Teaching and Learning Tip #17: The Inclusive, Learner-Centered Syllabus

January 9, 2018

Tip #17: The Inclusive, Learner-Centered Syllabus

Consider the difference: the policy-oriented syllabus versus the learner-centered syllabus.  An inclusive, learner-centered syllabus sees this text as the start of a conversation that will continue throughout the semester. The syllabus is the students’ invitation to participate in that conversation. Rather than a mere statement of course policies, the syllabus becomes a highly motivating way to open the semester. In order to build a learner-centered syllabus...

Use inviting and affirming language.

  • Consider the student audience. Using the second-person “you” in your syllabus, e.g., “In this class you will work collaboratively to investigate….”
  • Emphasize positive over punishing language with phrases such as “I encourage you to…” or “One of the best ways to engage yourself in this course is to…”
  • Help students to envision their success in the course. Use language that already assumes their success. This should include describing your role as instructor, and what you will do to foster student success. It can also depict students as actively shaping their learning experience (e.g., “The texts I’ve selected for you to read can inform the projects you create this semester.”)
  • Include a simple “preferred name and gender pronouns” statement, such as “you will have the opportunity to let our classroom community know your name and gender pronoun and anything else you would like to share.”

Example from a 100-level history course syllabus:

Policy-oriented Syllabus. Course Objectives: Each student in the class is expected to achieve the following learning objectives. You must demonstrate knowledge and skills based on the following...

Learner-centered Syllabus. How You’ll Know You’re Learning: We’ll use the following course objectives to focus our work together. The following learning objectives are a way of describing and naming what you learn this semester…

Build from what students already know or expect.

  • The syllabus is a teaching tool. As you would with any other assignment or exercise, build from what the students already know and be explicit about what you want them to achieve.
  • Consider the fact that many college students experience “impostor syndrome,” where it is difficult for them to visualize or believe in their success.  This means that they might demonstrate or assume a passive role. Use the language of the syllabus—such as active verbs—to counteract impostor syndrome.
  • Don’t overwhelm your audience. A syllabus should be easy to navigate. It’s a document that students will use for reference throughout the semester, and it should be easy for them to find the information they need when they need it. Throughout the document, use a conversational tone, and avoid terminology that students will not know on day one.
  • Pose interesting questions, and explain the “so what? factor” of the course. Use the syllabus as an opportunity to explain why the course content matters. The syllabus is the first opportunity to get students excited about the course. A learner-centered syllabus will leave students eager to get started.

Example from a 100-level history course syllabus:

Policy-oriented syllabus. Course Description: This course emphasizes the major political, social, economic and intellectual developments in the United States from the Civil War to the present.

Learner-centered syllabus. A Bit About the Course: You’ve probably studied U.S. history before, exploring the major themes, events, and people who have shaped this country. Your other history courses may have been focused on certain historical facts. Facts have an important place in this course, but I expect that you will find our time together to be different from your previous history courses in useful and challenging ways.

Assess your syllabus before distributing to students.

  • Consult with former students to provide feedback and shape language that aligns to their understanding and experience of the course.
  • Consider having former students write a letter to the next class—providing their peers advice and ideas about what to expect from the course. Use these students’ letters to inform what you say in your syllabus.
  • Join or create opportunities for informal peer-to-peer feedback within or across majors to discuss syllabi design with a focus on inclusivity and learner-centered language.
  • Consult resources such as this syllabus self-assessment or this syllabus rubric guide.

Strategically present and engage students with your syllabus on the first day of class.

  • Do not read the syllabus to your students. Instead, design an interactive activity that helps students engage the syllabus. For example, have students read through the syllabus as an early homework assignment and come to class with three “takeaways” and two questions.  Have students teach takeaways to each other and hold a discussion that fields students’ questions about the syllabus.
  • Let your syllabus model what you want students to do as thinkers in the class.  For example, point out that parts of the syllabus (e.g. the schedule or components of assignments) may be revised. This models both flexibility and revision; both are skills we want our students to be able to employ as learners.
  • Explain your syllabus policies in terms of your own boundaries and needs. For example, “Work that is submitted late is very difficult for me to manage, in terms of my work load. Because of this, I ask that you not submit late work, and I’ll need to deduct X number of points if work is submitted late.”
  • Identify what in the syllabus is negotiable and up for discussion. Use the syllabus to prompt a discussion of community agreements among all members of the course.

Contributed by Lisa Tremain, English and Janelle Adsit, English


Next week, look for the “First Day of Class” tip for ideas to set the tone for the learning environment on the first day