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Developing an Inclusive Syllabus

A syllabus is often the first exposure students have to a course and instructor. The syllabus is more than the road map of a course, but is also a reflection of the instructor. What is included and excluded in a syllabus sends explicit messages to students about what an instructor values.
Developing an inclusive syllabus is a key first step towards creating an inclusive classroom environment. The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTLE) respects academic freedom, and this document provides some principles and strategies for developing an inclusive syllabus for faculty
and instructors who are interested in this process. Se the rubric provided by the CTLE as a guide to assess one of your course syllabi for inclusivity.

 

Diverse content and perspectives.

As research has shown, diversity is a critical component to educational excellence. When students
are able to see themselves represented in course content and discussion, it signals to them that
their identities (such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status,
and disability) are valued and respected in the classroom. Instructors can access students’ lived
experiences and cultural backgrounds as part of their curriculum to enhance student learning.

Multiple means of instruction and demonstration of learning.

Students have a range of learning styles and varying the way we teach (e.g. lecture, videos,
presentations, discussion, small group collaborative work) and ask students to demonstrate their
learning (e.g. power point, term papers, oral and written exams, performances, individual vs. group
assignments) is an important component of inclusive teaching. This may also include allowing
students to choose their preferred method to demonstrate their learning for a particular
assignment.

Explicit and transparent expectations, learning outcomes, and assessment.

Transparency in teaching helps not only underserved students but all students better understand the expectations of instructors. By explaining the why and how behind each assignment, students gain a clear understanding of how they are being assessed. Elements of transparency in teaching and learning include providing:

• Examples of excellent student work.

• Clear rubrics and grading criteria.

• Scaffolding or step-by-step guidelines for each assignment.

Discussion guidelines.

These should be either provided by the instructor on the syllabus or added after the students
develop the guidelines as a group on the first day of class. This is extremely important for both
physical and online classrooms. In physical classrooms, these guidelines provide group structure
and agreements so that instructors can effectively facilitate challenging discussions that may
arise. Online discussion boards should have clear guidelines on what are appropriate and respectful
comments, and what consequences may ensue should students choose to post something inappropriate.

Campus resources for students.

Include information for resources on campus that provide student support that aren’t stated in
other areas of your syllabus such as the Counseling Center, LGBT Resource Center, International
Center, and the Veteran’s Resource Center. Information for many of these resources is provided on
the CTLE Syllabus Checklist.

Inclusive language.

Make it clear to students that you value and respect their diverse backgrounds and identities, and
that they are encouraged to share their perspectives in class. This can be demonstrated in a
diversity statement or in different ways throughout the syllabus.

• Inviting and engaging tone.

The syllabus should prioritize learning over rules, reveal the instructor’s genuine enthusiasm for
the course, express high expectations for all students, and emphasize what to do to succeed in the
class rather than how to avoid failing. Show your humanness! Click here to view a research study
regarding the effect of syllabus tone on student learning.

• Statements regarding diversity and inclusion.

Several statements are required by the University of Utah such as ADA, Title IX and academic
integrity. Other statements are strongly recommended such as a diversity statement that
demonstrates the instructor respects and welcomes the contributions of students’ diverse
backgrounds, as well as a statement regarding preferred name/gender pronoun. You can find a list of
syllabus statements here.

• Hidden or assumed norms.

Be conscious of norms that may reflect dominant culture or privilege – e.g. using masculine
pronouns, terms such as Christmas break rather than winter break, or slang. Simply being aware that
many students in our classrooms come from cultural backgrounds different from our own goes a long
way towards creating an inclusive classroom.

Syllabus accessibility.

There are several tools and strategies that instructors can use to ensure students of all abilities
have equal access to learning. Universal Design Principles and tools on Canvas can be used to
assess syllabus accessibility. Be clear with students that they should notify you of any resources
or accommodations they might need to maximize their learning in class, both in the physical
classroom and online.

Resources

References

Adams, M., & Bell, L. A. (Eds.). (2016). Teaching for diversity and social justice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Chicago, IL: John Wiley & Sons.

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. Chicago, IL: John Wiley & Sons.

Gurin, P., Dey, E., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 330-367.

Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of  instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14(3), 319-330.

Pliner, S. M., & Johnson, J. R. (2004). Historical, theoretical, and foundational principles of  universal instructional design in higher education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 37(2),  105-113.

Winkelmes, M. A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A
teaching intervention that increases underserved college students' success. Peer Review, 18(1/2), 31.

 

Last Updated: 5/27/21