Inclusive and Equitable Syllabi

Inclusive and Equitable Syllabi

Our syllabus is often the first introduction students have to our class. Although it does serve to communicate some standard course information (grading, how to contact the instructor, etc.), it can serve other purposes too. We can use it to tell students what they should expect to learn in the class, so they know whether it fulfills their learning goals. The syllabus can serve as a resource for students to succeed in the class and in academia. It can also explain how students will be evaluated and the multiple methods they can use to reach success. This webpage describes some strategies on how to utilize a syllabus to become a tool for an inclusive and equitable classroom. To learn how to first construct a syllabus, visit this webpage on the topic.

Make your syllabus learner-focused

Rather than creating a syllabus that focuses on what subject content will be covered, create a syllabus that focuses on how the class will help students develop their skills and intellect (Bart 2015). You might share how students can best monitor their learning. Similarly, you can explain how you made decisions about content and policies or perhaps allow students to partake in this decision making.

For an example, look at an original description of a participation policy in a syllabus

Participation: I will take attendance every class session. Attendance is required, and you are allowed 2 unexcused absences before your grade starts to become affected. For every unexcused absence after these 2, your final grade will drop by 2% for each missed class. No classes can be made up. If you are more than 10 minutes late, you are counted absent.

Now observe how it was re-written to be more learner-focused:

Participation: As part of this class, you will practice defending your viewpoints using evidence and responding to your colleagues’ points of view. To do so, it is important that you attend class and contribute your brilliant thoughts and voices! Because life happens to us all, you will have two unexcused absences. After these two, your final grade will drop by 2% for each missed class, because not attending class will greatly affect your ability to reach your learning goals. If something arises and you will need to miss more than two classes, come talk to me.

Specific strategies to utilize:

  • In your course description, make sure you’re answering: “What will students learn to do?” Rather than “What will the course do?”
  • Clearly link how the assessments connect to students’ learning outcomes. Example: Essay #1 (Addresses learning outcomes 2 and 4).
  • Include campus resources and discipline-specific resources for students experiencing struggles. These resources could range from Crimson Cupboard to in-department tutoring support.
  • State the major assignments, the evaluation criteria, and their worth in the course grade via percentages or points.

Connect to Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that helps instructors design flexible learning spaces so that all students can succeed. With UDL, instructors provide multiple means of engagement (getting our students interested and staying motivated), multiple means of representation (providing options for customization), and multiple means of action and expression (letting our students choose how they express their learning) (CAST 2018). In simple terms, a UDL syllabus will provide many options for students—options on how you will share information, options on how they will be assessed, and options on how they can participate.

For an example, look at an original description of course materials in a syllabus:

Course materials: Our textbook this semester will be “An Introduction to Anthropology,” which can be purchased at the campus bookstore. Each week, we will reach a chapter from this textbook, so it is necessary that you have it by the second week.

Seems pretty clear right? But we can increase our multiple means of engagement and representation by offering a variety of ways for students to engage with the course content. Observe how this was re-written to integrate the UDL framework:

Course materials: Our textbook this semester will be “An Introduction to Anthropology,” which can be purchased at the campus bookstore and is available in printed and e-book versions. We will also be using accessible PDFs, which are available on our course website, as well as captioned YouTube videos, podcasts (with transcripts), and a few documentaries. I’ve left a couple of our class periods’ “readings” open, so that we can supply them with any accessible readings, videos, or webpages that you and your colleagues find. Please send me some materials you are interested in exploring!

Specific strategies to utilize:

  • Put information about requesting accommodations towards the start of your syllabus, so that students see you prioritize wanting them to succeed in the course (UDL on Campus N.D.).
  • Design your assignments so students have multiple ways to demonstrate their learning. Could they submit a recorded verbal explanation, a written paper, or a graphic?
  • Build flexibility into course policies, like with attendance and late work. Consider what the goals of these policies are and the multiple ways in which students might reach these. For example, can students engage with the content in other ways if they are not able to attend live classes?

Give students multiple ways to contact you. For instance, you may be comfortable with students calling your office phone, attending office hours, emailing you, or starting a Canvas discussion.

Include warm and encouraging language

Language is important. There is a lot that students may infer from the tone and language we use in our syllabus—the ways in which we view them, our values, and our willingness to help them (UMassAmherst N.D.). We can often rewrite our syllabus so that the same information is shared, but the tone is more motivating and inclusive. When “warm” language is used in a syllabus, students are more likely to view their instructor as more approachable (Harnisch and Bridges 2011).

Let’s look at how cold and warm language can be compared in this example (UMassAmherst N.D.). Here is an original version:

Students must comply with the policies and practices outlined in this syllabus. Failure to do so will result in grade consequences for the student.

While this shares the instructor’s expectations with students, it can be read as punitive. Instead, let’s see how we can share this information, while using warmer language:

These course values were designed to help you reach our shared learning goals. They will also help lead our discussions; we will talk more about communication guidelines during our first meeting.

Specific strategies to utilize:

  • When possible, remove punishment-based language from your syllabus.
  • Introduce yourself in the syllabus, while making it clear how students can contact you.
  • Think about how you can shift language from making demands to offering encouragement.
  • When appropriate, switch “you” to “we” language, to communicate that you and your students are working together in the course to help them succeed.
  • We often use syllabi to explain what we expect from students, but also use this space to explain what students can expect from you. For example, how quickly will you respond to student emails? How soon after assignment submission should students expect grades? Addressing these questions will help communicate that it is as important for us to meet expectations, as it is for our students.

Craft supportive course policies

Ideally, our course policies are written in a way that lets students know how to get support to succeed in the class. However, sometimes our course policies are focused on punishments our students will receive, rather than empowering them to make good learning choices. How can we write our course policies so that they assume the best intentions of our students, rather than the worst?

For example, here is how you could still communicate consequences, while doing so in a more encouraging manner. Original text:

Students are expected to submit their assignments to Canvas by 9 AM on the day the assignment is due. If it is late, students can still submit their work within 24 hours. They will lose 30% of the assignment’s worth.

We still want to communicate the consequences of a late assignment. Here’s one way we could rewrite the policy to be more supportive:

I ask that you submit your assignment to Canvas by 9 AM on the day the assignment is due. I will accept late work within 24 hours past the due date. A late submission will allow students to potentially earn up to 70% of the assignment’s worth.

Similarly, you might decide not to include a penalty for late assignments. You may want to question if penalizing late assignments is in line with your students’ learning goals. Perhaps you can be flexible on when assignments are due if that works for your workflow.

Specific strategies to utilize:

  • Include the guidelines you receive from your department and school, as well as those shared in the start of the semester memos. A great place to visit is IU’s webpage on university policies.
  • Clearly state how students can reach out to you, Associate Instructors, and any Undergraduate Teaching Assistants for support.
  • Remember that students will come to your classroom with different ideas of professional development. Rather than making this a class focus, concentrate on helping students reach course goals.
  • Consider crafting some of your course policies with your students. If you don’t collaboratively create the course policies, explain your reasoning behind the course policies with your students.
  • Include campus information that is designed to help your students. Some examples include information on supporting religious observances, accessibility, Disability Services for Students, Counseling (CAPS), and Assistive Technology & Accessibility Centers.

Works Cited

Bart, Mary (2015). Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning. Faculty Focus. Accessed 14 May 2021.

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Accessed 18 May 2021.

Harnisch, Richard J. and K. Robert Bridges (2011). Effect of Syllabus Tone: Students’ Perceptions of Instructor and Course. Social Psychology Education 14: 319-330.

UDL on Campus N.D. UDL Syllabus. Accessed 7 July 2021.

UMassAmherst N.D. Six Principles of an Inclusive Syllabus Design. Accessed 12 July 2021.