“Warming Up” Your Syllabus

A warm syllabus begins the process of fostering belonging and supporting student success.

Developing your course to be inclusive and accessible in terms of content and assignments is essential to fostering belonging and supporting student success. In addition to the content of your syllabus, the tone of your syllabus can also begin to support these goals. Using a warm tone not only fosters belonging but studies suggest it leads to students’ having a more positive view of the course (Harnish & Bridges, 2011) and instructor (Waggoner Denton & Veloso, 2018). Slattery and Carlson (2005) explain that “[w]arm syllabi explain expectations in a clear and friendly fashion, encourage and motivate students, and anticipate positive student outcomes, rather than merely attempting to prevent problems” (p. 159). Cate Denial recounts how she warmed up her syllabus in this blog post.

Strategies for a warm tone

1. Emphasize Positive over Punishing Language

Syllabus policies are often written as a response to problems in the classroom and promote an antagonistic tone. Overly punitive rules never actually guarantee that unwanted behavior disappears, and they might even create resistance in students.


Sample Phrases from Cold Syllabus  Sample Phrases from Warm Syllabus
“Come prepared to actively participate in this course. This is the best way to engage you in learning” “I hope you actively participate in this course . . . because I have found it is the best way to engage you in learning.”
“traumatic events . . . are no excuse for not contacting me within 24 h” “traumatic events . . . are unwelcome and because I understand how difficult these times are, if you contact me within 24 h of the event and provide documentation, I will be happy to give you a make-up exam.”

2. Create Invitations over Commands

To highlight students’ agency in a course, instructors can create invitations instead of commands. They could phrase policies as logical consequences of student actions instead of retributive punishments. The chart below describes how to use language to highlight collaboration rather than top-down authority.

Commands Invitations
“You must complete makeup work to receive credit.”

“You are allowed to…”

“I only accept…”

“Late work receives a 40% reduction.”

“If you need to contact me outside of class or office hours, email ______”

“Feel free to complete makeup work to earn credit.”

“You are welcome to…”

“I encourage you to…”

“Late work is eligible for 60% of  original points.”

“I invite you to contact me outside of office hours by emailing ___________.”

3. Shift from passive to active voice, and from third person to first or second.


Sample Phrases from Cold Syllabus Sample Phrases from Warm Syllabus
This course covers . . .  This semester we will explore . . . 
Students are required to . . . You will . . . 
Students will . . . We will [or you will]

 Warming up the content

In addition to warming up the tone of your syllabus, you can warm up the content by including:

  • A “welcome message” to your course overview, expressing your enthusiasm for the course and for working with students, and your belief in their potential for success.  
  • A diversity statement, expressing your commitment to cultivating an atmosphere that recognizes diversity and supports inclusion. 
  • An inclusive learning statement that recognizes learner variability and expresses flexibility for disabled and nondisabled students. 
  • A course overview that highlights diversity and inclusion, indicating the topics the course will cover (Fuentes, Zelaya & Madsen, 2021, p. 73). 

Here are two sample “Welcome Statements” that users of the Montclair Syllabus put directly into the “Course Overview” section.

From Jeffrey Gonzalez (English 238; full syllabus shared in OFE’s Canvas Community, MSU Teaching Resources from OFE (join by clicking here).

In this class, we’ll read and analyze a wide body of literature written by Black writers in the United States. We are doing this work in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement’s remarkable impact on the discourse of race, in addition the nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, where the names of other recently murdered Black people including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were honored and justice was demanded (not to mention shot & paralyzed like Jacob Blake). Recovering important voices and learning about US history through these writers is part of the important cultural work that many prominent writers and thinkers stated is urgent in the United States. 

Courses like this can focus on a few important texts or try for broader coverage—both approaches are acceptable. I decided to design our syllabus to expose us to writing from the early days of the emerging US republic to the present, and I have tried to include writers from many different traditions and schools.

As we read we will of course interact with our contemporary moment, where racial definitions and meanings are still obviously a hotly contested issue. We will have to be sensitive to the occasional tensions that will emerge from our conversations. All of your voices and feelings are relevant and welcome, provided they show respect to your classmates, to the history we’re exploring, and to the goals of the course. 

Since this is a literature course, aesthetic analysis matters. We will think about how these artistic decisions and displays interact with the time periods they emerge from and the social milieu they’re responding to.

From Claremont Colleges Center for Teaching and Learning:

My goal is to welcome everyone to [[your discipline]]. As your professor, I hold the fundamental belief that everyone in the class is fully capable of engaging and mastering the material. My goal is to meet everyone at least halfway in the learning process. Our classroom should be an inclusive space, where ideas, questions, and misconceptions can be discussed with respect. There is usually more than one way to see and solve a problem and we will all be richer if we can be open to multiple paths to knowledge. I look forward to getting to know you all, as individuals and as a learning community.

Resources and References

Claremont Colleges Teaching and Learning Center. (2016.) Sample Syllabus Language. https://teaching.claremont.edu/sample-syllabus-language/

Denial, Cate. What Do Our Syllabi Really Say? https://catherinedenial.org/blog/uncategorized/what-do-our-syllabi-really-say/

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.

Harnish, R., & Bridges, K. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14(3), 319–330. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-011-9152-4

Rhetoric. (2015). Accessible Syllabus. https://www.accessiblesyllabus.com/rhetoric/

Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an Effective Syllabus. College Teaching, 53(4), 159–164. https://doi.org/10.3200/CTCH.53.4.159-164

Waggoner Denton, A., & Veloso, J. (2018). Changes in syllabus tone affect warmth (but not competence) ratings of both male and female instructors. Social Psychology of Education, 21(1), 173–187. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-017-9409-7

8.10.23 EJI

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