What Does a Syllabus Convey? Insights from the Student Experience Project

by Deborah Keene, Blount Scholars Program, and Luvada Harrison, Department of Theatre & Dance

This past summer, we were able to participate in the pilot program for the Association of Public and Land Grant Institutions (APLU) Student Experience Project’s First Day Toolkit initiative. The workshop provided an opportunity for us to review our course syllabi and the tools to conduct a syllabus review. As the most powerful tool for planning and developing courses, conducting a syllabus review gave us a framework for creating a document that promotes equity in students’ experiences and outcomes. We learned how to retool our syllabus using language that supports student achievement, fosters well-being, and contributes to equity in education.

The materials for the Toolkit were created by Christine Logel, an associate professor of social development studies at Renison University College. The workshop we participated in focused on using your syllabus to communicate that all students belong in your course and have the capability to do well. The course focused on six important concepts and how to communicate them to students through your syllabus and course. All of the concepts are based on research with undergraduate students, and it is clear that communicating this information to students facilitates a sense of belonging.

Growth Mindset/Sense of Belonging

Do you believe that any student has the ability to become a better student and to learn the material you are teaching? Do you communicate this to your students so that they will believe it of themselves? Most teachers have experienced a student who struggles and concludes that they are “not good” at a particular subject or discipline. We don’t want to make the mistake of perpetuating these ideas through the syllabus. One way to combat this feeling is to share your story or another story of someone in your field who didn’t feel that they belonged at first but ended up being successful.

Normalizing Challenges

Another way to help students feel that they can improve and that they belong is to make it clear that everyone needs additional support at some point. Remind them that you understand that they can’t remember everything from 101, but in order to do well in 102, they should review concepts X, Y, and Z. Try to provide a link or resource to emphasize that needing this kind of help is common. When you refer a student to the Writing Center, a tutoring program, etc., remind them that these resources exist because they are an integral part of the learning experience.

Resources and Success

Some students experience financial issues that prevent them from being able to purchase the textbook immediately. They may be waiting for financial aid funding to come through. Whatever the reason, you could consider putting a copy of the textbook on reserve in the library, or directing the student to an online resource that may have the textbook available at a lower price than the bookstore. Do you include a list of services provided by the university such as academic, accessibility, and mental health and counseling services in your syllabus or Blackboard course?

Communicating Care

UA offers a number of programs to assist students with self-care and wellness. Not all students are aware of these programs. Consider listing the programs in your syllabus or putting them in your Blackboard Course under “Helpful Resources.” Many students balance their educational pursuits with other responsibilities such as work and caring for children or other family members. Is there a statement in your syllabus that expresses your sensitivity to these situations? Are you willing to include a statement that offers flexibility to a student who is courageous enough to share this information with you?

Sometimes simply communicating to students that you are there for them and that they shouldn’t wait until they feel overwhelmed to reach out for help, will make them comfortable enough to come to you before problems get out of hand.

Valuing Diversity

If you don’t already, consider including your pronouns on your syllabus or any other place where your name and title appear. Do you ask students for their preferred name? A student may wish to go by a name other than what is found on the course roster provided by the University.

Diversity is not solely about race. Diversity includes gender, marital status, sexual orientation, and disability challenges. Make sure that you include readings/works/information by and about underrepresented people in your field of study. That is a powerful  way that a faculty member can demonstrate to students that they value diversity and that all students belong in their classroom.

We are grateful that the University provided this opportunity to us. Once we had the guidance and time to reflect on our syllabi, we found several places to change and add information. Sometimes, we even realized that we weren’t effectively communicating the ideals we thought we were or it wasn’t clear which resources we were providing. We are happy to share our knowledge and experiences with anyone on campus. If you would like a mini-workshop for your department, please contact us using the links to our faculty pages above.

colorful sign saying "you belong" surrounded by plants