The Syllabus Isn’t Just a Piece of Paper: How It Can Set the Tone for Student Success
Recently, respected NYU Professor Maitland Jones Jr. was fired after students complained that his organic chemistry course was too hard. In an interview, the professor noted, “It was written down in black and white on the course syllabus.” The episode challenges us as instructors to ask foundational questions about craft and mission. And it might even encourage thoughtful reexamination of our syllabi, which is for many the vehicle by which we translate our academic aspirations and intent into a course.
After all, a syllabus serves as much more than a course guide. Beyond the list of assignments, grading system, rules and regulations, a good syllabus spells out the fundamental responsibilities and expectations for both students and the professor.
Upon careful examination, we might find that, while the traditional syllabus has served well enough for many years, it may reinforce tired power dynamics that no longer square with our academic intent. Rather than acting as a catalyst for communication, understanding and shared expectations, the traditional syllabus stands as an obstacle between the professor and student.
What if instead we used the syllabus as an opportunity to instill within each student a sense of belonging? What if, rather than a contract of adhesion, we used the syllabus to foster a deeper connection to the course, the instructor and other students?
Here are five ways college faculty can rethink the syllabus:
1. A syllabus must focus on experience
Students are not passive class participants. Rather, they are active constructors of their learning journey. With the instructor as the facilitator, the syllabus should serve as a guidebook that clearly conveys how students will engage with the instructor and the course content throughout the semester.
2. It must use inclusive language
The syllabus should help create a safe learning environment where students can take risks and feel cared for by the instructor. The language used throughout should be inclusive and welcoming.
Personal pronouns such as “I” and “we” (instead of “the professor” and “the students”) are examples of inclusive language. The phrase “I am committed to…” connotes clear expectations. A sentence such as “We are a community of learners where all students are valued and contributing members” can reinforce the idea of the classroom as a welcoming space.
3. It must set expectations—for everyone
The syllabus remains the place to list course content, assignments and outcomes, but it’s crucial to align all three elements. Transparency is critical here. Students don’t want surprises to interrupt their learning journey.
Compassion and respect are equally as important. Life happens, and students who feel cared for and respected are more likely to call on resources that will help them succeed.
Expectations and accountability run both ways. An instructor should spell out their commitment to their students, such as how students should reach them (by email, text or phone) and when they should expect to get a response. For example, instructors should explicitly invite students to give their feedback on the course material and let them know that their well-being is a top priority.
4. It must be equitable and accessible
Most classes are made up of a diverse group of learners, so the syllabus must meet students where they are. To make the syllabus more accessible to all learners, it should include bullet points, headings and other formatting that can be scanned quickly.
Because so many students access course materials on their phones and tablets, a syllabus absolutely must be mobile-friendly.
Links make the syllabus interactive, and those links can connect students immediately to helpful resources both on campus and off.
A syllabus created with Universal Design for Learning principles around engagement, representation and action and expression can help all students participate in the learning community. As faculty, we must be deliberate in thinking through the supports and scaffolding we provide students to help them succeed.
5. It must feel human
For students to be eager to come to class and connect with their classmates, they must feel that the instructor is a human being.
A quick welcome video included with the syllabus allows the instructor to speak about themselves and their interests and begin to break down barriers between them and their students. A short statement outlining the instructor’s teaching philosophy can further personalize a course.
Showing a little vulnerability and human emotion can help students relate to a professor as a person—something that will make students more likely to form connections with faculty and each other. Authenticity matters greatly.
A new semester is almost here, and, as higher education finds itself in a new paradigm, faculty must commit themselves to fostering intellectual and emotional growth that promotes learning, human development and successful outcomes. Instructors who wish to create inclusive, inspiring and inquiry-filled classrooms should employ the right tool—a syllabus that honors students as human beings—to build a shared learning environment and compassionate accountability that can help all their students find success.