Make Your Syllabus More Inclusive

A syllabus – whether a paper handout, an introductory email, or as the home page of your course Canvas site – is one of the first ways students are introduced to you and the course you teach.

Making your syllabus more inclusive can mean that it:

  • helps more of your students gain a positive first impression of the course and instruction
  • acknowledges the diverse backgrounds, identities, skills, and goals that your students bring to the learning environment
  • is easy to access and understand
  • contains information that is memorable and useful to students
  • supports students via fair and flexible policies
  • encourages student ownership, autonomy, and responsibility in the course
  • communicates how diversity, equity, and inclusion are a part of your teaching philosophy and present in your discipline
Everyone is Welcome
Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Inclusive Invitation: Share Your Strategies and Examples

The strategies below to make your syllabus more inclusive are collected from recent research into inclusive practices, which is an evolving scholarly conversation from which we are all learning. If you are already using these strategies, or have other strategies to recommend, we want to hear from you!

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Strategies

Twelve strategies for making your syllabus more inclusive are listed below. You may find that 1 or 2 of these make sense for you immediately, and additional strategies may be more appropriate to build in over time. As you consider the strategies below, remember that the syllabus is interrelated with and communicates about your course policies and expectations, activities and assessments, classroom dynamics, and teaching philosophy. As such, updating your syllabus may result in updating these other classroom components, and vice versa.

1. Use cooperative "we" and "our" language where possible.

Why

This simple change of language can indicate that your course is an inclusive, co-created, and cooperative space where both instructor(s) and students have ownership. This helps students feel welcome, and can encourage students to participate at a higher level, taking on more responsibility in the course.

How

Consider the beginning of your syllabus, where you set a tone for the course. For example, instead of referring to “the classroom” or even “my classroom”, consider using “our classroom”. Or, instead of placing behavioral expectations solely on students with phrases like, “Students will communicate respectfully…” consider setting an expectation that everyone will do this by stating, “We will communicate respectfully…”

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Example

In an example syllabus for a fictional course, instances of cooperative language are highlighted and in italics throughout the document. The use of “we” and “our” frames class outcomes and other commitments as shared responsibilities between everyone involved in the course.

For example, the course description includes the following:

In addition, we’ll also learn about the basics in economic, social and foreign policy and bring in current issues and show how they illustrate the process. Everyone’s informed and respectful opinions are welcome and encouraged in our discussions!

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Can you share how you are using cooperative language? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Further Reading

  • Gurung, R. A. R., & Galardi, N. R. (2022). Syllabus Tone, More Than Mental Health Statements, Influence Intentions to Seek Help. Teaching of Psychology, 49(3), 218–223. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628321994632. Available through the UW Libraries.
  • Womack, A.-M. (2017). Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi. College Composition and Communication, 68(3), 494–525. Available through the UW Libraries. 

2. Simplify the language you use to describe the course.

Why

Describing your course in simpler or friendlier terms can help students better understand the course goals, and connect the course to their own lives and goals.

How

Keep your course description from the course guide, as it is a required syllabus component. (See more about Syllabus Requirements from the Provost’s Office.) Below the official description, describe your course in your own terms, using language that’s appropriate to a novice. Then consider components of your course that are most appealing and engaging to students. Consider what past student evaluations have indicated, and what you know from past experience. Highlight these components in your description. Finally, consider where you can use bullet points and simplify your language to make it easier to interpret quickly.

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Example

While an official course description is required in a syllabus, and must meet certain requirements, an instructor can add their own description that is less formal, uses simpler language, and may be more appealing to students.

For example, a syllabus may include the official description from the timetable, and add a paragraph that includes:

This course will help you understand how our government works, and how you can effectively participate in it. You will get to examine your own political views and roles, and those of your family and friends. In addition, we’ll also learn about the basics in economic, social and foreign policy and bring in current issues and show how they illustrate the process. Everyone’s informed and respectful opinions are welcome and encouraged in our discussions!

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Can you share how you are using cooperative language? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Further Reading

  • Womack, A.-M. (2017). Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi. College Composition and Communication, 68(3), 494–525. Available through the UW Libraries.

3. Format the syllabus for the web and mobile devices.

Why

In many courses, students will primarily interact with your syllabus online, rather than as a print document. In addition, students increasingly access course materials on mobile devices, particularly information they want to consult “on the go” like policies, due dates, or readings. Make sure students can easily access your syllabus online and on a mobile device to provide more access to more students more conveniently.

How

Typically, formatting your syllabus as a Google Doc, Google Site, Canvas Page, or other webpage makes the syllabus easily accessible on a variety of devices. Another option is to include a viewable or linked document (like a Word document, Google Doc, or PDF) within a Canvas Module or Page, instead of a document that must be downloaded. Within your document or webpage, be sure to use headings to structure your document. Once your document is ready, test drive accessing it as a student. In Canvas, use Student View while on your own computer and mobile device. Is the document easy to access from your device’s browser? Are you required to download a document?

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Example

Our fictional example syllabus is a Google Doc, instead of a Word Document or PDF or Canvas Page. This Google Doc can be shared with students by email before the class starts, so they have access to the syllabus without needing to login to Canvas. The Google Doc also does not require students to download a file in order to view the syllabus.

A Google Doc also be used to allow students to comment on the syllabus, or even contribute to it, if desired.

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Can you share how you are using cooperative language? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Further Reading

4. Replace some text with images and graphical organization.

Why

Traditional syllabi are text-heavy, and can alienate students with under-developed reading comprehension skills. There is growing evidence that more incoming students will struggle with this skill exiting high school based on their learning experiences during the pandemic. Formatting a syllabus to rely less on text and be easier to interpret visually will benefit these students in particular, but can also make your syllabus more memorable for everyone.

How

Consider breaking up and punctuating long text passages with images or additional graphical organization, like bullet points or table. Can you convey some information in ways other than text? Adding some illustrations, cartoons, or even your own scribbles to a syllabus can help set a welcoming tone and engage students. Keep in mind that images that are not solely decorative must include alternative text for students who use screen readers.

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Examples

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Can you share how you are using more visual elements in your syllabus? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Further Reading

5. Introduce yourself in an approachable way and set expectations for communication.

Why

Your syllabus is your students’ first impression of you and the course. Start by helping students connect with you personally, and know how to communicate with you and when to expect a response. Students may enter your course with vastly different experiences and understandings of the benefits (and norms) of communicating with instructors – especially faculty. In particular, first-generation college students can benefit from a clear invitation to speak with them about both class material and their general educational goals.

How

Consider sharing information about yourself that helps students connect their own experience to yours. This may include your academic and work experiences, research and scholarly interests, personal interests and hobbies, your experience in this and other geographical locations, and information about your family or pets. You can also use any of these points to solicit input from students. Also include your preferences for how, when, and why students communicate with you. This could include a preference for email, an invitation to office hours, an expected response time, and more.

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Example

In the example below, Bucky invites students to share something specific with them, and provides clear expectations about communication.

I look forward to learning with you this semester. My research focuses on the formation of personal political identities, and how these impact voter behavior. I’m always happy to share and hear ideas! Outside of academics, I enjoy running and hiking, reading, and food. I’d love to hear your restaurant or recipe recommendations. Attending my office hours is a great way to connect with me. These can be virtual or in person. You can also email me, and I will do my best to respond within 24 hours.

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How have you introduced yourself and set expectations for communication? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Further Reading

6. Avoid deficit language.

Why

When we focus on what not to do, or how not to behave, we miss opportunities to model and positively reinforce successful actions, behaviors, and mindsets for students. Deficit or punitive language also focuses students on negative aspects of the class and their behavior, rather than on meeting expectations. Deficit language is particularly negative for students who are already experiencing stereotype threat or imposter syndrome.

How

Using deficit language is especially common in how we talk and write about policies and expectations for students, so focus your efforts on these parts of your syllabus. Where it is possible, explain any policies and why they are important in your own words, while linking out to any boilerplate language or including it at the end of the document. Consider rewriting your expectations (and perhaps reconsidering your course policies) to indicate standards you want, expect, and believe students will meet, rather than things students shouldn’t do.

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Example

The late work policy below communicates a positive expectation, indicates openness to flexibility, and communicates why handing work in on time is important.

I expect all work to be submitted on time, and due dates and times will be posted in Canvas. I use due dates to keep the whole class motivated and on track for the semester. This is especially important for our exams and research paper, where due dates are essential to me providing feedback and final grades on time. Overall, I believe that learning to proactively manage your time to meet deadlines is important, and I am confident we can all do this. However, sometimes things don’t go as we plan. I will accept late work at my discretion, as long as you notify me ahead of time that you require an extension and provide a reasonable alternate due date.

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Can you share how you have reduced deficit language in your syllabus? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Further Reading

  • Womack, A.-M. (2017). Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi. College Composition and Communication, 68(3), 494–525. Available through the UW Libraries.
  • Young-Jones, A., Levesque, C., Fursa, S., & McCain, J. (2021). Autonomy-supportive language in the syllabus: Supporting students from the first day. Teaching in Higher Education, 26(4), 541–556. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2019.1661375. Available through the UW Libraries.

7. Add disciplinary and course-specific context for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Why

Helping students understand disciplinary practices can help them feel like they belong within an area of study. In particular, helping students see DEI as an important disciplinary lens centers diversity in your classroom, rather than treating it as a one-off topic. Acknowledging that people with different identities and backgrounds will make sense of and contribute to a discipline differently can help students from underrepresented groups feel that their presence is valued.

How

Consider adding an additional statement to your syllabus that explains how DEI influences your discipline. This statement can stand alone, or be part of your course description or personal statement. Questions you might consider include: Historically who has been included or excluded from your discipline? What identities are represented by authors and authority figures in your discipline? Why, and what impact does this have? Why is diversity important to your discipline now? What impact might your area of study have on equity in the local community or higher education?

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Example

In the example below, the syllabus includes information about how diversity, equity, and inclusion have implicitly and explicitly shaped the course contents.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are relevant not just for our classroom environment, but also for the topics we will consider in this course, and this discipline. Historians, librarians, archivists, reporters, politicians, political scientists, and social scientists make decisions every day in their work about who is or is not included. Different people also bring different perspectives to the discipline based on their own identities. Questions we might ask this semester include:

  • Who has historically been included and excluded from our government
  • Who makes “the rules” and why? 
  • Even as the rules change, what barriers, assumptions, and biases persist? 
  • How do identity and inclusion impact personal politics? 
  • Whose stories are told in the media and why?

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Can you share how you are adding context for diversity, equity, and inclusion to your syllabus? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Further Reading

  • Fuentes, M. A., Zelaya, D. G., & Madsen, J. W. (2021). Rethinking the Course Syllabus: Considerations for Promoting Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Teaching of Psychology, 48(1), 69–79. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320959979. Available through the UW Libraries

8. Adopt and communicate flexible, fair course policies.

Why

During the pandemic, instructors adopted more flexible course policies to help students better meet their academic, family, personal, and employment needs simultaneously. Research shows that all students, but particularly structurally disadvantaged students, benefit from this flexibility. Most frequently, flexible policies are implemented in areas like due date extensions, accepting late work, excusing absences, alternative ways to participate and complete assessments, and dropping some portion of the lowest homework or quiz grades. All of these flexibilities can reduce pressure on students for any individual assignment or interaction, while still positively reinforcing positive performance overall.

How

Consider your policies around late work, attendance, participation, and grading. Where can you be more flexible without complicating your own workload, and while keeping true to your course expectations and teaching philosophy? For example, allowing late work at the end of the semester may not be possible in order to allow you time to grade. However, allowing late work with advance notice at other times of the semester may offer students flexibility, while still encouraging them to complete the work, and without complicating your workflow in grading.

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Example

Some instructors build in flexibility by allowing students to drop their lowest scores for formative assessments, as shown below.

For our weekly discussion activities, worksheets, and quizzes, you will be allowed to drop your lowest score for each of these categories. I make this exception because all of us get sick, or just have bad days. I hope this accommodation will allow you to fully participate without being afraid of making mistakes or getting too far behind.

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Can you share how you have added more flexibility to your course policies? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Further Reading

9. Share your responsibilities and commitments to students.

Why

The syllabus documents your expectations for students. An inclusive syllabus also documents what students can expect from you, the instructor. This change is part of centering students’ learning, experiences, and voices in your course, and can help students feel more positively and more supported in the course. This is also an opportunity to share your own enthusiasm for designing, curating, and teaching this course and this material.

How

Add language to your syllabus that details what students can expect from you in terms of communication response timelines, meeting accommodation needs, flexibility around deadlines, communication style, openness to feedback, and other components of your teaching philosophy.

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Examples

See page 7, “Teaching Philosophy” in Dr. Kristof-Brown’s graduate-level syllabus from the University of Iowa.

In another example, a professor includes a statement in their introduction as follows:

As your instructor, I am committed to creating a classroom environment that welcomes all students, regardless of race, gender, religious beliefs, etc. We all have implicit biases, and I will try to continually examine my judgments, words, and actions to keep my biases in check and treat everyone fairly. I hope that you will do the same, that you will let me know if there is anything I can do to make sure everyone is encouraged to succeed in this class.

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Can you share how you have done this? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Further Reading

  • Nusbaum, A. T., Swindell, S., & Plemons, A. (2021). Kindness at First Sight: The Role of Syllabi in Impression Formation. Teaching of Psychology, 48(2), 130–143.https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320959953. Available through the UW Libraries

10. Support students in revision, reflection, and growth.

Why

Being able to learn from mistakes, revise thinking, master new studying habits, and reflect on learning are key skills for students to become successful in higher education. Both students’ beliefs in their own ability to learn and change, and their awareness of instructors’ beliefs in them, are essential to increasing a sense of belonging, reducing imposter syndrome, and encouraging resilience. Regular reinforcement of these skills helps students succeed academically, within a specific course and across courses. This reinforcement is particularly important for any students who did not gain these skills and beliefs in high school.

How

Include language in your syllabus that clearly conveys your belief in learning, growth, and gradual mastery of what you teach, and your confidence that all students are capable of this. Consider also sharing curated advice, perhaps from past students, for success in your course. Within your syllabus or elsewhere in your course, share and contextualize academic support resources for students, and normalize using these resources.

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Examples

In Anne-Marie Womack’s Accessible Syllabus, quotes from past students are used to highlight successful behavior. For example, one student is quoted as saying:

“Come to class everyday… discussions are crucial for success. Review old notes while writing essays to add elements we learned in class. This will boost your grade significantly.”

In a second example, an instructor emphatically communicates their belief in students’ ability to learn.

As your instructor, I believe that everyone can be successful in this course. Through the semester, we will learn together – sometimes by making mistakes first.

 

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Can you share how you are supporting students in revision, reflection, and growth? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Further Reading

Bono, G., Reil, K., & Hescox, J. (2020). Stress and wellbeing in urban college students in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Wellbeing, 10(3), Article 3. https://www.internationaljournalofwellbeing.org/index.php/ijow/article/view/1331

Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science Advances, 5(2), eaau4734. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aau4734. Available through the UW Libraries

Muenks, K., Canning, E. A., LaCosse, J., Green, D. J., Zirkel, S., Garcia, J. A., & Murphy, M. C. (2020). Does my professor think my ability can change? Students’ perceptions of their STEM professors’ mindset beliefs predict their psychological vulnerability, engagement, and performance in class. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(11), 2119–2144. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000763.  Available through the UW Libraries

Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students Believe That Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2012.722805. Available through the UW Libraries

11. Provide access to the syllabus before the semester starts.

Why

Providing access to your syllabus early can help students see how your course will fit with their other obligations, come to know your teaching style, and get excited about the goals and content of the course.

 

How

Share your syllabus with students a few days to a week before the course begins through a welcome email to the class Email List, or an Announcement in the Canvas course. Make sure that your syllabus is accessible to students before the course begins. This could be within a Canvas course that is published and available before the semester start, or as a website, Google site, or document that doesn’t require login. If using an Announcement within Canvas, you will also need to make sure that your course is published and available to students before the semester begins.

12. Solicit input, feedback, or reflection on the syllabus.

Why

First, if your course involves co-instructors, teaching assistants, lab monitors, graders, or other instructional partners, make sure they have a chance to help review and craft your syllabus before it is finalized for students. Additionally, an activity that helps students interpret the syllabus at the start of the semester, while also gathering feedback or helping students connect their own goals to the syllabus, can help you continue to improve your syllabus.

How

Consider using a syllabus-related group activity on the first day of your class, where groups must locate answers to several questions, present them back to the class, and submit additional questions and ideas about course policies. As an alternative individual activity, you can create a short syllabus quiz, with optional reflective questions that ask students to connect your course content or outcomes to their own goals.

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Example

Consider building an activity like the Syllabus scavenger hunt from Oakland University.

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Can you share how you are actively using your syllabus during the semester? Do you have a suggestion for improving this strategy? Have you tried this strategy and seen a change in your course? Please share your examples, stories, and thoughts with us so we can learn from you.

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Additional Recommendations and Resources

  • Review general syllabus guidance and requirements from the Office of the Provost.
  • Use sample supportive syllabus language from UHS. Help your students learn about resources to support their health, and help normalize use of these resources to get help.
  • Consider using our Canvas Course Orientation 2.0 Module Template. This template provides a structure within Canvas in which you can distribute your syllabus and provide additional supportive content to get students started in your course.
  • The Center for Teaching, Learning, and Mentoring (CTLM) offers workshops in person and online that can help you build a more inclusive classroom environment, communicate more transparently with students, diversify your course materials, and more. See CTLM events on their website.
  • Consider adopting an openly-licensed textbook or providing other free or reduced-cost options for students to access your course materials. IDC Staff can help you identify and evaluate options. Schedule a consultation using the button below, or learn more about Open Education Resources through the UW Libraries.

Connect with Help

If you have questions about making your syllabus or other elements of your course more inclusive, we can help. IDC staff can help you design activities and assessments, use technologies in your teaching, gather and use feedback from students, and more.

Schedule a Consultation

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Greg Downey, Lori Lopez, and Lynne Prost for their contributions. This resource was compiled by the L&S Instructional Design Collaborative with the support of Shirin Malekpour and L&S Teaching and Learning Administration.

 

Created August 2022