team collaborating on campusAccording to Laura Zanotti (2020), syllabi are critical to the academic integrity of institutions. She states that syllabi are considered binding agreements that outline the academic standards and expectations for courses, they reveal why and how whose knowledge counts, and they structurally guide the relationship between the instructor(s), students, and course content. Therefore, course syllabi are critical to establishing the learning conditions of the classroom. 

The rules of engagement between the instructor(s), students, and course content should be clearly articulated in the syllabi. While many faculty enter the first day of class with pre-constructed course syllabi, it is ideal for the syllabi to be co-created through an exchange between students and the instructor. This is a principle of pedagogical partnership. Pedagogical Partnership refers to processes in which “faculty, academic staff, and professional staff engage students as co-learners, co-researchers, co-inquirers, co-developers, and co-designers” ( de Bie et al. 2021, p.2). This process underscores the importance of building collaborative learning environments and experiences grounded in mutual respect, reciprocity, shared responsibility, and accountability to the process of learning.

A well-designed syllabus is an essential tool for effectively managing a course. It gives students a clear understanding of your expectations and a road map for how the course will be conducted. When done right, a syllabus can prevent many misunderstandings as the semester progresses.

Best Practices for Syllabus Design. Course Syllabi:

  • Set an inclusive and welcoming tone for the course. According to Feuentes et al. (2021), well-meaning instructors consider:
    • How one’s own sociocultural background and educational experiences influence the way one addresses DEI.
    • To what degree diversity-related topics are embedded in the course curriculum and activities.
    • To what degree diversity is explicitly acknowledged and addressed.
    • Adopt diversity-centered learning objectives. For example, “In this course, students will explore multicultural and diverse perspectives of the content explored in this course.”
    • Include a robust Diversity Statement
    • Decolonize the syllabus by centering/highlighting authors of marginalized backgrounds, acknowledging global holidays during the schedule of assignments and quizzes/tests, having flexible office hours (in-person and virtual), considering grading policies and flexibility in these processes, etc.
    • Foster family-friendly syllabi. Research shows that 22% of today's students are parents of which 70% of those are mothers who are more likely to be single than married.
    • Establish student-centered ground rules for communication that considers the sociocultural identities of students.
  • Are accessible. Consider saving time and starting off with an accessible template created by the Digital Accessibility Office at CU Boulder
  • Communicate what, when, and how students will learn. Include any technology considerations and resources that will be needed.
  • Communicate expectations in terms of student responsibilities.
  • Avoid misunderstandings about course policies. Consider questions students may have about the course and clarify for students what they need to do in order to be successful.
  • Review the course description established by your department or syllabi of the same course from previous instructors.
  • Check online for sample syllabi of the same or similar courses from colleagues at other universities.
  • Consider creating a “Liquid Syllabus” which is a living document that can be shared with students to let them know that you are their course instructor and that you will support them.

Further Reading & Resources:

  How to Create a Syllabus, Chronicle of Higher Education

  Syllabus Design, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

  Inclusive Syllabus Design, UCLA Center for Education Innovation & Learning in the Sciences

de Bie, A., Marquis, E., Cook-Sather, A., & Luqueño, L. (2021). Promoting equity and justice through pedagogical partnership. Stylus Publishing.

Fuentes, M. A., Zelaya, D. G., & Madsen, J. W. (2021). Rethinking the course syllabus: Considerations for promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion. Teaching of Psychology, 48(1), 69-79.

Pacansky-Brock, M., Smedshammer, M., & Vincent-Layton, K. (2020). Humanizing Online Teaching to Equitize Higher Education. Current Issues in Education, 21(2), 1-21.

Zanotti, L. (2021). The inclusive syllabus project. The Working Paper Series, Navigating Careers in the Academy: Gender, Race, and Class (115-120).