Revising Your Syllabi (and Your Courses) with Equity, Belonging and Growth in Mind

October 8, 2020

Course syllabi are often written with the intention to set expectations and boundaries for appropriate student conduct, and as tools for holding students accountable for their learning. They often are instructors’ first communication with students and, therefore, give students their first impressions about what the course will entail, who you are as an instructor, and whether or not they will succeed in the course. Because syllabi are often updated and revised in response to negative experiences, however, they can become disproportionately punitive, with the policies, practices and messages implicitly communicating to students that the instructor doubts their ability to perform effectively in the course, or assumes that they will act unethically or irresponsibly. This was true before the pandemic, but the switch to different modalities of teaching and greater variability in how and when we are connecting with students have likely brought forth new issues for instructors to consider.

Students tell us that punitive policies and a critical tone can leave them feeling as though they are not valued or respected, and can cause them to doubt whether or not they can be successful in the course. This is particularly true for students from backgrounds that are structurally disadvantaged, negatively stereotyped in society, or underrepresented in higher education, who, because they are aware of cultural stigmas and stereotypes towards their groups, are disproportionately likely to be vigilant for cues that they don’t belong. In a challenging year marked by many new and intensified existing sources of strain impacting our campus communities and the way we gather (or don’t!) to learn, it’s reasonable to assume that nearly all students are returning to school this year under new stressors, and possibly with heightened concerns around their ability to succeed.

As part of the Student Experience Project, we’re leveraging learning from social psychology and higher education research to reimagine the task of writing syllabi: to view it as an opportunity to introduce a plan for learning that will support the success of all students, regardless of personal circumstances — one that details ways students can demonstrate their growing mastery of course content, and connects students with the support and resources that will help them thrive.

Over the summer, and led by SEP Lead Scholar and College Transition Collaborative co-founder Christine Logel, we developed a workshop series to help instructors revise their syllabi in this vision, by drawing on messages, policies, and practices designed to promote equity, belonging and growth in their courses. Here, we’ve outlined three impactful approaches we are using in this process, and share some examples of what we’re hearing from students who reviewed the syllabi from these workshops. For examples of how SEP instructors are implementing these ideas in their courses, click here to view the Three Approaches to Revising your Syllabus with Equity, Belonging and Growth in Mind resource.

Provide a plan for learning that empowers students to respond proactively and productively to difficulty. College students may need to “learn how to learn” in order to be successful in college courses, but they might not realize how common of an experience this is. For example, it’s not uncommon for students, especially those who are first generation, or who are members or negatively stereotyped social groups, to interpret routine challenges – like difficulty navigating an online learning system, or a poor grade – as signs that they don’t belong or can’t cut it in college. This experience can lead to a negative recursive cycle where students retreat academically and stop engaging with the resources that would help them succeed, ultimately leading to even worse experiences and outcomes. Thankfully, instructors do not need to be experts in pedagogy to help students break this cycle. By acknowledging and normalizing this experience for students, communicating confidence in students’ abilities to learn, sharing tips for how students can overcome these challenges, and point them to resources to support their learning, instructors can help students respond productively and proactively to academic setbacks.

What students are saying about this approach: “I feel that as long as I am able to remain organized and on top of my assignments I will be able to be successful in this class because my instructor has made it clear that they are available to help us if we really need it and they have reminded us about the resources that are available to us.”

Create flexible policies that acknowledge, and take into account the diversity and complexity of students’ lived experiences. Policies that disallow late work or accommodations under any circumstances are commonly intended to hold students accountable for their work, but they also unintentionally and disproportionately disadvantaged students who are balancing school work with other responsibilities, or those who are facing hardships. The ability to always meet course deadlines should not be more important than the quality of the work turned in. Students can show their learning and mastery even when they require some flexibility for when the work is turned in. For students who are facing significant challenges in pursuing their education – like homelessness or food insecurity, they could be even more likely to excel in courses with flexible policies.

Students tell us that no exception policies can make them feel demoralized, and as though the instructor doesn’t understand, or perhaps doesn’t care about, what challenges they are facing. Policies that instead that acknowledge challenges students may encounter in meeting course expectations, and provide reasonable flexibility for students while also maintaining expectations for student work and accountability (i.e., not changing the content, but allowing for reasonable flexibility for when all work can be done) communicate care and support to students, while also helping to ensure that students’ academic achievement is not undermined by challenges or obstacles outside of students’ control. Such policies are likely to be particularly impactful during the pandemic, when students’ lives may be especially disrupted.

What students are saying about this approach: “This [policy for quizzes] reflects thoughtfulness on the part of the professor and shows that they care about helping their students learn better and perform better in this class”; “I appreciate the fact that my prof knows STEM textbooks are expensive and is encouraging students to find cheaper options.”

Encourage students to connect with you, and your instructional team. We heard in our conversations with students that they very much want to make connections with the faculty who teach their courses, and we know from prior work that developing connections with instructors and TAs can meaningfully impact students’ learning and academic success. However, we also know that the professor intimidation factor commonly inhibits students from approaching and engaging with instructors and other members of the instructional team. During the pandemic, without having met the instructor in person before, students may perceive it to be (and may indeed be) harder to make that connection virtually.

While large course sizes can make it difficult to form personal relationships with each student in a class, there are steps that instructors can take to help students feel greater connection to their learning team – even if one-on-one engagement is not possible. Including brief biographies to the syllabus that help students to see the members of the instructional team as real people with lives that extend beyond the classroom, reframing office hours as “drop-in” hours to more clearly communicate that students are welcome during these times, and providing guidance on professional communication norms, are all small examples of ways that instructors can help students overcome the intimidation of connecting with professors, and increase the likelihood that students will reach out when needed.

What students are saying about this approach: “Including a short bio really makes the professor seem easier to talk to!”

Authors:Kathryn Boucher, PhD, Assistant Professor, College of Applied Behavioral Sciences, University of Indianapolis, and Principal Investigator, College Transition CollaborativeKrysti Ryan, PhD, Project Director, College Transition Collaborative