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Making your Syllabus More Friendly and Inclusive

The Breakdown

CSUF lays out the minimum requirements (UPS 300.004) and many different resources to help with your syllabus. For example, see the  CSUF Faculty Development Center Teaching Basics and the  Student Information for Course Outlines pages. There are books (O’Brien et al. 2008), numerous websites (see below), repositories where you can find syllabi (e.g.,  Psychology - Project Syllabus), and quite a bit of literature (use google scholar and search for “Syllabus Design”) and your first and probably most well used source, your colleagues. 

There have been a number of recommendations to include information about classroom climate (Harnish et al. 2011) as well as recommendations to included items related to diversity, equity, inclusion and growth mindset into the syllabus (Boucher and Ryan 2020; Fuentes, et al. 2020;  Gin, et al. 2021; Ryan et al. 2020). There are also a number of websites devoted to this topic (see Resources below). As an interesting recent example, Gin et al. (2021), found that biology syllabi had lots of information about course expectations but very little about classroom climate and there was less information on syllabi for small classes and for upper division courses. So, here are some suggestions. Lastly, remember, this is one of your first opportunities to make an impression on the students. Do you want them to think you are Dr. Evil?

Assessment Tools

If you are uncertain how you could improve your syllabus, use one of the many tools to assess your syllabus: 


  • Begin your syllabus with an explicit welcome statement. Include a brief description of who you are, what pronouns you use, and what students should call you. Communicate your enthusiasm for the course topic and describe the impacts and applications of this course, including how it fits into the larger curricular framework. Let students know that you believe they can succeed in your course.  This statement is your invitation for students to join your class learning community. 
  • Include a “how to succeed” statement. Here you can offer a structural roadmap to complete the goals of the course. How do you suggest students should study (maybe in groups)? How many hours a week might it take to complete this course? Explain the resources that are available to students (tutoring, SI, student hours (aka office hours), etc.) and be sure to describe each one, and provide the Zoom links if you have them. You can also include additional suggested readings, along with the rationale for each one. Encourage students to come to you if they face academic challenges during the semester. Reaffirm that you want all students to succeed in your course and explain what students can expect from you to help them succeed. 
  • Include a lifeline statement. What should students do if they struggle during the semester (for example if they get sick). Here you can reinforce that this is a learning journey, which will have ups and downs, and that students are not alone. Encourage students to come to you during student hours or other appointments (while setting needed boundaries around your availability). Provide information for where students can find additional help for their personal wellbeing.   
  • Reconsider your course design. Ask yourself whether your assignments and deadlines communicate that you prioritize learning over prioritizing rules. Design your course for learning, not compliance. Consider adding more low stakes assignments, and awarding points for attendance, group work, and engagement in class activities.


Guiding Principles Before Revision After Revision
Be flexible! Create course policies and practices that consider the complexity and variation of CSUF student experiences and explain to the students the what and the why of your course. Think, are you prioritizing your power, rules, or learning? Exams (two mid-terms and a final) will be administered during the time-frames indicated on the schedule. These dates are fixed and will not be changed. Make-up exams will not be allowed except under extraordinary circumstances (e.g. death, hospitalization). All make-up exams will be ten essay and data analysis questions and must be completed in one hour. To assess your learning in this class, you must engage in designing experiments, analyzing data, and presenting that data. In order to do this, we will have three take home mid-term exams and a cumulative final exam (no one does their statistical analysis in the traditional setting you think of for exams). You will have two weeks to complete each take-home exam. Should life happen during an exam, you may choose to drop your lowest mid-term exam and replace that grade with the cumulative final exam. Please reach out to me with any concerns you have about completing exams as a result of illness, stress, food or housing insecurity, etc.
Encourage students to connect with you and other instructors involved in the course (e.g. if you have Teaching Associates). Office hours: 
Monday 3:00 – 5:00 pm, Wednesday 9:00 – 11:00 am, Thursday 9:00 – 11 am 
or by appointment
Student hours:
I am available for your questions, concerns, or just to discuss biology.  I will be available to you on: 
Monday 3:00 – 5:00 pm, 
Wednesday 9:00 – 11:00 am, 
Thursday 9:00 – 11 am

You’re also welcome to make an appointment with me here - link.
Do not use of punitive and scolding language! If you read a part of your syllabus and think, I wouldn’t want to take a class with this really mean instructor, you need to rewrite that part of your syllabus. You will lose 30% of the points if the assignment is not submitted on time. If circumstances prevent you from turning in an assignment on time, you can still earn 70% of the points by turning in the assignment after the due date. 
Empower your students to respond to difficulty. Make sure students have a lifeline and know what to do when they are struggling. Communicate confidence in student abilities and share tips and resources that will help to overcome challenges. You will learn about the design and analysis of experiments used in science fields and the methodological approaches used to analyze the common types of data generated in those fields. This is an exciting time to engage in learning and discussions about the collection, curation, and analysis of  data in science. I have confidence in your ability to meet the learning objectives of this course but, in case you run into difficult situations, you can find a list of resources on the Canvas site for the course OR you can email me and I’ll help or point you in the right direction.

Supporting Literature and Resources

Boucher, K. and Ryan, K. 2020.  Revising Your Syllabi (and Your Courses) with Equity, Belonging and Growth in Mind. Student Experience Project Blog

Center of Urban Education Syllabus Review Guide

Fuentes, M.A.; Zelaya, D.G.; and Madsen, J. W. 2020. Rethinking the Course Syllabus: Considerations for Promoting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Teaching of Psychology 48: 69-79

Gin, L.E.; Scott, R.A.; Pfeiffer, L.D.; Zheng, Y.; Cooper, K.M.; and Brownell, S.E. 2021. It’s in the syllabus … or is it? How biology syllabi can serve as communication tools for creating inclusive classrooms at a large-enrollment research institution.  Advances in Physiology Education. 45:224-240.

Additional Materials including a template syllabus

Harnish, R.J.; McElwee, R.O.; Slattery, J.M.;  Frantz, S., Haney, M.R.; Shore, C. M.; and Penley, J. 2011. Creating the Foundation for a Warm Classroom Climate. APS Observer 24: 23–27.

Inclusive Teaching Network How to make your teaching inclusive: First day and beyond

O’Brien, J.G.; Millis, B.J.; and Cohen, M.W.2008. The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ryan, K.; Boucher, K.; Logel, C.; and Murphy, M. 2020. Three Approaches to Revising Your Syllabus with Equity, Belonging, and Growth in Mind Student Experience Project

UCLA Center for Education Innovation & Learning in the Sciences Inclusive Syllabus DesignOpens in new window

University of Utah Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence - Developing an Inclusive Syllabus