Syllabus Design and Inclusive Teaching
The syllabus serves several purposes. It provides an overview of the course and course structure to students. It outlines the course requirements like papers, projects, exams, and readings. It includes necessary information about the course like pre-requisites, required course materials, and required technology. Most importantly, it sets the tone for each course, each semester, including elements like office hours, classroom community expectations, and course policies. Importantly, "model teachers treat the syllabus as a permanent record, a communication device, a cognitive map, and a learning tool" (Ansburg, Basham, & Gurung, 2022, p. 50). Syllabi outline the course sequence, but syllabi also begin the classroom learning, communicate the tone of the course to students, and invite students to be members of the scholarly community.
In doing more than simply sketching the flow of a course, syllabi can and should invite students to participate, to engage. In addition to communicating the course cognitive map, syllabi can serve to support faculty inclusive teaching practices too. Syllabi can provide an outline for faculty to schedule when we practice various instructional methods to support learning. We can and should align our instructional practices with the content we cover so we draw from the most effective approach to teaching particular content within our fields. We can and should schedule variety in our teaching approaches to invite students to participate in and reflect on their own learning (Davidson & Katopodis, 2022).
This page offers suggestions and resources on using the syllabus to effectively communicate the course outline and calendar. This page also offers suggestions on building a student-centered, inclusive syllabus in support of student learning, that also support our inclusive teaching practices. For Millersville University faculty, I encourage you to read Course Syllabi Guidelines provided through the Provost website in addition to the information provided here.
In their book Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom, Hogan and Sathy (2022) describe inclusive teaching as a mind-set, a recognition that our approaches to teaching should center students and student success. This means our approach to course design, syllabus design, and teaching practices center issues of equity and inclusion to support student learning and success.
To do this, faculty should design high structure courses – courses with regular and routine active-learning practice with course materials, concepts, and ways of knowing (analytic and critical thinking skills) to benefit all learners. Inclusive teaching recognizes that building in assignments and activities for routine practice with course material and ways of thinking help break down the hidden curriculum of college classes, including more learners in the process. As a first step faculty should consider how to decolonize the syllabus, including a combination of diverse reading materials, examples, case studies, and assignment choice. Decolonizing the syllabus through diverse readings is just one step, offering diverse examples so learners with various backgrounds have access to examples, case studies, and assignments that suit their learning of the material provides a more inclusive classroom space to support equitable learning.
Open Educational Resources (OER) offer one approach to a more inclusive classroom, by reducing the cost of attendance. As peer-reviewed, freely available course material, OER also ensure all students have access to the course materials from the first day of class forward – ensuring equitable access. Even when a book is assigned, decolonizing the syllabus includes intentional, thoughtful focus on example and case study diversity as well. Intentionally designing the course, through the syllabus, with a diverse variety of examples, case studies, teaching approaches, and assignment choices creates space for all learners to better access the ways of knowing supported through the course.
Inclusive teaching practices are practices – a variety of approaches to center equity and inclusion in our approaches to teaching. Making small changes each semester can positively impact the experiences of all students when we center equity and inclusion.
There are numerous sources that discuss the ‘permanent record’ idea of the syllabus. At Millersville University we have several required sections (I encourage everyone to check the “Information for Faculty” page of the Provost website for further information on required elements), made required to ensure students have access to ‘necessary’ course elements. Balancing ‘necessary’ (required) elements with inclusive, student-centered teaching practices allows the syllabus to do more work preparing students of the class for learning. Kevin Gannon’s “How to Create a Syllabus: Advice Guide” from Chronicle of Higher Education provides a strong guide for considering the balance between the necessary and useful elements to help the syllabus invite students “to actively engage in the learning process”. Include the requirement elements but spend more time with how you use all the elements to include your learners (communication device, cognitive map, and learning tool).
Most educators with at least one semester of teaching experience have a reason for including course policies in their syllabus. We use the syllabus to communicate “the rights and responsibilities students and instructors have and owe to one another in the context of the classroom community” (Addy et al., 2021, p. 48). Students find it cognitively easier to surf TikTok than to engage with an active learning activity in a class – we develop course policies and expectations from this reality. Students have yet to fully grasp the value of peer-peer learning and collaboration as we build our knowledge. Designing the course syllabus from an inclusive mind-set asks us to revisit the tone and policy choices we make through our syllabus, not to remove them entirely!
Hogan and Sathy (2022) encourage educators to shift their policies to center students, student success, and inclusion. Addy et al. consider this “critical information about how students can succeed” (p. 48). For instance, most educators include a basic course policy on kindness and respect. When students act respectfully in the class, they demonstrate care and support for the value of the learning of all students in the class. The syllabus could read:
“As a composition course, this course includes a lot of reading and class discussion to work through reading ideas and develop awareness of good writing practices. Students are expected to arrive prepared to learn, and to conduct themselves in a manner that will not disrupt the learning of others.”
While this communicates the collaborative, engaged learning environment I’d like to develop in my class, it also positions students to feel as if being reprimanded on the very first day of class. I am not communicating why this approach will help a student be successful in my class, with the content of this course. This statement, accompanied by a first day of class discussion of this policy, in tone sets the stage for the community that can develop within the class. Shifting the language and tone can more effectively offer ways into the classroom community for all learners. Easy changes like shifting from “students” to “you” and “we” build from an expectation of community, instead of a reprimand. Consider this:
“We are all here to learn and grow as scholars. I am here to help you grow, I have designed this course to help you grow. Your work in this class is to reflect on your learning so you leave class a more empowered learner. In this class we will all work together to support idea development and growth in all our interactions.”
The tone has shifted, students have been centered in the policy for their learning, not for their ‘bad’ behavior. These adjustments more effectively invite learners into the learning environment, and create a more approachable space for questions and peer support. As syllabus designers, the tone shifts helps us consider where we can use our course policies to invite students in to learning, instead of reprimanding.
As you design your syllabus this year, also consider how policies like a “Student Support Policy” and/or a “Diversity Statement” can help your syllabus convey your inclusive teaching approach. A sample of Dr. Nicole Pfannenstiel’s policies is included here as example.
Student Support Policy
While I have a late policy, I am willing to work with any student who wants to complete the course who encounters life difficulties. I understand how little we control those difficulties. I need you to communicate with me at the earliest you are able to.
I value the perspective of individuals from all backgrounds reflecting the diversity of our students here at Millersville University. I broadly define diversity to include race, gender identity, national origin, ethnicity, religion, social class, age, sexual orientation, political background, and physical and learning ability. I strive to make this classroom space for all learners. If you see ways I can improve, please let me know.
Millersville University supports a university-wide inclusion statement that heavily influenced my inclusive pedagogical approaches to this class, including this diversity statement. You can read the Millersville statement at https://www.millersville.edu/dsj/incusionstatement/.
Hogan and Sathy offer a variety of statements to help shift your course policies to communicative tools inviting your students to engage in learning. I encourage you to look through their examples on pages 58-60.
Distinct but interconnected to the syllabus as permanent record and communication device, the syllabus communicates the student learning outcomes and how they will be met through the course. As course designers, faculty use the syllabus to align course assessments with readings, lectures, active learning and activities that developed the learning being assessed.
As we develop syllabi to sequence the learning throughout a semester, we design the flow to scaffold ideas, we develop assessments to first support students with formative assessments while building toward summative assessment, and we schedule space for students to actively interact with the course material.
Importantly, we, as instructors, can use this course outline to schedule diverse approaches to teaching. We can use the cognitive map that walks students through the material, that includes prompts to help them understand and self-assess their learning, as a map to align pedagogical best-practices with the content. Jose Bowen (2017) provides many interdisciplinary examples of building variety into teaching to help faculty demonstrate how the cognitive map helps students, and how the cognitive map can help us as instructors too.
I’ll use an example drawing together these ideas. I’ll use Monday/Wednesday/Friday so the flow is more clear. On a Friday I will assigning a reading and guided notes – due before class on Monday. The guided notes help my students understand how to work through the reading, how to identify the key elements for their learning. I require students to submit the notes prior to the start of class Monday (this is high structure from Hogan and Sathy).
During class on Monday, we will discuss questions that build upon the foundational knowledge they identified through their notes. To begin the discussion I will prompt students through think-pair-share. First, I’ll ask a question, then I’ll ask students to think and write for 3-5 minutes. Davidson and Katopodis suggest setting a timer to ensure I provide ample thinking time to students. After providing time, and walking around checking in on the think writing, I will ask students to work together to build upon the ideas further – working through my questions and student questions for the class period. For homework, before Wednesday, I will then ask students to find their own examples to further illuminate the key concepts we discussed. Bowen draws from Fink’s significant learning in offering suggestions for what he calls ‘cognitive wrappers’ introducing, working with, and extending class content. Students will submit their individual work before class Wednesday.
In my cognitive map within the student syllabus, I will outline the topics to be covered and discussed. In my faculty syllabus I will write down which days I will have whole class discussion, which days I will build think-pair-share, which days we will annotate the assignment sheet, which days we will annotate the rubrics, which days we will build a checklist for writing the essay (or studying for the exam, or preparing for group work, etc.).
As educators, we provide the cognitive map to help students build a working representation of our class and the knowledge of the discipline. I encourage you to also use this space as faculty-centered, space to schedule various teaching methods into your course, space to see where you draw from diverse voices and approaches to empower all learners. This will help you track your approaches and reflect on the successes and struggles. This will also help you teach more effectively and see where you can integrate new ideas easily.
Each week in the CAE email I offer suggestions for reflecting on teaching to help you re-engage with these ideas, exploring new approaches to teaching that are manageable within our schedule at a teaching-focused institution. In addition to my suggestions, there are many resources I can connect you with to support your work using the cognitive map as faculty-focused in addition to student-focused, as space for you to grow and flourish in your teaching.
Do your students know why they should come to office hours? I (Dr. Nicole Pfannenstiel) teach a lot of courses as online asynchronous. Every semester I receive an email from a student apologizing for bothering me with questions since they are an online student. These emails communicate so much about feelings of inclusion and understandings of how to student. The online student sending that email believes they have different access to the faculty teacher of the course they are completing. This feeling of inferiority, or of different or less access at a minimum, can impact learning, success, and retention.
This doesn’t happen only in online classes – students in face-to-face classes may apologize for showing up with questions, for staying after class with questions. Seeing our syllabi as learning tools can help empower students as learners.
This is where an inclusive pedagogical mind-set can help us shift our syllabi to invite students to engage with their own learning. In addition to outlining the overall cognitive map of the course, the syllabus “provide information on how to succeed, what to watch out for, and where to get help” (Ansburg, Basham, & Gurung, p. 50).
Consider the portion of your syllabus where you provide students with your contact information, the section we often label “Instructor Information.” In this section, we typically provide contact information – our email, our office phone, our office locations, and our office hours for the semester. Additionally, we could humanize ourselves to connect with students by providing biographical information: where we went to school and why, where we earned our bachelor’s degrees and why, what we studied as undergraduates and why. While we had different experiences than current students, we had similar experiences as well. Kevin Gannon (“How to Create a Syllabus”) highly recommends including a part of our teaching philosophy to project our student-centered care, to discuss our goals for the course, to explain our excitement teaching that course. This doesn’t need to be lengthy – just a few sentences to communicate our care for the learning environment as we invite our learners to engage with the course.
Gannon offers these questions to help you include teaching philosophy within your syllabus:
- Why are you teaching?
- Why are you teaching this course?
- How do you define successful learning?
These questions help us consider where within our syllabus to provide high structure scaffolds, helping our students understand and use the cognitive map we’ve developed to support their learning and success. These also help us consider how we discuss Office Hours.
Students may apologize for taking up time, but we should also consider that many of our students don’t know why they should attend Office Hours. There are ways that shifting from “Office Hours” to “Student Hours” can help students understand how office hours serve their learning needs (Davidson & Katopodis, p. 47). In addition to listing office location and hours, we can include information on the value of attending office hours, specifically emphasizing learning beyond remediation to encourage student understanding. We can offer suggestions for discussion topics during office hours:
My Office Hours are designed to support student learning. I am available during this time to answer questions you have about course readings, course assignments, and course learning. I am happy to discuss your topic to help you grow as a writer.
During Office Hours I can also help you consider
- The role of writing in your major or minor
- Your development as a writer and how to capitalize on that beyond your coursework
- Your favorite authors and how reading for fun supports your development as a writer
- Your favorite games and how playing games resembles learning to write
- Your schedule for future semesters, especially if I’m your advisor
Here I am drew from inclusive mind-set pedagogy to offer a variety of options for what students will gain from my Office Hours. I’ve also interjected some of my teaching philosophy (games, play, and habits of mind) within the choices to further connect with my diverse learners. Office Hours do not look the same each time I hold them, the more I convey to students that Office Hours serve their learning, the more I explicitly offer ideas for how Office Hours support their learning, the more likely more students will attend and participate in their learning!
Further Reading and References
Addy, T.M., Dube, D., Mitchell, K.A., & SoRelle, M.E. (2021). What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and practices for excellence in college teaching. Stylus Publishing.
Ansburg, P.I., Basham, M.E., & Gurung, R.A.R. (2022). Thriving in Academia: Building a career at a teaching-focused institution. American Psychological Association. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/0000261-000.
Bowen, J.A. & Watson, C.E. (2017). Teaching Naked Techniques: A practical guide to designing better classes. Jossey-Bass.
Davidson, C.N., & Katopodis, C. (2022). The New College Classroom. Harvard University Press.
Gannon, K. (n.d.). “How to Create a Syllabus: Advice guide”. Chronicle of Higher Education website, www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-syllabus, accessed August 6, 2023.
Gannon, K. (2020). Radical Hope: A teaching manifesto. West Virginia University Press.
The Office of the Provost
The Provost includes information on Provost expectations for syllabi. I encourage you to explore the document each semester to support your syllabi development work. Navigate to:
Questions about this information can be directed to Dr. A Nicole Pfannenstiel, Coordinator of the Vilas A Prabhu Center for Academic Excellence (CAE). The CAE regularly works with faculty to support teaching, learning, and scholarship. Please email with questions about the information and/or materials discussed here, and how to incorporate these ideas into your teaching (email@example.com).