Introduction

Course syllabi are key entry points for facilitating change in campus culture. The content and presentation of syllabi, including language choice, text selection, assignment design, and required technologies, play a role in student (dis)enfranchisement. On the surface, syllabi may appear as simple lists of due dates and reading assignments. However, as dynamic and evolving documents, they have the power to signal instructor expectations, frame classroom interactions, and highlight pedagogical approaches. Syllabi also offer an opportunity to show students the role that inclusivity can play in classrooms.

Current levels of retention in STEM degree programs for marginalized and minoritized students, including women, students of color, and queer and non-binary students, are alarmingly low. The same students face feelings of isolation, “chilly” academic environments, low levels of retention in majors like computer science, mathematics, and engineering, and other barriers to academic and social success (Hughes, 2018; Funk and Parker, 2018; Stout and Wright, 2016; Chang et al. 2014; Ashford et al. 2017). To understand the role of syllabi in creating equitable classroom environments and reversing persistent trends in retention rates, our research team conducted an analysis of syllabi from various departments and programs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), while also seeking input from undergraduate students.

Through our research, we sought to address several critical questions: What is the purpose of a syllabus? How does it impact the classroom? How can our students better see themselves in it and what impact would it have on them? By examining the ways in which syllabi can foster or hinder inclusivity and equity, we hope to provide recommendations for syllabus design that will promote student learning and well-being at the collegiate level. Our findings suggest that a surprisingly small percentage of faculty include indicators of their attention to inclusivity in their syllabi; in contrast, we surveyed a representative sample of our undergraduate students and found that they note and even lament such absence. In this article, we contend that revising syllabi to prioritize inclusivity is a key step towards engaging minoritized student populations and women, thereby fostering inclusivity within STEM disciplines.

Literature review

The role of the syllabus

This section explores the different forms and functions of a syllabus in higher education, considering the traditional understanding of it as an organizing pedagogical document alongside recent shifts in syllabus creation. Though its purpose, content, format, and delivery method vary across time, discipline, institution, and instructor, fundamentally, a college-level syllabus reflects and communicates a course’s learning objectives, outcomes, and structure as well as specific additions and elements that make a syllabus effective (Parkes and Harris, 2002; Slattery and Carlson, 2005; Hess and Whittington, 2003).

In this way, Jay Parkes and Mary HarrisFootnote 1 view it as a multifunctional document that shapes students’ learning experiences. Nancy Soonpaa adds that “a syllabus can serve multiple functions: as a set of instructions, as an enforceable agreement, as evidence, and as a notice of system-mandated rights and responsibilities” (Soonpaa, 2018, 834). Many scholars also recognize the cumulative impact of this type of multi-faceted document on the student, arguing that “students who read a good syllabus are more likely to feel that course strategies have been designed to help them reach their goals, rather than merely as busywork or, worse, to torture them (Littlefield, 1999)” (Slattery and Carlson, 2005, 159). In other words, the syllabus also serves a purpose beyond basic course information and policies.

Identity safety cues and inclusive syllabus practices

To further cultivate inclusivity in the classroom, instructors have increasingly added new sections to syllabi, including inclusivity statements, classroom etiquette policies, accessibility statements, land acknowledgments, content warnings, and other statements that aim to cultivate inclusive and equitable learning environments. These sections, collectively known as “identity safety cues” (ISCs), use signals or gestures that help create a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students (Maimon et al. 2021; Chaney et al. 2016; Purdie-Vaughns et al. 2008). ISCs encompass various inclusive pedagogical teaching strategies that have been found to increase academic success, belonging, and retention of students with stigmatized identities in higher education (Maimon et al. 2021, 1). To enhance the inclusivity of syllabi, educators can incorporate additional ISCs, such as anti-discrimination policies, information about accessing relevant resources, using appropriate pronouns, inclusive imagery and examples, and gender-neutral language (Maimon et al. 2021, 5).

Jay Parkes and Mary Harris maintain that the syllabus’ contractual elements may be implicit or explicit, particularly in addressing grievances and setting academic standards and expectations (Parkes and Harris, 2002, 56). In the last decade, educators have adopted trauma-informed pedagogical approaches that prioritize sensitivity toward students who may have experienced trauma. In turn, faculty have moved away from rigid, legalistic, or punitive language on syllabi. Instead, instructors utilize more flexible and compassionate language that considers the needs of all students and privileges relationships over contractual verbiage (Munro, 2022; Carello and Butler, 2015; Thomas et al. 2019). This is important because, as Logan Gin et al. demonstrate, “the syllabus is often the first encounter that a student has with a course and an instructor, so the syllabus is often not only a student’s first impression of a course but can also initiate building student-instructor relationships” (Gin et al. 2021, 224).

Mano Singham provides a convincing analysis of how documents such as syllabi impact student learning: “By devising complex general rules to cope with any and all anticipated behavior, we tend to constrain, alienate, and dehumanize students… Why is it that given the choice between creating a freer classroom atmosphere that risks the occasional problem and establishing an authoritarian classroom that tries to anticipate and thwart any and all problems, we choose the latter?” (Singham, 2005, 55–56). Blair Thompson delineates several strategies of syllabi, including welcoming, tension balancing, and presentational schemas, and argues that “Balancing the tension between creating a hospitable environment while at the same time ensuring students are aware of the rigorous nature of the course is a complex problem” (Thompson, 2007, 66). Jianfen Chen, Sarah Hughes, and Nupoor Ranade echo these concerns, arguing that an “effective syllabus helps students in becoming self-regulated learners” (Chen et al. 2023, 12). Thus, syllabi that maintain high standards without dehumanizing students tend to be the most effective.

In the wake of COVID-19, Britt Munro argues that, in practice, “this means drawing on bodies of anti-racist feminist scholarship to interrogate the racial power dynamics embedded in language practices along with [her] students;… amplifying minoritized voices and perspectives through a collaboratively constructed syllabus; modelling reflexivity in relation to [her] own racial identity;… and reshaping classroom practices, policies, and relations towards a culture of student empowerment” (Munro, 2022, 142). Additionally, COVID-19 has required educators to rethink their approach to teaching and learning (e.g., Schwartz et al. 2020). In response, scholars have emphasized the need for inclusive syllabi that challenge entrenched beliefs about teaching parameters, often by emphasizing social justice and/or decolonial methods in their teaching practice (Taylor et al. 2019; Zidani, 2021). Samantha Primiano, Ananya Krishnan, and Thurka Sangaramoorthy recommend designing all aspects of the syllabus in an inclusive manner, including diversified content, an accessibility statement, and flexible means of participation and support, such as rolling deadlines (Primiano et al. 2020, 50). Several studies center empathy, caring, and ownership on the syllabus, encouraging personalized statements, reflective assignments, trigger warnings, and inclusive course design to support students (Chen et al. 2023, 6; Richmond et al. 2019; Fuentes et al. 2021; Davis 2020; Jones et al. 2020). Laura Zanotti notes that inclusive syllabi can either reinforce normative aspects of institutional knowledge-making or disrupt silences and oppressions. To promote transformative change, she suggests topics such as the politics of the institution’s history, design aesthetics, and descriptive representation of diverse knowledge-holders (Zanotti, 2021, 115). These recommendations can help create a more welcoming and supportive classroom environment for students of diverse backgrounds and abilities. By intentionally designing syllabi to be more inclusive, educators can promote equity and improve learning outcomes for all students.

The STEM Syllabus

Similarly, syllabi in the STEM classroom can both empower and alienate. Laura Parson asserts that the syllabus is a document that informs and guides students pursuing a STEM education, reflecting the institutional values and discourses of STEM academics (Parson, 2016, 102). So, while faculty and students may assume that STEM content is objective, the way(s) in which the content is presented, the classroom is organized, and/or the materials are framed are not. Furthermore, such assumptions of neutrality have real and lasting impacts. Luis Levya et al. argue that “epistemologies of STEM disciplines as cultureless, objective, and apolitical (Harding, 1992; Prescod-Weinstein, 2020) perpetuate ideologies of colorblindness and gender neutrality that leave Whiteness and cisheteropatriarchy in STEM knowledge production uncontested (Calabrase Barton and Tan, 2019; Gutiérrez, 2018)” (Levya et al. 2022, 867). Michael Savaria and Kristina Monteiro thus view the STEM syllabus as a potential vehicle to engage underrepresented and underserved students and improve retention in STEM by focusing more directly on mentoring, active learning, and increased dependence among students (Savaria and Monteiro, 2017, 95). Angela Calabrase Barton and Edna Tan counter so-called neutral or objective frames of STEM courses with a “rightful presence” framework, defined “as legitimate and legitimized membership in a classroom community because of who one is (not who one should be), in which the practices of that community support restructuring power dynamics toward more just ends through making both injustice and social change visible” (Calabrase Barton and Tan, 2019, 619). By actively promoting equity and inclusion, many scholars see ways STEM syllabi can work towards dismantling entrenched inequalities in STEM education, creating a more just and equitable environment for all students.

Research Aims and Methods

In the 2021–2022 academic year, six faculty membersFootnote 2 from the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities explored the extent to which faculty use syllabi to positively impact women-identifying students’, queer and non-binary students’, and students of color’s sense of inclusion and belonging in our classrooms and gathered syllabi-related data in two complementary ways. First, we collected and analyzed 163 syllabi from introductory undergraduate courses at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. This analysis (detailed below) offered us rich and interesting information regarding faculty, departmental, discipline, and course-specific practices. While the data can provide insight in various aspects of syllabi design and use, we focused on three questions specifically related to inclusive practices: do the syllabi we collected (a) list instructors’ pronouns, (b) include inclusivity statements, and (c) utilize materials authored by women and gender minority scholars? Second, we distributed a questionnaire to WPI undergraduate students to understand how syllabi impact their learning experiences; our aim was to benchmark whether there is a link between students’ and faculty’s perceptions of syllabi use and content. Specifically, we set out to answer from the students’ perspective: (a) how often and to what degree students read syllabi; (b) how important it is for them to find instructor’s pronouns on syllabi; (c) how much they care about seeing inclusivity statements on syllabi; and (d) how important it is for them to see texts and materials produced by women and gender minority authors.

Context about Worcester Polytechnic Institute

We formed this six-faculty research community to understand inclusive pedagogical practices given the uniqueness of our institution’s curriculum and teaching model. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is a private research universityFootnote 3 in Worcester, Massachusetts supporting an undergraduate population of just over 5,000 students. Most students study a STEM subject; computer science is the most popular choice followed by mechanical engineering. In 1970, faculty and administrators revolutionized education at WPI by creating “The WPI Plan,” the goal of which was “to create ‘technical humanists’” (Cohen, 1977, 106). Focusing on a project-based curriculum, the Plan resides at the intersection of science and society, pushing STEM students to “take into account the social as well as the technological impact of the problems they would be dealing with” (Cohen, 1977, 106).

Despite WPI’s unique curriculum, its student demographics reflect the norm of peer institutions. In 2022, 65% of students identified as male and 58% as white. Additionally, just under 3% identified as Black or African American and 9% as Hispanic or Latinx. Finally, while the ratio of women to men in the class of 2025 was closer to 1:1 than ever before, with 43% identifying as women, that percentage fell in the class of 2026 to 31% (WPI Institutional Research, 2024).Footnote 4 Gender discrepancies also persist in different disciplines and degree programs. The most popular majors at WPI, including Aerospace Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, have a 3:1 male-female ratio. Only Biomedical Engineering reports the near reverse (35:65) male-female ratio (WPI Institutional Research, 2024). We assert that it remains our responsibility as faculty to foster a more inclusive classroom culture and view the syllabus as a tool to facilitate this transformation. By extension, we see syllabi as serving a crucial function in higher education.

Syllabi collection, data cleaning, and analysis

We leaned on the diversity of disciplines represented by the faculty involved in this project and at WPI to gather syllabi from similarly diverse fields. We solicited volunteer participation from all faculty at WPI by reaching out to them directly, using the official institutional faculty listserv, and through their department/program leadership, asking faculty to email or upload course syllabi to a designated person or folder.

We began our project in the summer of 2021 and aimed to collect 200 syllabi with specific characteristics distributed among campus departments:

  • We limited our syllabi to 1000- and 2000-level (mostly introductory-level) courses. We chose these classes because many students take them in their first or second year regardless of their major and they are often considered “weed out” courses, serving as gatekeepers for students to advance in their chosen majors.

  • We gathered syllabi from six academic years: 2016–2017, 2017–2018, 2018–2019, 2019–2020, 2020–2021, and 2021–2022. We recognize that many faculty updated their syllabi during these years to adjust learning priorities amidst COVID-19 and other societal shifts. While our goal was not to specifically focus on pandemic-related changes, some of these adjustments inevitably impacted our dataset.

  • We excluded syllabi from special interest or non-departmental programs, such as Physical Education, Military Science (Army Reverse Officers’ Training Corps, ROTC), and Air Force Aerospace Studies (Air Force Reverse Officers’ Training Corps, AFROTC).

We based the target number of syllabi for each discipline on undergraduate 1000- and 2000-level course enrollments during terms A, B, C, and D in academic year 2020–2021, the most recent year for which enrollment data was available when we started this research, seeking to represent student enrollment proportionally (see Table 1).Footnote 5 WPI has four schools: the School of Arts & Sciences, School of Engineering, Business School, and Global School, and 21 departments and programs distributed among them. Our dataset contains syllabi from all four schools and 15 of the 21 departments and programs. Most departments not represented in the data are from the School of Engineering due to the lack of 1000- and 2000-level courses in the majors they offer.

Table 1 Student enrollment numbers (and percentages) for academic year 2020–2021 are listed by department or program (WPI Institutional Research, 2024).

Table 1 reports the total undergraduate enrollment numbers in 1000- and 2000-level courses during academic year 2020–2021, sorted by school and department/program (excluding special interest and non-departmental programs, as specified above) (WPI Institutional Research, 2024). Table 1 also lists the target number and collected number of syllabi for each department and program in the 5th and 6th column, respectively. Figure 1 shows the percentage of syllabi ultimately collected by school (and by department or program, see legend).

Fig. 1: Percentages of collected syllabi organized by school (bar chart) and by department (legend).
figure 1

Percentage values reported in the legend are computed from column 6 of Table 1 with n = 163.

Despite our efforts, we did not reach our target number of syllabi from some departments and programs including Biology and Biotechnology, Computer Science, and Mathematical Sciences. Realizing we would not be able to collect 200 syllabi, we decided to include any we received that met our criteria (course level, department or program, and year). As such, we ended up with a few more than we had anticipated from some departments and programs, including Business, Chemical Engineering, and Data Science.

Syllabi review and analysis

We anonymized the syllabi before beginning the review process by removing any identifying information, such as the name and email address of the instructor and teaching assistants, the course code, course title, and term and year in which it was taught. We removed the course code and titles because some courses at WPI are always taught by the same person, while other courses rotate among a small group of faculty and have subtitles that would identify the instructor.

To start the analysis, we assigned each of the six faculty members in our research group around 50 syllabi to read and evaluate; informed by work by Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, and Z Nicolazzo on gender and racial equity in the classroom, we developed a rubric to analyze the syllabi (Caldwell and Frame, 2016; Nicolazzo, 2016), available as Appendix 1. Two different reviewers evaluated each syllabus; the same two people reviewed no more than 15 syllabi. When assigning syllabi, we ensured each reviewer would not evaluate syllabi from their department to reduce the chance of identifying the instructor based on the course subject and materials.

In the anonymization process, we changed all file names to a common nomenclature which included the department code and a number; e.g., we assigned MA 23 to the 23rd submitted syllabus from the Department of Mathematical Sciences (MA). A student worker cataloged the metadata about each syllabus on a separate spreadsheet, including file name at submission,Footnote 6 new file name, course code, course title, term and year in which the course took place, gender of instructor, and title of instructor at the time the course was taught. We finalized the rubric before reviewing the syllabi and collecting a combination of quantitative and qualitative data.

Specific to the three questions we are examining here, we labeled with a “1” all syllabi that included instructors’ pronouns and a “0” those that did not. When considering whether syllabi included materials authored by women and gender minority scholars, we searched online for information about authors’ gender identity based on their name, picture, and pronouns listed on Wikipedia and their professional or personal websites; we also kept front-of-mind the limitations of using this information to infer individuals’ gender or racial identities (Wood et al. 2020, 2–3). We assigned a “1” to syllabi which included materials authored by women or gender minority scholars and a “0” otherwise. Lastly, we gave a “1” to syllabi with inclusivity statements and a “0” to syllabi with no such indication. We also invited each reviewer to report qualitative comments regarding all questions during the evaluation process (see the full rubric in Appendix 1).

When two reviewers assigned different scores to the same syllabus, they met to discuss the discrepancies. Most discrepancies occurred when evaluating syllabi for the presence of an inclusivity statement. Some syllabi had a section explicitly labeled “inclusivity statement” while others had wording to that effect sprinkled throughout the document without condensing it into a specific section. The research team decided to classify both ways of presenting the information as acceptable inclusivity statements and was able to resolve all related conflicts.

Student survey collection and analysis

Through the questionnaire we distributed to students, we hoped to gather their perspectives about syllabus content and its relation to inclusive learning environments, as well as to benchmark students’ and faculty’s perceptions of the ideal purpose, use, and content of a syllabus. As mentioned, here we report responses about (a) how often and to what degree students read syllabi; (b) how important it is for students to find instructor’s pronouns on syllabi; (c) how much students care about having an inclusivity statement on a syllabus; and (d) what importance they place in seeing women and gender minority authors included on syllabi. As Appendix 2 (the full survey) outlines, for each of these questions we included additional details to clarify the question’s meaning to students who may not be familiar with inclusive teaching practices and related jargon. In the pronouns question, we provided examples of pronouns; for the gender minority authors question, we specified examples of what we meant by gender minority scholars, such as non-binary and gender non-conforming folks; and lastly, we provided an inclusivity statement example when asking about their importance.

After receiving approval from the WPI Institutional Review Board,Footnote 7 we distributed our survey in the Fall of 2022 to the undergraduate student population, prioritizing students enrolled in 1000- and 2000-level courses. We made the anonymous online survey available to students through QualtricsFootnote 8 for 2 weeks and collected 145 responses (see aggregate demographic information in Fig. 2).Footnote 9 The gender breakdown of our participants sees an overrepresentation of women compared to WPI’s undergraduate population. Of the 5,246 undergraduate students enrolled in the Fall of 2022, 37% were classified as female and 63% as male (WPI Institutional Research, 2024).Footnote 10 In our survey, we targeted the first-year and sophomore classes since they represent the majority of students enrolled in 1000- and 2000-level courses; 77% of survey respondents belong to one of these two classes. More than 50% of respondents are pursuing a degree in a major within the School of Engineering, followed by the School of Arts & Sciences, and the Business School.Footnote 11 This breakdown is representative of the undergraduate population at WPI, where over 3000 of the 5246 students enrolled are pursuing an Engineering major (WPI Institutional Research, 2024).

Fig. 2: Demographic information of survey respondents (n = 145).
figure 2

Donut charts show the breakdown by gender (left), class (center), and major (right) of undergraduate students who submitted a response to our survey. Survey is provided in full in Appendix 2.

We begin our survey by asking students whether they see course syllabi as playing a role in their learning and classroom experiences. As discussed above, we are interested in better understanding how instructors and students view syllabi to capture whether their views align or differ. Each of the n = 145 student respondents provided up to three key words to describe what they consider to be the purpose of a syllabus for a total of 421 words. We counted how many times each word appeared in the list of responses and visualized in Fig. 3 the 76 words participants submitted most often employing word size as a proxy for frequency of use. We adjusted words students listed for spelling, capitalization, and phrasing to align similar concepts (for example, we shifted the few instances in which the word plan appeared to planning to count both as the same word); in the rare occasions where students provided a short phrase, we consolidated their responses into a single word (for example, we considered assignments and exams schedule simply as schedule).

Fig. 3: Words most used by survey respondents to define the purpose of class syllabi (n = 145, up to three words each for a total of 421 words).
figure 3

The word cloud reports the 76 most used words: the larger the size of the word, the more frequently it is used; e.g., “grading” is the most used word (46 times), followed by “expectations” (37 times), and “information” (34 times). On the other end of the spectrum, words such as “logistics” and “advice” only appear once. Student survey is provided in full in Appendix 2.

Three main themes naturally arose when two different researchers reviewed the n = 145 responses: scheduling and planning, grading and course expectations, and information and policies. After agreeing on the categories’ names and scope, we binned the submitted words to weigh what respondents considered to be the main purposes of course syllabi. We also asked survey participants whether they considered syllabi as important for their overall learning and experiences in a course. We followed up with students based on their initial response: we asked those who answered “yes” to explain why they consider syllabi important and those who answered “no” were asked to explain why not. Students who said they were “not sure” whether syllabi were important for their overall learning experiences in a course were not asked a follow up question. Two researchers independently reviewed the open-ended responses for why students did (n = 109) or did not (n = 10) consider syllabi important; they identified a few main recurring themes discussed in the Results section below.

We structured our survey questions similarly for the three Identity Safety Cues (ISCs) of interest: pronouns, inclusivity statements, and women and gender minority authors. We first asked students whether they considered the presence of each of these ISCs on a syllabus important, and then followed up with a different question for each student based on their response. For the pronouns and women and gender minority authors questions, to those who answered “yes,” we asked why they considered each of these ISCs important; to those who said “no,” we asked why not. We did not ask the few students who said they were “not sure” a follow up question. For the inclusivity statement question we provided additional options; students could describe the presence of inclusivity statements on syllabi as “very important,” “somewhat important,” or “not important.” For those who chose “very important” or “somewhat important,” we followed up by asking why, and for those who answered “not important,” we asked why not. Once again, we offered the option of “not sure” and those were the only students who did not receive a follow up question.

Results

The following section presents the data and analysis of the syllabi in our dataset and the student survey responses. Through our analysis of syllabi recently used in undergraduate courses and a survey administered to undergraduate students, we collected quantitative and qualitative data to compare students’ perceptions and desired content with what we found on the syllabi in use. The qualitative survey data came in short answer form when asking students to respond to open-ended questions. We identified overall themes and selected a few responses in which students provided detailed, mindful thoughts rather than relying on general statements or observations; we also selected statements that support the quantitative data collected.

Role and importance of syllabi according to students

To set the stage for this work, we asked survey participants to provide up to three key words to describe what they consider to be the purpose of course syllabi and created a word cloud to visualize the results in Fig. 3. As the word cloud demonstrates, the concepts students most commonly associate with the purpose of course syllabi relate to “grading” (used 46 times), “expectations” (37), and “information” (34), followed by “schedule” (24), “organization” (21), and “policies” (20). About 25% of submissions fall under scheduling and planning; information and policies is the most popular category with over 41% of responses. “Grading” and “expectations” are the two words students used most often (as reported above and shown in Fig. 3), but the related category groups only about 28% of submissions.Footnote 12

We also asked survey participants to rate the importance of syllabi for their overall learning and experiences in a course. Of the 145 respondents, 77% consider syllabi important; only 7% consider them unimportant (and 16% are not sure). Qualitative data shows that most students who consider syllabi important see them as ways to build clear expectations for the course in terms of structure and policies. They see the document as a tool to help them stay organized, plan their time, and choose the approach to the course that best fits their needs and goals. Having a well-organized syllabus makes students feel better prepared to tackle the course, as one survey respondent explained: “All of these are important pieces of info that help my experience in this course for the better because i [sic] go through less struggle since everything is on the syllabus. My learning process also goes more smoothly because I can plan out when to study what and what I need to do before then with other classes [sic] work.” As to be expected, students appreciate knowing ahead of time what to expect; having access to the class schedule, due dates, and assessment dates up front increases students’ comfort level: “It is important for laying out the road for the term. […] It can change the experience by mentally preparing me for what to come before it happens.”

Our data shows that to meet course expectations, students use the syllabus as a reference tool and review it throughout a course to check for important dates, grading policies, and assignment descriptions. One student reported “The syllabus is something I refer to very often, and use frequently to make sure I have the correct dates/information regarding the class. I find it is helpful to read once thoroughly and before class begins and then refer to it for questions, before asking anyone a question.”

Finally, students who place no importance on the syllabus explain that they consider it superfluous due to the availability of the same (or even updated) information via other means, such as the course learning management system, in-class instruction, and official email communications. Some of these students report that syllabi content rarely remains the same throughout a course, making the syllabus obsolete soon after classes start.

Pronoun inclusion in syllabi: a disconnect between faculty and students

Through our research, we found that, while only about 10% of the 163 analyzed syllabi included instructors’ pronouns such as she/her/hers, 75% of surveyed students (n = 132) view listing instructors’ pronouns as important; the rest consider it not important (10.6%) or are not sure (14.4%). All 16 syllabi that included pronouns were from the School of Arts & Sciences. Some syllabi only included pronouns for instructors while others also listed pronouns for teaching assistants (typically graduate students) and peer learning assistants (typically undergraduate students). Figure 4 shows the low number of syllabi with pronouns to significantly contrast students’ expectations and desires and highlights the urgency for increased attention to this matter.

Fig. 4: The status of instructors’ pronouns on syllabi.
figure 4

Left: analysis of n = 163 syllabi shows that only 9.8% include instructors’ pronouns (orange). This is in sharp contrast to the student survey results (n = 132) shown on the right. 75% of respondents consider it important to include instructors’ pronouns on syllabi (orange), while only 10.6% consider it not important (green), and 14.4% are not sure (blue).

Looking at the student responses (n = 132) based on gender is also illuminating. One hundred percent of gender minority and 86% of women survey respondents thought that it was important for instructors to list their pronouns on syllabi compared to 62% of men. Only two women and no gender minority respondents said instructors’ pronouns on syllabi were not important; only six women and no gender minority respondents were unsure about the importance of instructors listing their pronouns on syllabi.

We asked students why they believed pronouns were important and grouped the n = 95 respondents’ answers around three themes. First, participants reported that including pronouns in syllabi demonstrates respect for students’ gender identities and can create a more comfortable space for those who have changed their pronouns or who choose to introduce themselves with their pronouns. One student explained that professors including their own pronouns “can help create a space that will lead to other people sharing their pronouns which will validate people’s gender identities.” Students also discussed normalizing the practice of including pronouns in one’s introduction. Respondents felt that professors should lead by example and model this inclusive practice, which would help make it more commonplace for everyone and create a more equitable classroom environment. A respondent stated that including pronouns “makes it more normal for pronouns to be included with introductions. If only genderqueer people introduce themselves with pronouns, they are even more made outsiders than their identity would by itself.”

The second theme to emerge from respondents was the importance of including pronouns to facilitate communication and avoid mistakes. Respondents recognized the significance of addressing professors correctly and avoiding any potential miscommunications that may arise from incorrect pronoun use. Interestingly, students also expressed concern for their professors’ comfort, emphasizing the importance of demonstrating respect for their instructors. One student explained that including pronouns is important because “the professor deserves to have their students address them by the pronouns they identify with.” By using correct pronouns, students can establish a respectful and effective relationship with their professors, beginning with the information provided in the syllabus.

The third theme to surface was the significant impact that pronoun inclusion can have on feelings of inclusivity in and beyond the classroom. One student noted that “professors including their pronouns is a means to acknowledge and respect the many identities on campus,” while another commented that allowing for a smooth introduction with the professor exemplifying their pronouns can make LGBTQIA+ students feel safe and supported to focus on their studies. Other students echoed this sentiment by recognizing that pronoun inclusion can help create a norm that validates gender identities and signals to non-majority students that the classroom is a safe space. As one student observed, “Many students, especially LGBTQ+ students, will see a prof who shares their pronouns as an automatic ally.” Alongside their impact on feelings of inclusion, we explored whether the presence of instructors’ pronouns on syllabi impacted students’ comfort level in sharing their own. Out of the 130 responses, 56% of participants reported not being affected by the presence of the instructors’ pronouns on the syllabus, while 40% said that it made them feel more comfortable. Here again we found notable differences in responses by gender. Ninety-two percent of gender minority students, 54% of women, and 16% of men reported that their comfort level in sharing pronouns increased when instructors listed their pronouns on the syllabus. Less than 5% of students report feeling less comfortable (1 student) or unsure (3 students) when they see instructors’ pronouns on syllabi.

Student expectations vs. faculty practices: inclusivity statements in syllabi

Inclusivity statements on syllabi reveal a divide in expectations between faculty and students similar to what we reported for pronoun usage. We broadly define inclusivity statements as short statements that tell students what the classroom environment (including in the lab, office hours, etc.) will be like; they may also be called diversity statements or classroom environment statements. Inclusivity statements appeared on 33.7% of the 163 syllabi we analyzed. Conversely, 71.3% of the 129 survey respondents consider the presence of an inclusivity statement important, with 36.4% labeling it “very important” and 34.9% labeling it “somewhat important;” 10.9% of surveyed students were uncertain about their significance, while 17.8% believed that such statements were “not important” (see Fig. 5 for comparison).

Fig. 5: Comparing instructors’ and students’ expectations about inclusivity statements on syllabi.
figure 5

Left: 33.7% of the n = 163 syllabi analyzed incorporates inclusivity statements (purple). This does not align with survey results reported on the right. Over 70% of respondents consider it important to have an inclusivity statement on their course syllabi, with 36.4% of students labeling it as “very important” (fuchsia) and 34.9% as “somewhat important” (pink). Only 17.8% of participants consider it “not important” (blue) and 10.9% are not sure (aquamarine).

Some students followed up with comments regarding their views on the importance of inclusivity statements in syllabi, further highlighting that a disconnect still exists between faculty and students regarding their importance and effectiveness. A student who responded that inclusivity statements were “very important” reported that “it demonstrates that the professor is working to include everyone. Honestly, I wish that it wasn’t important because in the ideal world all professors are inclusive, but we are not at that point yet.” Another student shared that “it’s important for that promise to be made in writing, but what’s more important is the following through with actions from professors to make those students actually feel safe, not just a promise to do so.” Some student responses suggest that they also view them as binding; one respondent stated such statements were “very important” “because if a prof/class breaks it, you can hold them accountable.”

The importance of such statements also applied across disciplines. One student noted that the presence of an inclusivity statement demonstrates “a professor is working towards developing an inclusive environment not only in their own classroom but in STEM curricula.” Another respondent reflected on the importance of inclusivity statements for STEM courses, stating “Science and engineering are not separate from history, ethics, politics, or bias. Rather than falsely postulating that science is always objective and free from bias, understanding the ways our current approaches fail when met with social factors is important if we want the benefits from our work to be equitable.” Both quantitative and qualitative data indicate that most students find the promise of inclusivity statements to be powerful, especially in allegedly “objective” disciplines.

Fewer students who responded “not important” or “not sure” supplied follow-up responses to elaborate on why they felt a particular way. Students were most skeptical when inclusivity statements appear “cut-and-paste,” distinctly corporate, or clearly performative. One student noted that “It’s nice to see [an inclusivity statement] but often it’s just copied and pasted, word for word, from the generic WPI statement. I don’t mind if it’s included but I’d like to see professors add their own blurb about what that statement means for them or for that specific class. That way, I would know that they actually had read the statement and thought about it.”

Women and gender diversity on syllabi: faculty actions vs. student needs

Finally, we consider the use of course materials authored by women and gender minority authors. Our analysis of 163 syllabi revealed that the use of such materials is far from widespread. In fact, only about 20% of the syllabi we examined include works authored by women and gender minority individuals, and less than half of those explicitly identify the gender of such authors. Moreover, we observed significant variations in how instructors incorporate these diverse authors depending on their department, with some disciplines demonstrating far more inclusive practices than others. Syllabi that include women and gender minority authors cover 66.7% of courses in Biology and Biotechnology, 50% in Biomedical Engineering, 48.4% in Humanities & Arts, 22.2% in Social Science & Policy Studies, and 12.5% in Business. No syllabi collected from other departments and programs incorporate any women or gender minority authors; this includes departments belonging to the School of Arts & Sciences, the School of Engineering, and the Global School (for a complete list of departments and programs, see Fig. 1).

Again, faculty attitude towards the inclusion of women and gender minority authors does not reflect students’ expectations. Of the 130 survey respondents, 62.3% reported that including women and gender minority authors in courses is important for their learning experience. Only 15.4% of respondents reported that they do not place importance on this inclusion while 22.3% of students expressed uncertainty. There were large differences in responses depending on the survey participant’s gender identity, as Fig. 6 showcases.Footnote 13 Of the respondents who identified as men (n = 64, including transgender men), about 45% said they considered the inclusion of women and gender minority authors important for their learning, 28% considered it not important, and 27% were unsure. Of the respondents who identified as women (n = 58, including transgender women), 78% considered it important, only about 3% considered it not important, and 19% were unsure. And of the respondents who identified with all other gender identities (n = 6) including gender variant, gender non-conforming, and non-binary, 100% considered inclusion of women and gender minority authors important. This data shows that most students who identify as women or other gender minorities in STEM consider the inclusion of women and gender minority authors in a course important for their learning experiences, whereas less than half of the students who identify as men do.

Fig. 6: Visualization of n = 128 responses clustered by self-identified gender of survey participants to whether students consider important the inclusion of women and gender minority authors in course syllabi.
figure 6

Including materials authored by women and gender minority scholars in courses is considered important by 45% of men respondents (n = 64, including transgender men, left), 78% of women respondents (n = 58, including transgender women, center), and 100% of gender minority respondents (n = 6, including gender variant, gender non-conforming, and non-binary folks, right). Including women and gender minority authors in courses is considered not important by 28% of men, 3% of women, and 0% of gender minority respondents. 27% of men, 19% of women, and 0% of gender minority participants report being not sure about the matter. Student survey is provided in full in Appendix 2.

Respondents who appreciate the inclusion of women and gender minority authors in syllabi suggest that it promotes diversity and broadens their perspectives, ideas, and experiences; participants assert that “implementing different perspectives into courses is important to developing more open minds in students” and “we are constantly listening and learning from majority rhetoric. Including minorities, especially gender minorities, help [sic] expand our ideas and challenge us.” Students also view the inclusion of women and gender minority scholars on syllabi as challenging stereotypes and gender norms in academia and creating a more inclusive learning environment. For example, one student stated that, since they identify as a gender minority, “these authors serve as a role model for me;” another mentioned “this can help students feel included by hearing and learning from texts written by people who look like them.”

We asked students who consider the presence of women and gender minority authors on syllabi “not important” why not; many reported believing that in STEM courses the gender of the author does not matter because the material covered is objective. Others stated more generally that the content, not the author’s gender, should be considered. Finally, some stated that an author’s gender does not affect their experiences at all.

Discussion and recommendations

The following section discusses the use of syllabi as tools for inclusion in introductory undergraduate courses, specifically focusing on the perceived importance of including pronouns, inclusivity statements, and women and gender minority authors on syllabi. These three categories exemplify three distinct yet representative facets of a syllabus. We further discuss differences in student perceptions and desires compared to actual syllabi content which reflects faculty viewpoints. We reference background information from the literature review to frame our understanding of students’ responses and utilize specific students’ comments to fuel our recommendations and suggested future steps.

Role and importance of syllabi according to students

While the concept of syllabi as reference tools seems widespread among students who place importance on the document, mirroring Jeanne Slattery and Janet Carlson’s articulation of effective syllabi as “relatively detailed” and “well-organized,” students who do not consider them important for their learning report that their content rarely remains unchanged throughout a course and, as such, the document itself becomes obsolete soon after classes start (Slattery and Carlson, 2005, 159). While it is inevitable at times that changes in course policies, schedule, or deadlines be made due to unforeseen circumstances, this should not happen for every course, nor should it happen often. To avoid this issue and allow students to refer to the syllabus as the course progresses, instructors should be deliberate about making swift updates to it and readily communicate them to the students. We recommend that faculty use syllabi not as one-directional contracts yielding what Mano Singham calls an “authoritarian classroom;” instead, once codified and distributed, faculty should approach them as, to draw again on Nancy Soonpaa’s scholarship, multi-directional “enforceable agreements:” what we promise our students, we should respect; they should in turn expect that we will communicate shifts as they happen if they must happen at all (Singham, 2005; Soonpaa, 2018, 834). While providing information in multiple formats and occasions may seem redundant to some students, repeated communication through diverse methods supports students with different learning styles and neurodiverse students.

Pronoun inclusion in syllabi: a disconnect between faculty and students

Including instructors’ pronouns not only helps establish a welcoming classroom environment for all students but can also have a significant impact on feelings of inclusivity beyond the classroom, as students acknowledged. Pronoun inclusion is a small act that, if deployed carefully and correctly, can significantly impact the student experience both in and beyond the classroom. Our results suggest that students pay attention to pronouns more than faculty, and we argue that instructors who are comfortable sharing their pronouns should include them on syllabi as an impactful identity safety cue. Using pronouns makes students feel more comfortable in sharing their own and does not seem to have any major drawbacks; less than 5% of students report feeling less comfortable (one student) or unsure (three students) when they see instructor pronouns on syllabi. Overall, quantitative data and survey comments expressed how most students view pronoun inclusion on syllabi as a simple yet impactful way for professors to establish a safe and inclusive environment for all.

While including pronouns on a syllabus can be a positive signal that a professor is an “automatic ally,” as one respondent pointed out, it may not have the intended effect if the professor is not prepared to correctly use pronouns while teaching. In fact, some students may perceive it as insincere or performative if they do not see the professor taking tangible actions or making changes in the classroom to support marginalized groups. To avoid this, professors should strive for authentic inclusivity by matching their language to their actions, which may require additional education or self-study. Helpful resources for college educators include the glossary in Trans Health: International Perspectives on Care for Trans Communities, Queering STEM Culture in US Higher Education: Navigating Experience of Exclusion in the Academy, and Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion.

Additionally, faculty should be open to being corrected if they misgender a student, responding with a sincere apology and moving on so as to not burden the student any further (Katz-Wise, 2021). Based on our own classroom practices and our students’ responses to them, as an effective strategy for creating an inclusive environment, we recommend inviting (though not requiring) students to share the pronouns they are currently using during introductions on the first day of class, offering live corrections if one student misgenders another, and encouraging students to politely and respectfully do the same. We find that this practice creates the space for students to change the pronouns with which they identify as they move through the term or through their college experience. We also find that this practice offers us a teaching moment: we make clear to our students on the first day of class that they can and should update their pronouns; this statement in turn however obliquely educates other students about the fluidity of gender identity and associated pronoun usage. In using these perhaps subtle markers as teaching moments, we hope to take at least some of the burden of educating their peers off our students.

Student expectations vs. faculty practices: inclusivity statements in syllabi

There may be several reasons for the differing expectations between faculty and students surrounding inclusivity statements. First, both faculty and students may be unfamiliar with the definition and/or role of an inclusivity statement if they are not regularly included on syllabi. Literature shows how the lack of faculty familiarity with this sort of statement could diminish its perceived importance or impact (Maimon et al. 2021; Chaney et al. 2016). Additionally, even if a statement is included, if faculty do not take the time to review their syllabus with the class and explain the statement’s applicability and usefulness, students may be unaware of its existence or fail to see its relevance. Moreover, students are often wary of boilerplate statements regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Instead, personalized statements that reflect an instructor’s teaching style and/or course objectives are more effective (Fuentes et al. 2021). Like the responsible inclusion of pronouns on syllabi, an instructor must be prepared to stand behind their inclusivity statement. Composing an original statement rather than using a copied-and-pasted example can help instructors achieve this effect.

Rather than regarding the lack of agreement and uniformity around inclusivity statements as a hindrance, faculty can see it as an opportunity. Instructors should consider several factors when composing inclusivity statements for syllabi. First, the course setup should inform such statements; we encourage instructors to adjust expectations depending on whether the class is discussion-based or a larger lecture course, lab, or practicum (Hess and Whittington, 2003). Second, instructors should consider the course materials and discipline or field of study, recognize past institutional and/or disciplinary inequalities or injuries, and pave the way for more open dialogues, productive lab partnerships, or successful final projects. For example, courses on cell biology, immunology, or cancer biology might acknowledge the racism, lack of consent, and unethical treatment of Henrietta Lacks as just one instance of how systemic inequalities historically and currently permeate the medical field (“Henrietta Lacks”, 2020). Third, faculty should align inclusivity with their individual teaching styles and actions, regularly revising their inclusivity statements to incorporate lessons learned and innovative ideas.

Women and gender diversity on syllabi: faculty actions vs. student needs

As noted through the research we presented, the representation of women and gender minority authors in course materials is an important aspect of creating an inclusive and diverse educational environment. With only about 20% of syllabi utilizing works by gender diverse authors, there is a clear need for greater awareness and attention to this matter in course materials across academia, particularly in fields where the representation of women and gender minority authors is limited; this can help address students’ erroneous reasoning that the gender of the author is not important.

Connecting directly to this widely held idea about the neutrality or objectivity of STEM disciplines, inclusivity (or other) statements on STEM syllabi may help challenge this assumption. Professors may draw upon recent examples of scientific studies deployed by the far right to advance white supremacist agendas or histories of eugenics, medical experimentation, or forced sterilization, to name only a few, to demonstrate the non-neutral and non-objective social, political, and cultural dynamics of fields like genetics, biology, and anatomy (Harmon, 2018; Garland-Thompson, 2015; Owens, 2017; Powell, 2021). To ensure accuracy and nuance, STEM professors may even collaborate with colleagues in the humanities and/or social sciences on these statements.

Conclusion and future research

The syllabus is much more than a simple document distributed on the first day of class, tucked into a backpack, and forgotten. Instead, it is the first of many opportunities for a professor to signal the format, style, and ethos of an upcoming course. The syllabus is often the first point of contact between students and faculty. Syllabi have moved away from simplistic (and punitive) contractual instruments and toward documents that serve a variety of functions. As we have illustrated, it is crucial to approach these pedagogical documents with a comprehensive perspective, recognizing their potential to either aid or harm. Furthermore, a syllabus can serve as a valuable tool in enhancing classroom experiences for all students.

Syllabi play a critical role in setting the tone and expectations for a course, and they can either contribute to or hinder inclusivity and diversity in STEM education. Through our analysis of syllabi and undergraduate student survey, we identified key improvements that professors can make to promote gender inclusivity and equity: listing pronouns, including diverse authors, and incorporating inclusivity statements. By taking a comprehensive and intentional approach to syllabus creation, educators can help create a more equitable and diverse learning environment. In turn, implementing these three components into course syllabi can positively impact students intellectually and mentally, as our own students have affirmed in responding to our syllabi survey. Finally, this positive impact can extend beyond the classroom to address issues of equity in STEM retention by fostering a culture of gender inclusivity, an impact that may ultimately address STEM’s leaky pipeline.

While, in this article, we focused on gender inclusivity in STEM syllabi, other areas of inclusivity also need to be addressed. In fact, there is a myriad of directions that future research might take: research on accessibility, including the cost of materials and availability of text-to-speech and/or audio formats for texts, would be one way to understand if students with different learning styles and abilities are experiencing the classroom in an inclusive way. Finally, concerted attention to the impact of racial and ethnic inclusivity on STEM syllabi and its intersections with gender inclusivity would give a more nuanced and informative understanding of classroom and pedagogical inclusivity. By taking a holistic approach to syllabus creation, educators can help create a more equitable and diverse learning environment for all students.