Help diverse students use your syllabus to build a relationship to your course and take ownership of their learning

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We often see the syllabus as a contract that details the work students must do, when they should do it, what they get for that work, and how they will be rewarded or punished depending on their performance. From this perspective, the syllabus should be crammed with important information that students must know and remember. Seen this way, we will use the syllabus in a limited way with students: we remind them to read it and subsequently respond to their questions about the course with a brusque, “It’s in the syllabus.” But how does this traditional way of using the syllabus affect our students? It has a decidedly negative affect on them! They quickly get the sense that they are on their own for the semester. And what’s worse, this contractual use of the syllabus creates a feeling in our students, particularly in our first-generation and underrepresented students, that learning will be an isolated struggle that they may or may not figure out.

There is another, much more productive and caring way to conceptualize and work with a course syllabus. The syllabus presents an opportunity to communicate with our diverse students—an opportunity that can motivate and guide them into the plan that we have for their learning. When students understand how you approach teaching, see how you’ve designed the course and class meetings to help them learn, and see the value of this work, their motivation increases, they dig into the work, and they are more successful.

To ensure that students make the most of a motivating and inviting syllabus, we must require them to work with it! This means having them use the syllabus to strategically consider and plan their own learning. Below we describe a series of short activities that get students to read the syllabus and to use it to make a plan for their success.

1. In the first week of class (or before class begins), assign your syllabus as a reading with the promise that there will be a (low-stakes!) group quiz on the syllabus on the first or second day of class.

2. In class, have students work in groups to answer some key questions about how the course works. Here are some sample syllabus quiz questions:

Based on your reading of the syllabus, answer the following questions. (In each case, give students 3-5 reasonable options to choose from.)

  • Which of the short papers you’ll be writing this semester will likely require the most research?
  • Of the following three strategies, which will be most helpful for preparing the readings for class discussion?
  • Which is the best approach to use if you need assistance with the homework?
  • About how many hours should you set aside each week to work outside of class on papers?
  • Which of the following skills do you think the course will help you with the most?

Have students first respond to your questions individually and then give them time to work with group members to reach consensus on their answers. Interacting in groups benefits all students, but it ensures that underrepresented students and first-generation students create peer bonds that can be especially helpful in creating a sense of belongingness and welcome.

After students take the syllabus quiz in groups, share their answers, and get clarification on any confusions, you can keep them in groups and have them generate two group questions about how the course will work (Harrington & Thomas, 2018). This kind of real communication means that students invest energy in a structured exploration of the course rather than simply listen to you read the syllabus (which sends a clear message to students that they are not an important part of class meetings and that those meetings won’t be particularly exciting).

3. After this exploration of the syllabus, ask students to complete a short homework assignment where they begin to dig into the course and use the syllabus to map out how the course will both help them develop and how it will challenge them. Have them respond in writing to prompts like the ones below:

  • Based on your reading of the syllabus, what important knowledge will you gain in this course? What important skills will you gain in this course?
  • How will what you learn in this course help you attain some of your important goals (personal, educational, career, other)?
  • What specific steps will you take to be successful in this course? (You can prompt them with suggestions like attend class regularly, complete readings before class meetings, participate in class, do all the homework assignments, ask for help when they’re struggling, etc.)
  • After reading through the assignments and other requirements for the course, which one are you most excited about and why? Which one (or two) do you have the most concerns about and why? What strategies will help you address those concerns (Prompt students with suggestions like coming to office hours, reviewing assignments with you, turning in drafts or exercises ahead of time for feedback, etc.)
  • Which of your strengths as a learner will you draw upon to be successful? Explain those strengths and how you will use them.
  • What challenges do you anticipate with learning in this course? Explain those challenges and how you will respond to them.

4. It is important that you take a look at students’ writing and communicate to students that you’ve read, reflected on, and want to respond to it. You can review and respond to student ideas and concerns individually or give global feedback to the class. It can be highly motivating for students to hear you acknowledge some of the ways in which they are already beginning to articulate the value of the course and are anticipating how they will benefit from it. In addition, you can support students by using their responses to help them consider the best ways to navigate areas that they feel will be challenging to them. In addition, you may decide to create new forms of support (special office hours, a study group, and so on) in response to their concerns. Be sure to communicate these new ideas to students. They will feel heard and cared for—key aspects to a feeling of belongingness!

Resources to guide productive student work with the syllabus

  • Harrington, C., & Thomas, M. (2018). Designing a motivating syllabus. Stylus Publishing.
  • Jordt, H., Eddy, S. L., Brazil, R., Lau, I., Mann, C., Brownell, S. E., King, K., & Freeman, S. (2017). Values affirmation intervention reduces achievement gap between underrepresented minority and white students in introductory biology classes. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(3).
  • Nilson, L. B. (2013). Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students’ self-awareness   and learning skills. Stylus Publishing.

CATLOE can help!

As you plan students’ work with your syllabus to help them anticipate the value of your course for their lives and make plans to succeed, you may have questions or need some guidance. Please feel free to reach out to CATLOE for a one-on-one consultation with an instructional consultant.