What to Know About Inclusive Syllabi

By: Geremy Grant Ph.D. NCSP

Scholars who train future school psychologists have a responsibility to integrate diversity and social justice (DSJ) throughout their program curricula, using affirming and strengths-based approaches (see Standard 1.5 for the Graduate Preparation of School Psychologists). Implicit within this standard are course syllabi, which should evidence a commitment to equitable teaching practices. Equitable teaching practices are particularly important for early career scholars who prioritize training school psychologists to be critical consumers of research in addition to researchers themselves. DSJ-centered syllabi may have particular benefits for underrepresented students (Taylor et al., 2019), which aids our field in its efforts to retain and support minoritized trainees. To successfully apply diversity and social justice principles to one’s work, early career scholars must first immerse themselves in the literature, and critique available research to glean evidence-based practices that can inform their teaching. Moreover, equitable teaching practices can serve to inform how early career scholars’ approach other areas of their work including scholarship (e.g., centering DSJ within conceptualization, development, implementation, analyses, and interpretation of research).

To further our understanding of the importance of inclusive syllabi in course construction, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Dr. Charles Barrett (CB) and Dr. Leandra Parris (LP), two well-known scholars who instruct graduate-level school psychology courses. 

How would you describe an “inclusive syllabus”? What characteristics distinguish it from a traditional syllabus?

CB: ​​Many elements come to mind that distinguish an inclusive syllabus from a typical syllabus.  First and foremost, an inclusive syllabus includes readings and resources from a variety of authors who represent varied professional backgrounds and disciplines, as well as races, ethnicities, genders, and a host of other identities. For example, books, articles, podcasts, and other resources are not only written by or feature school psychology faculty or researchers, but also those who are practitioners, and individuals from other disciplines (e.g., economics, sociology, history, and education) when their perspective is relevant to the course’s subject matter.  Next, the authors of assigned readings are not only those from the typical [school psychology] cannon, which are often cisgender White men and women, but racially and ethnically minoritized (REM) individuals, and those representing marginalized identities (e.g., LGBTQ+ individuals) are also included. Notably, who is reflected in a syllabus is one way to measure the extent to which diverse perspectives are valued in the course. Additionally, an inclusive syllabus intentionally includes assignments (e.g., projects) that reflect a variety of modalities (e.g., presentations, papers, small group/partner activities, individual tasks) that allow students an array of access points to demonstrate their strengths as they show their understanding of course content.  In sum, an inclusive syllabus is mindful of what students should know, and how they should demonstrate such knowledge, rather than only valuing what the instructor is comfortable offering.

LP: There is a difference in intention. The traditional syllabus is about telling students what they will be doing and what individual students need to do to get a good grade. The approach is “you will do this thing and here is how you will be evaluated and if you do not perform well, here are the consequences.” The instructor is seen as an evaluative expert rather than someone sharing a learning space with students. An inclusive syllabus is more about sharing what we will be doing together, how we will accomplish shared learning, and how we will ensure that we create a safe, supportive environment as a group. The approach is, “we will be accomplishing these things together, here’s how we’re going to do that in a safe learning environment, and here’s how to communicate your needs.” There is still the evaluation piece, etc., but the presentation is student-centered, accessible, and flexible.

How do you think an inclusive syllabus relates to social justice pedagogy?

CB: An inclusive syllabus is central to social justice pedagogy because it is one way that graduate instructors model that social justice is more than the latest hot topic, buzzword, or fad in psychology or education.  More importantly, social justice, and social justice pedagogy is how we think about the discipline of school psychology, especially the students and families we serve, and the purposeful actions we engage in to promote equitable outcomes. An inclusive syllabus, by incorporating the perspectives of individuals who represent communities whose voices have been historically muted, overlooked, or ignored, is one way to center these necessary ideas.  An inclusive syllabus, by including content from other disciplines that might be more knowledgeable than school psychology currently is about systemic issues such as racism, access to quality healthcare, access to high-quality preschool, living in safe and supportive communities, the history of American policing and subsequent police violence in REM communities, and low-income and economic marginalization (LIEM; American Psychological Association, 2019), models the importance of students learning about the structural challenges that fundamentally affect children’s opportunity, access, and subsequent academic and behavioral outcomes.

LP: Inclusive syllabi clearly outline procedures and processes for engagement in the course (i.e., procedural justice), how resources and your time as an instructor will be equitably shared and accessible (i.e., distributive justice), and expectations for interacting and working together within the learning space (i.e., relational justice). Those expectations should include cultural humility, open and curious approaches to learning, grace when giving and receiving feedback, the expectation that we’ll disrupt bias when we hear/see it, etc. There should also be space for critical reflection, making it transparent how you, as the instructor, will elicit and respond to feedback and student needs as the course progresses. Finally, I think it helps to have an acknowledgment of the systems that impact the course topics and student experiences (e.g., including the university’s statement on the history of enslavement, land acknowledgment, acknowledgment of violent socio-political climates, etc.) that is coupled with resources, both academic and mental-health focused.

What strategies do you find most useful when revising your syllabi to be more inclusive?

CB: Because effective instruction is about teaching students more than content or information, I regularly ask myself, “What does this group of students need to know this semester?”  Based on the makeup of the class, including their personal and professional experiences, I include readings and other resources that might be more salient to support the course’s curriculum or extend students’ learning.  Personally, I share with my students that the syllabus is an iterative document that will be revised, as necessary, throughout the semester.  As such, remaining attuned to current events is one of the best ways to add readings and other resources (e.g., podcasts) as they are released, almost in real time.  For example, while teaching an advanced assessment course for rising 2nd year graduate students during the summer of 2020, although police violence wasn’t particularly relevant to the course objectives, it would have been irresponsible to ignore the social climate that was unfolding in America.  As such, I shared an article by a pediatrician, Rhea Boyd, whose research was focused on police violence, equity, and child health outcomes.  It wasn’t difficult to highlight the connections between the article and the implications for the course and school psychologists (e.g., the importance of school psychologists thinking about what is happening around children rather than only focusing on what is happening within them), and it was also a way to acknowledge what could have been on the minds of some of my students, particularly those from REM backgrounds.

LP: There is a group of us who will run our syllabi by each other, ask for feedback, etc. I think finding that support network of people who truly understand what inclusion and social justice are, and getting their perspective on your syllabus, is crucial. I review materials each semester not only to update them, but to make sure that I don’t miss a voice. I also review my assignments to ensure accountability for addressing social justice and inclusion are always present and that the assignment is flexible and adaptive. I also try to find things that are not just readings, including podcasts, videos, TedTalks, etc., to make it not only more accessible but more meaningful.

Are there specific resources you’ve found helpful in your creation of inclusive syllabi?

CB: One reading that I often assign is Just Walk on By: A Black Man Ponders his Ability to Alter Public Space.  Published in Ms. magazine in 1987, and written by Brent Staples, a sociologist, the piece is an excellent example of how racism, privilege, implicit bias, and intersectionality impact the daily decisions of a Black male living in an urban center.  As a magazine article, it cuts to the core of these issues and is more emotive than what is typically published in peer-reviewed journals.  Other excellent readings and resources that I’ve assigned include Enrique’s Journey, which is a book that was written by Sonia Nazario, a Hispanic, female journalist, and How to Be an Antiracist, a book that was written by history professor, Ibram X. Kendi.  Last, in my assessment courses, I have students listen to several episodes of a podcast about Larry P., which not only features the real “Larry P.,” but also several school psychologist practitioners in California.

LP: APA Bias-Free Language, National Communication Association Guidelines, and APA’s Inclusive Syllabi Resources.

Any additional advice for early career educators on writing inclusive syllabi?

CB: Because school psychology doesn’t have the market cornered on what students need to know to be effective school psychologists who are prepared to infuse a social justice paradigm into their research and practice, actively seek the perspectives of people beyond school psychology who are researching and writing about issues that affect children in schools.  In many ways, creating an inclusive syllabus is a multi-method (e.g., including different types of activities, projects, and assignments) and multi-source (e.g., including diverse (broadly defined) authors) process that leads to better outcomes, not only for school-age children but also graduate students.

LP: Remember that the syllabus is your handbook and contract so to speak. If it does not include accountability for professional dispositions and inclusive behaviors, then you will find it hard to enforce expectations around inclusion, belonging, and diversity. Model what you want to see through your syllabus, which includes how you will take responsibility when you make a mistake and what students can expect of you in terms of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

Concluding Thoughts

There are several key takeaways from the rich information provided by the esteemed interviewees. I summarize a few of these points below:

  • An inclusive syllabus acts as an extension of the instructor, demonstrating their commitment to cultural diversity and social justice. As both are foundational to our practice as school psychologists, it is paramount that educators model for students a dedication to these domains.
  • Because inclusive syllabi are an extension of the instructor, their creation requires graduate educators to be critically reflexive regarding perceptions of their course content and students, in addition to broader issues related to the field and society.
  • Inclusive syllabi acknowledge that course content does not exist in a vacuum, and that university, regional, and broader societal events have implications for the course and the practice of school psychology.
  • Inclusive syllabi offer educators an opportunity to center quality research that models good theory and methodology and advances cultural diversity and social justice issues.
    • Educators should elevate the work and efforts of scholars and practitioners who belong to historically marginalized groups that are often silenced within general society. Intentional inclusion of their voices allows for more diverse perspectives and critical issues to be addressed in the classroom.
    • To ensure voices are being elevated appropriately, and that syllabus language is bias-free, educators should strongly consider engaging in a syllabi peer-review process.
    • To promote student learning, and application of research provided in courses, inclusive syllabi apply diverse evaluative procedures, beyond traditional quizzes/tests. Alternative evaluation procedures could include class presentations, group assignments, creation of practical resources for school staff/parents, conducting professional development workshops, submitting research proposals to state/national conferences, and providing research critiques. Below are three examples of activities I have included in my courses to evaluate students’ consumption and/or application of research:
      • Fact Sheets/Brochures (Social Psychology Course): Students create a fact sheet that applies learned social psychology concepts to a real-world educational problem faced by school psychologists, caregivers, teachers, etc. They must use peer-reviewed literature to explain the problem, and to justify any recommendations to remediate the issue. When completed, the fact sheet often serves as a resource for practicum/internship.
      • Cultural Diversity/Social Justice Presentation (Cultural Diversity Course): Students conduct a 30-minute presentation on a cultural diversity/social justice issue. They provide practice recommendations, and discuss how school psychologists can advocate for change, basing their discussion on peer-reviewed sources.
      • Test Evaluation Presentation & Paper (Psychological Measurements Course): Students practice being consumers of research by reviewing the theoretical and empirical merit of a norm-referenced test that a school psychologist might use in practice. They present their impressions to their peers and generate a written test review.
  • Inclusive syllabi use clear and specific language to convey that the classroom is an identity-safe space that encourages collaboration and co-creation in the learning process.
  • Early career scholars may consider how their scholarship informs their teaching and how their teaching informs their scholarship. Thus, they could consider how being thoughtful in developing and incorporating inclusive syllabi may inform their scholarship and vice versa, particularly specific to centering DSJ in their work.

Additional Resources:

Taylor et al.’s (2019) Social Justice Syllabus Design Tool(SJSDT), was born out of the need for greater support for women and students of color in STEM. The SJSDT is a checklist consisting of 19 straightforward yes/no questions that can be used to guide syllabus development.

Fuentes et al. (2020) offer numerous practical suggestions on how we can promote equity, diversity, and inclusion when generating syllabi. 

APA’s (2023) comprehensive Inclusive Language Guide can be used to check the language used in your syllabi, regardless of the course content.

The Society for the Teaching of Psychology offers Project Syllabus, a collection of peer-reviewed syllabi across approximately 38 different categories. All syllabi post-2017 are assessed based on their 1) teaching methods, 2) learner support and resources, 3) assessment and evaluation procedures, 4) course design, goals, and learning objectives, and 5) syllabus organization and design. Overall, having access to multiple examples may facilitate understanding of what differentiates an “adequate” syllabus from one that is “well-constructed”.

Brodsky & Green (2020): Ways to Make Classrooms More Inclusive, Equitable, and Anti-Racist

Thanks to Drs. Lindsay Fallon and Kathrin Maki for their review and input on earlier drafts of this blog post.

Have you started to revise your syllabi to make them more inclusive? What resources do you find to be the most useful? Comment below!

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