On the first day of class, many faculty will dedicate time to going over the course syllabus. This is often used as an opportunity to present the syllabus as a “contract” and to make course policies and penalties clear to students.
But what if the syllabus were seen as a critical tool for student engagement and success and used as an opportunity to set the tone for a positive learning environment? To improve student experiences in the classroom, institutions should encourage faculty to utilize their syllabus not simply as a list of course requirements but as a key tool for student engagement and success.
Research from the Student Experience Project, a collaboration between university leaders, faculty and researchers, demonstrates that syllabus alterations are a key lever for combating inequities in college success.
Decades of social psychology research findings show that fostering a sense of belonging among students on campus nurtures motivation, propels learning and helps students persist through graduation. This is particularly true for students of color and first-generation and low-income students, who are more likely to encounter barriers to college completion. The syllabus often amounts to students’ first impressions of their professor—signaling to students what the professor believes about them and their ability to succeed.
Small Changes, Big Impact
As part of the Student Experience Project, 10 institutions piloted the First Day Toolkit, a suite of resources designed to help faculty revise their syllabi to promote student belonging and growth on the first day of class, in 2021. Eighty faculty members revised their syllabi using an asynchronous online module; when students compared the revised syllabi to the faculty members’ original syllabi, they found the new ones to be clearer about course goals and expectations, plus more supportive of students’ success.
The tool kit focuses on small shifts in the substance and tone of the syllabus document, rather than drastic revisions, which can make a big difference in supporting learning and success.
For example, faculty can use the syllabus as an opportunity to guide students positively toward overcoming challenges by expressing a belief in their capabilities. Students may be hesitant to ask questions or use campus support resources if they are worried that their struggles indicate that they do not belong in college. When faculty use the syllabus to assure students that challenges are common in college, and to affirm that campus resources are designed to help them succeed, students may be more likely to seek support and succeed in the course.
It’s a common belief that students do not read course syllabi; in some cases, students may not understand its purpose or may find it jargony or difficult to understand. When professors explicitly invite students to view the syllabus as a document to help them succeed in the course, and when they take steps to make the tone and content of the syllabus welcoming and accessible, students will have a more positive impression of the syllabus.
For example, many students are not familiar with the term “office hours” and may not understand their purpose; simply changing this term to “student drop-in hours” can demystify this and encourage more students to establish relationships with faculty.
Ultimately, your syllabus is more than an outline of the assignments and examinations that determine the rhythm of your course. It is a personal expression of your teaching philosophy and, importantly, a tool for welcoming and belonging to bridge the gap between instructors and students.
Use it wisely.