Creating an Inclusive Syllabus
Creating a syllabus is a complex task. Here are a few ideas for your consideration from colleagues in the Academic Advising Office, the Reading Lab, and the Associate Dean's Office. Additionally, Tulane University and the EnACT program at Sonoma maintain comprehensive sites dedicated to the creation of inclusive and accessible syllabi.
Syllabi that are posted and maintained online are very helpful to students, since they can access course information from anywhere at any time. Simply posting your syllabus online, such as in an accessible PDF, is a good start; syllabi which are webpages, or part of a course Pweb page, can be excellent, too. To make that tool even more useful, use a carefully constructed navigation system. If the course requirements, the readings, the exam schedule, etc. are all on different pages, make sure that sections are linked and connected in obvious ways including hyperlinks for easy navigation by students with visual impairments. Of course, if/when you make changes to your syllabus, notify the class, both in writing and as an in-class announcement.
In addition to serving as a roadmap to students by outlining due dates, course assignments and the breakdown of the grade for the course, the syllabus is an explicit statement of your expectations. Thus, it should include statements about:
- academic honesty (e.g., doing work with other students, independent work vs. collaboration, and citation system preferred)
- late work, class absences, participation and/or attendance (see College's attendance policy at end of this document)
- willingness to accommodate students with disabilities
Explain why you have these expectations. For example, participation is a significant component of most courses at Grinnell. Describe, either in writing or orally the reasons that students need to participate and how. You may say, for instance, that one of the goals for the course is to develop skills for collaboration, or that everyone has something to learn from other students, or that learning to take risks — and even be wrong sometimes! — is an important skill.
If papers are assigned, when will the writing assignment be handed out? Both the due date and the start date should, ideally, be included on the syllabus so that students can count on a particular period of time to be working on the paper. Also, following universal design principles, assignments should be explained both orally and in writing, using a separate sheet of written instructions. Scaffold larger assignments so that they are segmented into manageable steps.
Faculty should be realistic about the amount of reading they assign. More is not necessarily better, nor is it a sign of a superior course, teaching style, or instructor. When an assignment is impossible to complete in the allotted time, students may just "throw in the towel," realizing that even their best efforts will be insufficient.
It is helpful, especially as you introduce a new section, to provide guidance about the reading. Is there a part of the assignment that students should give more time and attention to than another part? What might be skimmed? What information should the students look for? Specific direction and instruction to prepare students for a reading assignment facilitates more productive class discussions and prepares students to follow the professor's line of questioning. Some faculty say, "But I want the students to be able to set up their own questions!" Faculty usually give very specific instructions when assigning papers, so you will get more better quality output from your students if you are equally directive about reading assignments and/or slowly build the skills for them to start doing this for themselves.
Further, do you know how much the books in your course cost? Whenever possible, consider affordability of your course materials and be sure to identify the books far enough in advance that students have time to order a used copy. This will also ensure that the Assistive Technology Specialists have enough time to convert readings for students with disabilities to alternative formats.
Make these explicit for yourself and for your students. Tie them directly to your assignments and grading rubrics.
Make your grading formula clear to students on your syllabus, and seriously consider using the grading tool available on Blackboard. Give students multiple opportunities to practice the material in your course and receive feedback. Students should receive their work handed back and graded with comments in a timely way. Certainly before the end of the 9th week of the semester students should have a good idea of where they stand in the course, as this is the last week in our calendar for a student to withdraw from a class. Ideally, students will have completed multiple (graded) assignments or exams by this time and will be aware of their progress.
If discussion, participation and/or attendance is a requirement of the course and is grade-dependent, provide students concrete feedback on their performance along this dimension. If this is a significant part of the grade in the course, as may well be true in seminars for example, students benefit from written feedback within the first four weeks of the semester.
If students are earning a sub-standard grade, or are in such danger at any point in the semester, this should be clearly communicated to them, preferably in writing. Also, regularly use the Academic Progress Report system which the Academic Advising Office coordinates.
Honor mid-semester breaks by not having major assignments due the week after the break, other than, perhaps, typical amounts of reading for the next class period. Major assignments due after break prevent students from using their break as a break. Also, noting break times on the syllabus helps students (and you!) plan.
The end of the semester ought to allow a student to wrap up some project(s) and demonstrate competency in the subject. However, thought should be given to how much you want to require of your students at the end of the semester. It is not appropriate to assign a paper/project, and an oral presentation, and an exam all to be due in the last week or two of the semester. This is too much work for one course when students are taking 3-4 courses at a time. A more reasonable approach is one major assignment due during the last week or two of classes and one final exam, paper, or presentation during finals' week, at most.
There is a natural tension in the flow of a course. Instructors have the challenge of balancing progression through a pre-determined syllabus and "just in time teaching," allowing the course to flow with the interests and learning of the students. Our advice: Make changes to the syllabus thoughtfully and sparingly! Students typically take four courses and make plans to accomplish the work required in all four courses simultaneously. Any changes (even sometimes extensions) can wreak havoc on students' schedules and timing of their work. Faculty do not always realize what difficulty they cause even the most conscientious student when they suddenly announce an additional reading or assignment which is not on the syllabus. If changes must be made, do so with as much advance notice as possible. Also, changes that reduce the amount of work required in the course are usually well-received; however, students who aren't doing well in the course and are anticipating another assignment to boost their grade will miss the opportunity to do so.
Look at the existing content of your courses for opportunities to support the goal of full inclusion of a diverse array of learners. Each student brings one or more ethnic or racial backgrounds, different abilities, nationality (educational systems and expectations are vastly different around the world), culture, health, prior exposure to higher education (first-gen students), social class (financial resources), religious heritage, etc. Each of these dimensions will affect the expectations they will bring to your course and how they will be as learners in your class. This begs at least two things from you: first, to be as explicit as possible about your expectations (the unwritten rules or expectations you have that live only in your head may not be theirs), and second, to identify those things you are already doing that serve to support multicultural goals and full inclusion. You don't necessarily need to add more, but rather you might be able to do differently. There are likely many opportunities present in what you are already doing in class.