “we” language can indicate a more collaborative approach to learning and lead to students perceiving their instructor as more approachable, or enthusiastic, which has direct correlation to student success in a course. In addition, making offers of support more explicit in a syllabus, such as explaining the purpose of office hours, has been found to increase the likelihood students will ask for support outside of class time (Nusbaum et all, 2021).
The CITL guide to inclusive teaching discusses several other ways to adopt welcoming language in your course and syllabus
Describe yourself and your course (design)
Often syllabi can feel very detached and impersonal, especially before students have a chance to meet you. Adding personal language, such as a description of yourself, or some explanation as to how and why you chose certain content, topics, or assignments can demystify some of the process and help to decrease the distance between yourself and your students.
UW-Madison provides a good example of this kind of language that does double-duty by combining person description with an invitation to utilize office hours, both making the instructor seem and providing additional information about the purpose and potential of office hours:
I look forward to learning with you this semester. My research focuses on the formation of personal political identities, and how these impact voter behavior. I’m always happy to share and hear ideas! Outside of academics, I enjoy running and hiking, reading, and food. I’d love to hear your restaurant or recipe recommendations. Attending my office hours is a great way to connect with me. These can be virtual or in person. You can also email me, and I will do my best to respond within 24 hours. (Schmidi, 2022)
Acknowledge the hidden curriculum
There is a lot to learn in college beyond the content of our courses. Unspoken expectations about, for example, how to prepare for class, how to take notes and engage in class, and when it’s all right to ask for help can impact the ways in which students experience our classrooms and college in general. Collectively, these unstated expectations and knowledge about college success are referred to as “the hidden curriculum.” These expectations affect all students, but disproportionately impact first-generation and international students. Being mindful of the assumptions we are making about what knowledge students possess on or before their first day of class can help shape the way we construct our syllabi.
Where possible, avoid including field, discipline, or academic jargon in your syllabus, even if students will come to learn these throughout the course. Describing the course in simple and clear terms, from which you can build over the course of the semester, is a step toward giving students shared foundations as they begin the course.
The CITL recently shared a blog post on hidden curricula, with a wide range of strategies for addressing these assumptions within and beyond the classroom, including a range of examples from IU instructors.
Make your syllabus visually and technologically accessible
Students learn and interact with information in a variety of different ways. Though many of us are used to thinking of syllabi as a printed document, most students will spend the majority of their time interacting with your syllabus on their computer or even on their phone. There are a wide range of digital document formats that move easily between technologies: Google docs, Microsoft Word online documents, and PDFs all scale across devices; you can also link to a digital Word document on Canvas, rather than uploading your syllabus as a file that needs to be downloaded. This can also allow you to pre-empt concerns about reading accessibility by providing documents or pages that are compatible with screen-readers or other assistive technologies. You can also account for an even larger range of learning styles by providing the syllabus in several formats such as a visual syllabus in the form of a slideshow, or a webpage in addition to the print document.
Consider replacing blocks of text with other formats, such as:
- Bullet-pointed lists
- Images, or
Each of these break up the information on the page and keep readers’ interests. A recent study by Nusbaum et al. also found that when “design elements were used to denote new sections of the syllabus, draw attention to important information, and make reading easier,” students expressed more enthusiasm for and positive perceptions of their instructor (2021).
There are a range of other strategies for bolstering the inclusivity of your syllabi. CITL maintains its own page on Inclusive Teaching, and several of the resources mentioned above provide detailed lists of elements of a syllabus that can be opportunities for greater inclusivity. In addition to the categories discussed in this blog, these all of resources suggest:
- Adding field or discipline specific information about diversity, equity, and inclusion, including acknowledging obstacles within the field
- Clearly communicating grading practices and standards throughout the course
- Flexibility throughout the semester, including asking for feedback on the syllabus from students.
If you’re interested in learning more, the CITL has a wide range of resources for developing equitable classrooms practices and courses, making teaching clearer and more transparent through the Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TiLT) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In addition, look for our upcoming blog post in September on adapting and changing your syllabus during the semester.
Harnish, R. J., O’Brien McElwee, R., Slattery, J. M., Frantz, S., Haney M. R., Shore, C. M. & Penley, J. (2011), Creating the Foundation for a Warm Classroom Climate, Teaching Tips: Association for Psychological Science, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/creating-the-foundation-for-a-warm-classroom-climate
Palmer, M. S., Bach, D. J., & Streifer, A. C. (2014). Measuring the promise: A learning‐focused syllabus rubric. To Improve the Academy, 33(1), 14-36. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tia/17063888.0033.103/–measuring-the-promise-a-learningfocused-syllabus-rubric?rgn=main;view=fulltext
Schmidli, L. (August 2022). Make Your Syllabus More Inclusive. L&S Instructional Design Collaborative. https://idc.ls.wisc.edu/guides/make-your-syllabus-more-inclusive/