Research shows that student belonging is a key aspect of student academic success, especially for underrepresented students. A holistic approach to increasing student belonging includes the careful construction of all documents related to the course, including the syllabus.
In May, nearly 60 instructors from 30 departments explored ways to reduce unintended barriers and set a positive tone in the classroom through a workshop entitled “Designing a Syllabus to Enhance Student-Faculty Relationships and Decrease Workload,” offered by the Office of Assessment of Teaching & Learning in conjunction with the Office of Undergraduate Education and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Facilitated by Anna Plemons, PhD, director of the Critical Literacies Achievement and Success Program (CLASP), and Amy Nusbaum, a fourth-year PhD candidate in Cognitive Neuroscience, this workshop introduced faculty to research-based principles of multi-modal syllabus design, including the use of welcoming language and engaging visual elements.
The creation of an engaging syllabus can advance principles of inclusive excellence and equity-mindedness, building positive academic relationships with students. As explicated in the workshop presentation, these practices often include:
- Making rules and/or outcomes explicit whenever and wherever possible (i.e., transparency)
- Encouraging a malleable view of intelligence (i.e., growth mindset)
- Reducing stereotype threat through environmental cues (i.e., addressing implicit bias)
The workshop provided an opportunity for participants to revise one of their syllabi, incorporating welcoming language and multi-modal design principles, and to share and receive collegial feedback on their syllabus for further refinement.
One participant remarked, “I was very impressed by relatively minor ways in which syllabus language can be ‘warmed up’ and made more friendly towards students. I already thought my syllabus was fairly student-friendly, but I can see now how it can be improved.”
For more information, and to assist as faculty and instructors refine their syllabi, some good-practice resources are listed below:
Resources for Creating a Welcoming Syllabus
- CLASP Resource Page, WSU (Additional equity strategies for teaching)
- Accessible Syllabus Project, Tulane University (Contains useful examples of warm language and formatting)
- “This website is dedicated to helping instructors build a syllabus that plans for diverse student abilities and promotes an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable discussing their unique abilities. Countless instructors complain that students don’t read the syllabus. We believe students would use the document more effectively if it were designed more accessibly.”
- Teaching as Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi, Womack (2017)
- Creating Foundation for a Warm Classroom Climate, Harnish (2011)
- Creating Inclusive Curricula in Higher Education, Blessinger (2019)
WSU’s Syllabus Guidelines