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The Syllabus: Policies and Statements


Both class and institutional policies are essential elements of the college course. They establish the norms and expectations we have for our classrooms: how we interact with one another and do the work of the class. Relational policies establish ground rules for civility, group work, mobile device use and class participation; while operational policies provide guidance on late work, attendance, academic integrity and collaboration.

When our policies and statements are transparent and equitable, they can also support student success, especially for first-generation students. A robust syllabus provides policies and statements that:

  • are explicit in explaining WHY these policies are included and HOW they serve student learning outcomes (transparency)
  • facilitating academic success by removing jargon and providing information about student support resources (tutoring, learning commons)
  • demonstrate academic care by supporting and normalizing struggle, difficulty or challenges; and through practicing paradox by explicitly stating your expectations while also expressing the ways in which policies are flexible.

Ultimately, the reason why we communicate these policies and statements in our syllabi is so that all of our students have access to the information they need to help them succeed in our classes and in college. Yet sometimes, a policy can get in the way of student success and also make your life more complicated.

Policies and statements that help – rather than hinder – you and your students share the following characteristics:

  1. Built-in flexibility - Rather than make exceptions when students ask, or have to make judgement calls on what counts as a "valid" excuse, design policies that provide leeway for all students (e.g. token policies).
  2. Anticipation of positive student outcomes - Known as the "Pygmalion Effect," the communication of positive expectations influences student performance positively. Of course, the inverse is also true, so shifting from deficit language ("students who don't pass...") to positively-framed policies can make a difference in student success.
  3. Rationale for policies - Transparency builds trust and trust leads to success - include an explanation of the "why" behind your class policies along with your clear expectations. 
  4. Connections to student to resources - Instead of listing all of the student resources in one part of your syllabus, include links and contact information throughout (let students know about textbook scholarships when you list course materials; provide links to the Library and WRSA  alongside your research assignments, etc.).
  5. Accessible language - Many of our students - first-generation, returning adults, and others - may be unfamiliar with the discipline-specific language of our courses and even unaware of the meaning behind common terms we take for granted. A term like "office hours" seems self-explanatory, but plenty of students think it means "the time when the instructor is in their office and shouldn't be bothered."



For Openers... An Inclusive Syllabus - Terry Collins [PDF]

"I’d like to propose that we think about the syllabus more complexly, for the sake of our students and for the sake of our own professional development. The syllabus lets us help students think of themselves as insiders in the strange world built by academics, and the process of its construction and revision affords us periodically recurring opportunities to be self-critical about our course, its content, and our approach to it. As much as any research monograph, the syllabus is a site where our "professional integrity is tested and where our professional identity is formed."

Collins, Terrence. "For openers... An inclusive syllabus." New paradigms for college teaching. Edina, MN: Interaction Book, 1997. [COD Library: print]


The Syllabus with William Germano and Kit Nicholls - Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning podcast (41 min)

What does the syllabus do? Who is it for? Why is it chronically unread? And how can it be written to foster an environment of trust and collaboration in the classroom? William Germano, Professor of English at Cooper Union, and Kit Nicholls, Director of the Center for Writing at Cooper Union, are authors of the book Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything (2020). In this episode, they tackle these fundamental questions about the syllabus, and discuss how it serves as a starting point for addressing larger dead ideas about teaching, learning, and student engagement.



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  • Last Updated: Mar 4, 2024 4:10 PM
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