Liquid Syllabus

A humanizing element for online courses

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

A Liquid Syllabus (Pacansky-Brock, 2021, 2017, 2014; Pacansky-Brock et al., 2023, 2021) 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 social-psychological 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. It is often assumed to be neutral, but it is not. The language, structure, visual design, and file format articulate cues that resonate differently with different people. Too often, a syllabus is a long list of things students should not do that is written in deficit-based language and locked inside a learning management system. Rather than openly supporting students, a syllabus can function as a microaggression, exacerbating anxieties and marginalizing some students. A Liquid Syllabus is intended to serve as a kindness cue of social inclusion (Estrada, Eroy-Reveles & Matsui, 2018) 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 in a comment below or on Twitter with the hashtag #HumanizeOL.

Learn More


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., Smedshammer, M., & Vincent-Layton, K. (2023). In search of belonging online: Achieving equity through transformative professional developmentJournal of Educational Research and Practice, 12(0), 39–64.

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2021). The liquid syllabus: An anti-racist teaching elementColleague 2 Colleague Magazine, 1(15).

Pacansky-Brock, M., Smedshammer, M., & Vincent-Layton, K. (2020). Humanizing online teaching to equitize higher educationCurrent Issues in Education21(2).

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

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

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.

9 Comments to “Liquid Syllabus”

  1. Abby Machson-Carter

    Do you have suggested formats for making this website? for those of us who are still building our web-building skills…where to look? Google sites? FourSquare? a Blog post?

    1. Hi Abby. Yes, I do. Click the dark grey button above the References heading on this page. It will take you to a public Canvas course that will walk you through how to create your liquid syllabus with Google Sites and also provide you with a bunch of examples. I hope that helps!

  2. annica hagadorn

    IS it ok to create one liquid syllabus and on the home page have a link to two separate courses that each then have the pages that support that courses syllabus?

  3. Hi Michelle,

    I am very interested in conducting training for online faculty in humanizing their online courses. Can I use your materials to complement my other materials in humanizing online learning?

    1. Hi Lilia. Any resource that includes a Creative Commons license may be used and/or adapted as long as you make it clear that your work is adapted from my work. Please include this attribution, “Adapted from the work of Michelle Pacansky-Brock” and if possible link back to my work. I hope that helps! Thank you for your efforts.

  4. Thank you so much Michelle. I will definitely cite you and a link to your work. Btw, I am going to make a presentation to our Rockland Community College faculty on how to prepare a liquid syllabus and of course will cite you and your work. I will send you a link to the materials when its ready. Thanks again.

  5. Trish Triumpho

    This is very interesting! I’ve done something similar. When I began teaching 14 years ago, I was dismayed at the lack of options to share free materials with my students through the internet. I created a class website with many of the attributes of your Liquid Syllabus. It has been a great tool for teaching and greatly enhanced my online classes when COVID hit. Most students like having 24/7 access to all of the elements of the class, with visuals, videos instructions and examples as well as a variety of online resources and links to recorded lectures. Thank you for sharing what you’ve done to humanize instructor-student interactions online!


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