Syllabi at the U: On Paper and In Practice


Madelyn Foulger

(Graphic by Madelyn Foulger | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Kayleigh Silverstein, Special Projects Managing Editor, News Writer



College syllabi set the tone for the course — in a 2011 study, researchers found that syllabi written in a friendly tone made students perceive the instructor as warm, approachable and motivated. Additionally, a 2021 study found that syllabi with statements regarding mental health needs encouraged students to reach out.

The Making of a Syllabus

“I think the purpose of the syllabus should be to convey what a class is about and what will be expected of students just to give them a sense of what they’re getting into,” said Anne Cook, the director of the Martha Bradley Evans Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Utah.

Jim Agutter, the senior associate dean for faculty success and academic innovation in undergraduate studies, said a syllabus is also a way to lay out expectations and policies.

“It’s sort of to have a way to communicate structure, approach, expectations and outcomes to the students in a really meaningful way in hopefully clear and concise language that the student understands,” he said. 

According to Cook, U syllabi are required to include the course title, credit hours, objectives and calendar information. They also must include policies covered by federal regulations, such as statements about Title IX and ADA. 

“The other things like pronouns, use of student names, those are things that we recommend because they’re good pedagogical practice,” Cook said. “But they’re not required within university policy.”

Syllabi must be submitted and published one week prior to the start date of classes, according to Cook.

“They should be reviewed within each department by the department chair or by program administrators,” Cook said. “That is up to each department to handle.” 

Agutter said some departments use templates to create course syllabi. 

“[The Center for Teaching Excellenceprovides a template for those departments to try to create a bit of consistency,” he said. “But again, the different pedagogical approaches in a particular unit or department or class, you know, necessitate some flexibility in that.”

Different departments may have different standards as to what they want syllabi to include. 

The College of Health provides a template through Canvas. Sections such as student names and pronouns and Lauren’s Promise, which says “I will listen and believe you if someone is threatening you,” are built into the default template, but do not have to be used.

“It is at the instructor’s discretion whether or not they use that — it’s automatically in there, but the instructor can remove that,” said Staci McIntosh, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology in the College of Health. “They can’t remove any of the other university policies though.”

Within colleges, there are also different expectations. For example, the teacher education program within the College of Education includes elements about professionalism as it relates to teacher preparedness. 

“So we have references within syllabi that are part of our teacher licensure coursework, to professional dispositions and professional behavior,” said Mary Burbank, the assistant dean of the College of Education and director of The Urban Institute for Teacher Education. “And in some cases, references to our handbooks for student policies and procedures.”

Cook said they offer training through the Center for Teaching Excellence. 

“We have an annual teaching symposium and we have a workshop series for new faculty,” she said. “So we try a variety of different approaches to get the information out to all instructors, including also communicating it through department chairs.”

In regards to what specific policies actually entail, Cook said attendance is dependent on the discipline and course type a professor is a part of.

“I think COVID also threw a little bit of that into disarray and sort of the need to be able to make accommodations,” Cook said. “It’s very hard to enforce an attendance policy when the conditions are constantly changing at the university.”

In looking at the guidelines within the Center for Teaching Excellence, Agutter said they recommend expectations for regular attendance, as well as specific communication about attendance policies and ramifications from a professor to students. If a particular entity wants something added to syllabi as a requirement, it must get approval through the Academic Senate.

Cook said syllabi are an important communication tool between professors and students, but “with the rise of technology, the old paper handout of a syllabus, that’s really changed.”

“And so a lot of professors prefer to just include it all on Canvas,” she said. “And so I think the way our syllabi look, and the way our syllabi act are changing on university campuses, in that they used to be a list of policies, and sort of how things were going to go in a class, and I think now, they’re evolving to include that and become more of an organizational tool for the class.”

Beyond a Checklist

Psychology professor Lisa G. Aspinwall seeks to go beyond what is required in university syllabi. She includes a section that her class not only conforms to the regulations of the ADA but also its spirit. 

She co-founded a group in social psychology called the Disability Advocacy Research Network. Within this group, they have a syllabus project where they seek to expand what is required by the U regarding ADA compliance.

In her syllabi, she includes that students should use their accommodations “early and often” without fear of being discriminated against. 

“I found that students didn’t want to bring these things up and wait ‘til the first exam to see if they in fact needed it, but the process of qualifying for an accommodation is so arduous …” she said. “And I really want to communicate with people on campus to make it a much more welcoming place for students to get what they need to do well in life.”

DARN started because of frustrations with accessibility issues in academia. 

“And we’ve realized that there’s a very large pool of people with physical disabilities, but also invisible disabilities, so chronic illnesses, chronic pain, neurodiversity of various forms,” Aspinwall said.” There might be individual research programs, but really no organization for our fields to try to bring together research about disability, teaching about disability or teaching if you have a disability and then some of these … issues having to do with universal design and access.” 

While Aspinwall could go through the Academic Senate, there is a level of institutional weight to making something required on a syllabus. The welcoming language needs to be accompanied by comparable action, she explained.  

“If it’s on every syllabus, and people only have it there because they were forced to, then you wouldn’t be able to make an inference about how friendly and welcoming the instructor actually is,” she said. 

Instead of requiring this on syllabi, Aspinwall has been encouraging people through suggestions sent to the American Psychological Association. She would love to see more people adopt the language because she believes it’s the right thing to do in changing climates.

Aspinwall said students use syllabi to shop for courses — when enrolling in classes, they are “sensitive to inclusion and exclusion.”

She has heard horror stories from students who shared their need for accommodations with professors and were repeatedly questioned. 

“The whole point of an accommodation is to have an expert judgment and not have individual faculty and graduate students take it on themselves to provide medical evaluations for which they’re completely unqualified,” Aspinwall said. 

Students have come up to Aspinwall after seeing the note on the syllabus to talk about accommodations with her.

In her syllabi, she also tries to incorporate a growth mindset, encouraging cultivating growth rather than weeding students out who aren’t performing well. Aspinwall explained students in classrooms that prioritize growth perform better.

Aspinwall does not require attendance because she prioritizes intrinsic motivation.

“I also think requiring attendance is a problem for people who have family or work responsibilities that are unpredictable, or their own health,” she said. 

On her syllabus, Aspinwall is specific about her late policies and plagiarism. If a student claims their car broke down, she wants documentation. For more personal emergencies, she wants students to contact her so they can make arrangements. 

“I try not to not to think the worst of people because people do experience losses and their own illness over the course of the semester,” she said. “And you don’t want that to be the thing that derails somebody’s education.”

When her classes go over the syllabus on the first day of class, Aspinwall makes sure to highlight the different resources related to mental health and counseling and their importance. 

She tries to give students choices in the timing of their coursework — for example, they can choose to do any five papers out of seven options.

“There’s a lot of evidence that giving people that sense of choice and a little more wiggle room in their busy schedules really helps people manage stress and plan,” she said. “So I think just trying to respect the fact that our students are working tons of hours a week, have full loads, have tons of other responsibilities. … So a sense of wanting to be helpful and for people to stay in school and do well.”

In her syllabi, Aspinwall always has a paragraph detailing that if someone has three papers due on the same day or multiple weddings to attend the week of the midterm, they should let her know in advance and arrangements can be made. 

She thinks syllabi should be used more to frequently share the joy of learning rather than the doom and gloom of rules and penalties. Not only is inclusive language in a syllabus important to students, but so is the discussion of the syllabus itself, she explained.

“The nice thing is, I’d ask students about the friendly syllabus and the disability language and they said that what really made the difference to them was not only that it was in the syllabus, but I took the time to talk about it on day one,” she said.


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