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Notes on Teaching and Learning

How to Make Your Syllabus More Inclusive

November 10, 2022
ND Learning

By Benjamin Garcia Holgado

Now that we’re past the midway point of the Fall semester, you may be starting to think about preparing your syllabi for the Spring. In general, this is a good time to start thinking about the big picture of your course: What are the learning goals that will structure your course? What major assignments can help measure student progress towards reaching those goals? In particular, It’s also never too early to start thinking about how to make your class more inclusive. In this post, I highlight a few suggestions on how to make your syllabus more inclusive. Inclusive teaching can be understood as a way of making “all learners feel welcome, valued, and safe, and it requires intentional and deliberate strategies” (Hogan and Sathy 2022: 5). A thoughtfully designed syllabus can establish a crucial foundation towards promoting equity and students’ sense of belonging in the classroom.

  • Set a Welcoming Tone: The syllabus has an irreplaceable role in setting the tone for the rest of the semester. Have a welcoming, supportive, warm, conversational, and collaborative tone (use the “we” and “you” instead of “the professor” and “the students”). Use language that is centered on the student. Also, consider writing a statement that justifies why having a diverse and inclusive classroom improves everyone’s learning experience. 
  • Be Transparent About Course Policies: Consider having at the very beginning of the semester a conversation with the students about some of their rights and responsibilities and add the final outcomes of these deliberations to the syllabus during the first week. Also, be explicit that you as an instructor have obligations (e.g., be explicit about how students can appeal a grade, how much time they will have to wait until you return the assignments with feedback, when and how you are going to be available outside the classroom for students). Make sure your teaching practices align with the policies in your syllabus. If you don’t want to always act in accordance with a policy on your syllabus (perhaps a strict “no makeup exams” policy), then change your policy to one you would want to stick to! For example, if you allow for extensions in practice, make sure to describe your conditions in an extensions policy on your syllabus. This ensures that all students have access to these opportunities.
  • Diversify Your Reading List: Assign reading material from a diverse set of voices throughout the whole semester that reflect different perspectives—especially underrepresented and minoritized scholars in your field (for instance, have readings from scholars of different cultures, races, gender identities, nationalities, social class, ideology, political affiliation, religions, and so on).
  • Be Flexible and Allow for Student-Led Inquiry: Incorporate material in the course that can easily resonate with students’ backgrounds and interests. It’s a good idea to leave some wiggle room for flexibility in the syllabus to incorporate some of the students’ interests. For example, you can give students options to choose among different topics for an assignment or even choose between different types of assignments which allows students alternative modes to demonstrate their mastery of the learning goals . Another idea might be to leave one the topic of one class session open in order to allow students to choose among different themes they would like to learn about. This can give them some ownership of the course and motivate their learning. Remember that we cannot be certain about our students’ backgrounds and interests before we get to know them so it’s actually a good thing to not have the course 100% set in stone before the semester starts. Building in some flexibility into your syllabus means you have space to adapt to your particular students needs and interests.
  • Set Clear Expectations: In your syllabus, consider including the basic what, how, and why of each assignment that students will need to complete:
    • What: Tell them very clearly what they will be expected to do. 
    • How: Outline the information and resources you’ll provide to support them as well as the specific steps they need to follow to successfully complete the assignment.
    • Why: Always explain the rationale behind the assignments students need to complete. 

Be aware that you do not need to cover in detail everything about the assignments in the syllabus. However, it is important that students can read in the syllabus the what, how, and why of each assignment as well as how they all connect with each other and with the larger course goals.

  • Resource Statements: Write a specific paragraph on mental health, affordability of the course materials (e.g., textbook), and disability. Explain how you plan to adapt your course to students who face specific challenges. Include in your syllabus information about different units at ND connected with this topic: University Counseling Center, The McDonald Center for Student Well-Being, Center for Student Support and Care, and Office of Student Enrichment
  • Design Your Course Around a Growth Mindset: Stress in your syllabus a “growth mindset” instead of a “fixed mindset.” Show to your students that they can improve and grow over the semester, and they can become better through practice and effort. If students feel they are either naturally good or bad at doing something and their performance is fixed, they will disengage from the class. Consider the following possibilities: 
    • Decrease the weight of assignments towards the beginning of the semester.  This will give students more opportunity for growth, as they can recover from early mistakes and build on their learning over the course of the semester. 
    • Drop the lowest or lowest scores in the quizzes or allow students to redo some assignments in order to improve their performance. 
    • Multiply the number of low-stake assignments and reduce the number of high-stakes assignments. 

In these ways, you will expand the number of opportunities in which students can improve their performance, learn from mistakes, bounce back from hardship, and grow over the semester.

To sum up, creating an inclusive syllabus is a challenging task that certainly takes time, reflection, and involves hard decisions. You do not need to implement all these suggestions right away, consider trying just one or two of these strategies in your spring syllabus. As James Lang says, student learning can be improved by “a series of small but powerful changes that make a big difference―many of which can be put into practice in a single class period.” Of course, the syllabus is just one element (among many others) that will contribute to making your courses more inclusive.  Nonetheless, your course syllabus plays a uniquely significant role in setting the tone for the course and providing the students with the structure that will impact how the semester unfolds.


Further Reading