by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center
Creating an inclusive learning environment begins with the course syllabus. In spite of how packed with information our syllabi can be, they often exclude more than they include. Disciplinary jargon and institutional abbreviations, the unwritten academic “rules of the game” we assume all students understand, the tone used when we lay out (un)acceptable student behaviors—in all of these choices, we communicate (however unintentionally) messages about how inclusive or exclusive our courses will be.
These messages have the potential to start students off on inequitable footing from the outset. First-generation college students or brand-new doctoral students may not yet understand the norms of formal academic work in higher education. Novices beginning their study of a subject for the first time may not be able to understand course descriptions that include discipline-specific concepts. Students with certain kinds of disabilities may find classroom participation or course attendance policies at odds with their ability to be successful in a course.
To use the syllabus as a tool for inclusion, consider the extent to which your syllabi reflect the following features. Among other things, an inclusive syllabus . . . .
Incorporates content that represents a diverse set of perspectives and experiences: choosing content from authors/creators of diverse social identities and disciplinary sub-fields helps students to see that scholars from all identity groups have a stake in the work of your field and that success in the field is not limited to a privileged few.
Prioritizes learning over content and/or rules: this may include stating learning goals explicitly, framing major assignments as learning activities (rather than grading activities), offering guidance on how to study / read / prepare for class successfully, and providing some of the rationale behind important course design decisions.
Is framed as an invitation, rather than a contract: this may include an emphasis on the opportunities for learning the course will present, a tone that does not alienate students, and a focus on what students will gain from the course and what kinds of actions lead to those gains rather than a focus on rules and behavior to be avoided.
Explicitly articulates the norms and/or hidden “rules” you assume all students know: many students come to us without clear understanding of classroom norms or “rules” for successful academic work in the university setting. This is true of first-generation college students, students who come to study in the U.S.A. from other cultures/countries, and students returning to school after a significant time away. The more explicit you can be about your expectations, the more likely students will be to meet the high standards you set. (For more on academic rigor and inclusive teaching, see this blog post.)
Explicitly values differences in students’ social identities and considers how these might affect students’ experience in the course: including language that explicitly values diversity, privileges dialogue over debate, and considers the types of supports some students may need are ways to demonstrate your commitment to inclusion. This may take many forms, including: asking students to indicate their preferred gender pronoun (rather than assuming you know from appearance), expressing explicit value for divergent points of view, creating ground rules for inclusive dialogue, and incorporating inclusive statements about course content.
Allows for multiple ways to learn and demonstrate learning: This might include varying assignment types to balance individual and collaborative tasks or written and oral tasks. Or, it might include allowing students to choose how they will demonstrate their learning and achievement of assignment objectives.
There are lots of other ways to make your syllabus more inclusive, including other practices advocated for by those committed to universal design of instruction. (This website from the University of Washington [LINK] offers a good overview of UDI. And this Before [PDF] and After [PDF] view of one syllabus offers an example of small changes that can make your syllabus design more inclusive.)
The next time you create or revise a syllabus, consider incorporating the features described above. You don’t need to add them all at once; try layering a few strategies each time you revise your syllabus and see what you think.
This blog post is part of the Reinert Center’s 2016-2017 focus on Inclusive Teaching. To learn more about the year’s theme, and about programs and resources associated with it, see our webpage on Inclusive Teaching [LINK]. To talk with someone about how you can design and teach courses in more inclusive ways, contact the Reinert Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.