Almost everyone who has taken a college course is familiar with the genre of the syllabus, or has at least seen one, though the form varies widely among institutions, colleges, departments, and even individual faculty members. What is required to be included in the syllabus is determined by any number of factors, including the purpose of the syllabus, which is as widely varied as its form. Fink (2012) discusses eight major themes of traditional syllabi:
- Communication mechanism: The syllabus communicates information about the course, instructor, assignments, learning activities, pedagogical approaches used, and relevance to broader educational goals.
- Planning tool for instructor: The course schedule, often included in a syllabus, allows the instructor to plan how long to spend on any one topic and to accommodate breaks and holidays in the schedule.
- Course plan for students: Discerning students can determine how topics interrelate as well as a timeline of assignments from examining the syllabus.
- Teaching tool/resource for learning: Ideally, a syllabus will help students understand what is expected of them and provide tips for success and ways to utilize campus resources.
- Artifact/record keeping tool: Administrators may use syllabi for faculty evaluations or institutional accreditation. Faculty may use syllabi to document growth of their teaching or of their course planning over the years.
- Contract: Some see the syllabus as an implied contract between student and instructor outlining procedures and policies for a course, a purpose reinforced when instructors require students to sign a statement that they have read and understood the syllabus. Syllabi are sometimes used during grievance processes by administrators to support their decisions regarding student complaints.
- Socialization of students to academic culture: Syllabi help students know what to expect from a course and thereby socialize them through the transmission of cultural knowledge.
- Scholarship opportunities for instructors: Because an instructor writes it, the syllabus is sometimes considered a publication that documents the scholarship of teaching and learning.
These traditional themes reveal the potential audiences of a course syllabus: the instructor, students, administrators, and accreditation personnel. By trying to meet the needs of all these audiences in a single document, instructors often write pages and pages of information that by the syllabi’s very nature is irrelevant to at least some of the audiences that may read the document. This fact makes the traditional syllabus problematic as an academic form that is ostensibly meant for students.
Student-centered syllabus design
As institutions of higher education became increasingly diverse through open enrollment, a movement developed for academic documents (syllabi, course materials) to reflect that diversity and to be more inclusive in style, or “student centered.” Instructors began advocating for student-centered syllabi, which have been popular for the last three decades (Bowers-Abbott, 2020). These syllabi focus on elements such as creating a welcoming tone or “warm syllabus” (Slattery and Carlson, 2005), allowing for student input/choice in assignments (Bart, 2015), and critically examining unenforceable policies like not allowing cell phones in class (Weimer, 2018). In student-centered syllabi, instructors are encouraged to humanize themselves with personal information and state policies in positive terms rather than negative such as “Students have the opportunity to earn half credit on late assignments” rather than “Late work will be penalized with half credit.” (Moore, 2019).
Most of the articles I found on syllabus design focus on surface-level student-centeredness rather than addressing actual cultural differences in the classroom. Dean and Fornaciari (2014) reach possibly the pinnacle of superficiality with their advice: “Perhaps the first, and most important, step [in bringing the syllabus into the 21st century] is for instructors to consider moving toward more authentically inclusive language and policy construction” (p. 725), which they go on to explain as not using “we” or “us” to mean “students,” as when instructors write, “We will be learning about [the course subject] this semester.” This kind of inclusive language, the authors suggest, sets up a false collaboration between instructors and students, and instructors should avoid such imprecise language use.
Contemporary equity diversity inclusion framework
While a positive tone and providing humanizing personal information are important parts of a student-centered syllabus, these surface-level elements do not reflect the deeper concept of culturally responsive pedagogy. Students can see through the positive phrasing of policies that still penalize them for their diversity. Culturally responsive teaching pushes instructors to make deeper changes to the syllabus, changes that actually recognize how classrooms are inequitable places for diverse students. Culturally responsive educators have therefore begun to develop syllabi with an emphasis on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), going beyond mere lip service to accommodating students, and completely rethinking the syllabus with a culturally responsive teaching framework.
Several sources provide strategies for EDI syllabus design as well as a framework for examining syllabus in preparation for a complete overhaul. The Center for Urban Education (CUE) at the University of Southern California reminds instructors that most universities were established by white, Christian, wealthy men, and the documents that helped establish institutions of higher learning (syllabi among them) still reflect the values of these founders. Through a process of inquiry, self-assessment, and reflection, CUE’s website guides instructors to focus on six equity-minded practices while developing a syllabus:
- Demystifying: Provide first-time college students with information they need to successfully complete the course in clear, plain language. Be transparent about student and instructor roles, articulate how learning works in the course, and offer counter-narratives for myths about learning (such as a fixed mindset).
- Welcoming: In tone and content, convey that students are welcomed and cared for by showing kindness and humanity.
- Validating: Communicate a belief in students’ ability to be successful. Validate students’ capacity for achievement.
- Creating a partnership: Communicate how you, the instructor, will work with students and how working together leads to success, reinforcing student and instructor roles.
- Representing: Represent a range of voices in course materials, assignments, and readings. This act communicates the value of students’ unique cultural backgrounds and lived experiences as sources of learning and knowledge. Use materials that mirror students’ identities as well as those that provide a window into other identities.
- Deconstructing: Promote awareness and critical examination of social inequalities, privilege, and dominant racialized norms.
Fuentes, Zelaya, and Madsen (2021) provide similar recommendations for instructors on promoting EDI through the syllabus. Their eight suggestions often overlap with CUE’s framework, but there is more emphasis on reflection for instructors, who are prompted to consider how their own backgrounds influence how they foster equity in the syllabus. Fuentes et al also suggest specific examples of language to include in the syllabus to support EDI, such as diversity-centered learning objectives, a diversity statement, and acknowledgement of the intersectionality of multiple cultural identities in students. They urge instructors to decolonize the syllabus, not only by providing readings from diverse authors, but also by recognizing holidays and customs of multiple cultures, and by critically examining policies that reinforce classism, such as requiring medical excuses for absences. This article proposes ideas that many instructors would find radical, but these challenging suggestions address EDI more than the student-centered recommendations on using a positive tone.
A methodology for examining syllabi
For an instructional design course I took recently, Achieving the Dream, I was provided with a Syllabus Review Coding Tool inspired by the inquiry tools developed by the Community College of Aurora and the Center for Urban Education at USC’s Rossier School of Education. The tool asks instructors to use colors to code syllabus language in two coding steps, descriptive and interpretive, with five categories in each step. The first step codes for the kind of language (directions, rules, consequences) and the audience (the institution or students). The second, interpretive coding reveals the impact on students’ experience in the course and broadly reflects EDI framework.
After reading CUE’s guidelines, I’ve adapted the Syllabus Review Coding Tool from Achieving the Dream to correspond with CUE’s equity-minded practices. I suggest the following tool as a way to critically examine syllabi for evidence of true student-centeredness and EDI.
|Use the highlight color||To signify language that:|
|Red||Demystifies first-time college student experiences|
• Where have you used non-academic language?
• Where have you been transparent about classroom roles?
• Highlight language that shows your humanity and care for students.
• Have you communicated that you believe students can be successful in your course?
|Green||Creates a partnership|
• Where have you reinforced classroom roles and indicated how you will work together?
• Do your course materials and assignments represent diversity within your field or discipline?
• Where have you shown how you value unique cultural backgrounds?
• Which materials and assignments mirror student identities, and which ones provide a window into others’ identities?
• Highlight syllabus language that shows how you will take on the big questions of social inequalities, privilege, and dominant racialized norms.
Instead of our syllabi being the procrustean bed we force all our students to endure, we can make them useful documents that encourage student success. This adapted coding tool provides a methodology for moving beyond traditional student-centered language and helps instructors actually address issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion as well as our students’ unique identities.
Susan Spangler is currently teaching English education, literature, and writing courses as well as supervising student teachers at The State University of New York at Fredonia. Her edited collection, English Studies Online: Programs, Practices, Possibilities, is available from Parlor Press.
Bart, M. (2015). A learner-centered syllabus helps set the tone for learning. Faculty focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/a-learner-centered-syllabus-helps-set-the-tone-for-learning/
Bowers-Abbott, M. (2020). The straight scoop syllabus. Faculty focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/the-straight-scoop-syllabus/
Dean, K.L. & Fornaciari, C.J. (2014). The 21st-century syllabus: Tips for putting andragogy into practice. Journal of management education. 35(5), 724-732.
Fink, S. B. (2012). The many purposes of course syllabi: Which are essential and useful. Syllabus journal, 1(1), 1-12.
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.
Moore, C. (2019). Seven ways to make your syllabus more relevant. Faculty focus.
Slattery, J.M. & Carlson, J.F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College teaching, 53(4), 159-164.
University of Southern California Center for Urban Education. (n.d). Syllabus review guide. http://cue-equitytools.usc.edu
Weimer, M. (2018). As you’re preparing the syllabus . . . Faculty focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/youre-preparing-syllabus/