Liquid Syllabus

A humanizing strategy for online courses

Sends the cue, “I will be a partner in your learning.”

A website titled History of Still Photography with a video of an instructor embedded at the top.

A Liquid Syllabus (Pacansky-Brock, 2014, 2017) is a humanizing element that ensures students start a course feeling supported by their instructor. It intentionally provides students with what they need to succeed in week one of a course, including a warm, friendly face. It should be emailed to students the week prior to the start of a course. Rather than a PDF or a page locked inside a learning management system, it is a public, accessible, mobile-friendly website that opens instantly and renders beautifully on a phone. Students are greeted with a brief, imperfect welcome video at the top; a learning pact that articulates what students can expect from their instructor and what will be expected of them; a list of week one due dates; and tips for success. If policies are included, they are written in welcoming, hopeful language.

Creating trust and identity safety at the start of an online course is an instructional practice that supports the success of more students. Students from non-majority groups are more likely to enter a college course from a place of distrust and have less cognitive bandwidth to dedicate to learning because of the ways that social marginalization wears away at a human’s capacity to learn and make decisions.

The week prior to the start of an online course is a high opportunity zone for mitigating belonging uncertainty, a socialpsychological phenomenon that is more likely to undermine the ability of students who are racially, ethnically, or socially marginalized to perform at their full intellectual capacity (Walton & Cohen, 2007). As Cia Verschelden, author of Bandwidth Recovery (2017) writes, “Stigmatization can create a global uncertainty about the quality of one’s social bonds.” Online courses are more likely to be sterile, isolating experiences and trigger belongingness uncertainty. Intentionally cultivating psychological and identity safety as students begin an online course is a way to mitigate belongingness uncertainty.

A syllabus is a basic component of a college level course. Too often, a syllabus is a long things students should not do that is written in deficit-based language. Rather than supporting students, a syllabus can function as a microaggression, exacerbating the anxiety that many students experience at the start of a new online course, particularly those who are first generation and/or Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other people of color. A Liquid Syllabus is intended to serve as a kindness cue (Estrada, Eroy-Reveles & Matsui, 2018) of social inclusion by welcoming students, positioning an instructor as a learning partner, and illuminating a path to success for all students.

To learn more about a Liquid Syllabus and make your own, explore the links below. And share a link to your Liquid Syllabus on Twitter with the hashtag #HumanizeOL to inspire more professors to humanize their online courses!

Humanizing Pre-course Contact with a Liquid Syllabus


Estrada, M., Eroy-Reveles, A., & Matsui, J. (2018). The Influence of Affirming Kindness and Community on Broadening Participation in STEM Career Pathways. Social issues and policy review, 12(1), 258–297. doi:10.1111/sipr.12046

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2014, August 13). The Liquid Syllabus: Are you ready?, [blog post].  

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2017). Best practices for teaching with emerging technologies (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Verschelden, C. (2017). Bandwidth recovery: Helping students reclaim cognitive resources lost to poverty, racism, and social marginalization. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82.