Inclusive Teaching Newsletter: Invitational Syllabi

A syllabus is one of the earliest messages students receive about a course, often before the first day of class. A syllabus serves many purposes, including functioning as an academic plan, outlining expectations and policies, and identifying resources for student success. With all of these expectations, how can instructors best use this opportunity? Recent research suggests that changes to syllabi --often relatively small adjustments to emphasis, tone, and inclusion-- can significantly impact the student experience.

Emphasis: Content- vs. Learning-Centered Syllabi
Traditional syllabi often emphasize what the course will do, as well as what students will not do (Palmer, Bach, & Streifer, 2014; Palmer, Wheeler, & Annece, 2016). As described by researchers in this area, “Traditional syllabi—which we label here as content-focused syllabi—are ubiquitous and easily spotted.... A lot of bolding, all capping, italicizing, and underlining are obligatory aesthetic elements of these documents” (Palmer, Wheeler, & Annece, p. 37).

In contrast, learning-focused syllabi highlight what the student, the class, and the instructor will do during the term. Key elements include:

  • Clearly stated learning goals and objectives linking to the value of the course to students’ lives today and beyond. An example is the “Why should you take this course?” section in political science professor Paul Testa’s “The Politics of Race and the Criminal Justice System” syllabus.
  • Clearly defined assessment activities, including high-stakes (graded) elements and low-stakes opportunities to practice and receive feedback, often with an element of choice. To illustrate, Hispanic Studies faculty member Felipe Martinez-Pinzón’s graduate course, “The Politics of Romanticism in Spanish America,” offers the option of a professionalization-oriented assignment structure (conference abstract → conference paper → final essay) or a traditional long research paper.
  • An organized schedule. Medical Science and Africana Studies professor Lundy Braun‘s “Re-thinking Controversies in Public Health” offers a good example, with a concise list of class topics and dates, followed by a reading guide with framing questions for each week. Online formats also offer the opportunity to link schedules, office hours sign-ups, slides, and other resources in one spot, such as Computer Science professor James Tompkin’s “Introduction to Computer Vision” syllabus.
  • An invitational, inclusive tone, which communicates high expectations, confidence that students can meet them, and resources to help students do so. An example from Education faculty, John Papay, can be found below. 

Asking clarifying questions and addressing points of confusion are highly encouraged. You are not expected to be perfect; you are expected to try. One of the central skills I hope you learn from the class is how to talk about statistical concepts. In many ways, this is like learning a foreign language. This class will be a safe space to practice your understanding (rather than practicing for the first time in front of your boss)....One note in this regard – it is incumbent upon you to let us know if you have areas of confusion. Ideally, you will raise these in class. But, you can also let me know if you are struggling with concepts or have questions outside of class. We will address these in class or section. Letting us know that you have a question or area of confusion will NOT affect your grade!
-From John Papay’s syllabus for “Policy Analysis and Program Evaluation for Education”

Tone: Cold vs. Warm Syllabi
A learning-centered syllabus has the potential to help students perceive you and your course more positively (Harnish & Bridges, 2011; Palmer, Bach, & Streifer, 2014; Palmer, Wheeler, & Annece, 2016). In one study, over 1,000 undergraduates enrolled in the same course (“U.S. History Since 1865”) were randomly given either a learning-centered syllabus or a content-focused syllabus. Students who received the learning-centered syllabus perceived the course and the syllabus significantly more favorably than the content-focused group. Specifically, these students found the instructor to be more helpful and encouraging, and the course was perceived as more interesting, relevant, and conducive to learning expert thinking skills in the discipline. A rubric for a learning-centered syllabus is available on the Sheridan website.

Instructors who anticipate authority challenges from students might use the syllabus as a place to intentionally establish firm course policies and email availability. However, in framing those policies, small changes in syllabus tone are effective for increasing students' motivation. In a study of “cold” and “warm” syllabi -- which presented the same course policies but with different language -- undergraduates perceived a more invitational syllabus to be more encouraging, and they perceived the instructor as more motivating and approachable (Denton & Veloso, 2018).

Examples of syllabus language used in this study include:

 

Cold/Unwelcoming

Warm/Welcoming

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, I expect you to be able to:

By the end of this course, I am both confident and hopeful that you will be able to:

Course policies

Do not email me regarding this issue, NO WAIVERS WILL BE GRANTED.

Since no waivers will be granted, I kindly ask you to please make sure that you have all the prerequisites completed for this course as I will not reply to emails regarding this issue.

Relevance/ Framing

Because you are not yet a critical consumer of information about mental processes and behavior, all of these activities will help you become one, and if you are motivated enough, use the skills in your daily life.

Being a critical consumer of information about mental processes and behavior is important; all of these activities will help you become one, and it is my hope that you will use the skills in your daily life.

(Adapted from Denton & Veloso, 2018, p. 179; and Harnish & Bridges, 2011, p. 323)

Sharon Swartz, Professor of Engineering and Biology, offers a good example of “warm” syllabus language in her course, “Biological Design: Structural Architecture of Organisms”:

  • Contact information: “I also encourage you to use e-mail to ask questions relating to all aspects of this course. Although e-mail is certainly less personal than direct conversation, in many cases it is more efficient, and lets us use face-to-face personal interactions where we need them most while still having enough time and energy to get to all the little things. If you send e-mail to me at [address], I will generally answer you within 24 hours; sometimes I will be much quicker, and sometimes (occasionally, I hope!) slower. You can e-mail questions about course material, problem sets, and writing assignments, and pass on your comments and advice on lectures, discussions, and other aspects of the course.”
  • Learning outcomes: “By the end of the course, you will be able to use your research and communication skills, your insight into aspects of biological and physical sciences, and your creativity to work with a team of fellow students on a project that will celebrate the amazing diversity of structural architecture in the biological world and link this living richness to the human potential to creatively build on what nature has started.”
  • Course policies: “Please arrive on time to minimize disruption to your fellow students and course instructors, and to ensure you will get the greatest benefit from our class time. I try to finish promptly at 50 minutes past the hour and make every effort to be available after the class meeting for follow up questions.”

Inclusion: Syllabus Statements
Accessibility and accommodations statements are required of all Brown University syllabi, as is listing estimated costs for required texts (see this page for text). Increasingly, many instructors are choosing to include inclusive syllabus statements as well. Brief syllabus statements are often welcomed by students as signalling a positive classroom environment. Two samples are found below, and a list of additional examples can be found on the Sheridan website:

  • English Language Learners
    Brown University welcomes students from around the world, and the unique perspectives international students bring enrich the campus community. To empower students whose first language is not English, an array of English language support is available on campus including language and culture workshops and individual appointments. For more information about English language support at Brown, contact [email protected].
    -From Biostatistics faculty member Stavroula Chrysanthopoulou’s syllabus for “Principles of Biostatistics and Data Analysis”
  • Diversity, Inclusion, and Support Statement
    It is my goal that all students in this course feel they are working in an environment in which they can comfortably and productively learn. To that end, I want to be explicit that diversity of background (including, but not limited to: race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, religion, ability) is an asset to all of us. Diversity of voices, of minds, makes our ability to do science and answer questions about the world we all inhabit stronger. In fact, research has shown that papers authored by more diverse teams of scientists generate papers that are more highly cited than work from more homogenous groups (see this example). Accordingly, I will seek to provide primary literature from diverse voices of scientists presently working in our field, but I also acknowledge that many of the foundational articles we will read have been authored by a small subset of privileged voices. I welcome any feedback or suggestions on how to improve the quality of the course materials. Finally, you should all feel comfortable to let me know (in person, over email, or anonymously) if you feel that your learning is being adversely affected by experiences in or outside of class.
    -From Ecology and Evolutionary Biology graduate student’s Nikole Bonacorsi’s syllabus for “500 Years of Land Plants”

For students who cannot take a quiz or exam, including a final exam, due to a religious observance, it is also helpful to include information about your policy for making reasonable accommodations. (Students must inform instructors of any conflicts within the first four weeks of the semester, or as soon as possible after the exam date is announced, whichever is earliest.) In Fall 2018, because Rosh Hashanah falls in the first week of classes, Brown also requests that instructors allow students observe the religious holiday without penalty for not attending classes.

Using an Invitational Syllabus
Effective syllabi offer students an invitation to the course or discipline, an important component of inclusive teaching. However, because of the additional information they offer, invitational syllabi are often longer than other syllabi and may need to be referenced/reinforced in class. In one study, when the syllabus indicated that students should use learning objectives listed on the syllabus to focus their studying for exams, and instructors verbally explained this suggestion the first day and had students twice write reflectively about the process, most students reported finding them useful for learning (Osueke, Mekonnen, & Stanton, 2018). However, if not highlighted intentionally, additional information may be overlooked.

Sheridan staff are available for consultations on invitational syllabi and inclusive course design (email: [email protected]), and Sheridan course design resources can be found here.

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Integrating Research into STEM & Social Science Courses

References
Denton, A.W., & Veloso, J. (2018). Changes in syllabus tone affect warmth (but not competence) ratings of both male and female instructors. Social Psychology of Education, 21: 173-187.

Harnish, R.J., & Bridges, K.R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14: 319-330.

Osueke, B., Mekonnen, B., & Stanton, J.D. (2018). How undergraduate science students use learning objectives to study. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 19(2): 1-8.

Palmer, M.S., Bach, D.J., & Streifer, A.C. (2014). Measuring the promise: A learning-focused syllabus. To Improve the Academy, 33(1): 14-36.

Palmer, M.S., Wheeler, L.B., & Annece, I. (2016, July/August). Does the document matter? The evolving role of syllabi in higher education. Change: 36-46.