Your syllabus sets the tone for your course. It can signal an orientation toward inclusion
or it can set the stage for exclusions. While it may be tempting to think of the syllabus
as a contract or a set of non-negotiables, an inclusive approach views the syllabus
as a vehicle for communication.
Here are some good practices and examples for incorporating inclusive design and design
justice in and through your syllabus:
Reevaluate Your Policies
Who benefits and who is most harmed by your syllabus policies? Sharing a story about
a young mother who missed an emergency call about her daughter’s hospitalization because
of a class cell phone policy, Cheney asks whether authoritarian policies risk harming students who are already dealing with
enormous barriers to their education. He suggests reflecting on the following questions:
- What’s the tone of your syllabus? Do negative commands overwhelm positive invitations?
- Is the premise of the syllabus that students are untrustworthy?
- Are your policies designed to punish more than to support? Does the language reflect
Resources and Examples
Prof. Claudia De Grandi shared this statement from her syllabi:
"Your suggestions are always encouraged and appreciated. Please let me know ways to
improve the effectiveness of the course for you personally or for other students or
student groups. In addition, if any of our class meetings conflict with your religious
events, please let me know so that we can make arrangements for you."
Address Basic Needs
Many students in our courses may be dealing with challenges in meeting their basic
needs. According to The Hope Center, “58% [of students] were experiencing basic needs insecurity,” during the pandemic,
with students of color more likely to experience food and housing insecurity (2021,
p. 32). They add, “the percentage of students experiencing some form of basic needs
insecurity was not meaningfully higher in 2020 than in prior years” (2021, p. 36),
indicating that basic needs support has been and will continue to be an important
part of supporting students. We recommend pointing to basic needs support in your
syllabus, as a recognition of its importance to student learning.
Resources and Examples
Prof. Claudia De Grandi shares: “I express the importance of students’ well-being
through classroom guidance: ‘Take care of yourself and be aware of others. Feel comfortable
to engage, as needed, in any activities that reduce stress or anxiety (stimming, support
people, caretaker, support animals, leaving the room for breaks, etc.), but also be
open and aware of other members’ sensitivities.’ And I list all University resources,
also providing some tips on how to navigate all these resources.”
Kurt Gruner notes: “It can help to not only acknowledge the challenges facing students,
but to also connect those challenges with the explicit adjustments you've made to
ameliorate them. Here's what I've included in a recent syllabus:
"This class only works if papers and discussion board posts are done on time, and
the best way to improve is if you submit your work on time so you can reflect on the
edits and suggestions of your peers. That said, I understand that life happens and
that deadlines are missed. For discussion board posts, the lead and response posts
are both required to be on time. If you’d like to submit your response post later
for half credit, reach out to me and we can make it happen. For papers, I will accept
any paper up until the last week of the semester, with the only exception being the
drafts of the final research paper, which involve in-class work."
Go beyond Accessibility
Your syllabus should include information about how students request and gain accommodations
at your institution. Your syllabus can also highlight supports for students that go
beyond accessibility and legally-required supports and demonstrate your commitment
Resources and Examples
Prof. Claudia De Grandi includes this language that goes beyond accessibility:
"It is my goal to provide you with the tools you need to learn, be engaged, and succeed
in my class. I’ll make available multiple resources that you can use as best fits
your learning style. For example, I’ll always post a draft of my slides and lecture
notes before class, and I’ll post a finalized version for each of them after each
class. I’ll record my lectures and make them available by the end of the day on the
course Canvas site. All videos posted on Canvas will be automatically closed-captioned.
I’ll have a break in the middle of each class. Although my class is in-person, I’ll
do my best to provide online alternatives."
Co-design Corner: How might you co-design parts of your syllabus?
Invite students to co-design parts of your syllabus--such as the class’s community
standards, self-reflection guidelines, and final assignment parameters. Being invited
to co-design with their faculty may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable for students--especially
for students who are from marginalized communities and/or who have experienced authoritarian
schooling. You will need to work to build trust with them and help create the conditions
for students to participate fully. This work will likely need some time, so plan to
dedicate class time and perhaps to assign engagement with the syllabus outside of
- Amy Collier and her co-instructor Sarah Lohnes Watulak, invited students to annotate
their syllabus for an online, winter-term course in 2021 as part of their week 1 activities.
- Prof. Claudia De Grandi ends her syllabus with openness, indicating that the syllabus
is just the start of a conversation. She shares feedback given from students in previous
versions of the class, invites conversation about the class, and provides an anonymous
online form where students can submit feedback to her anytime. She keeps open and
checks it regularly.
We often think of course content as immutable, shaped by the contours of our discipline
and seminal research in our fields. This may mean that much of the content with which
students are engaging--readings, videos, etc.--may heavily feature white, male, heterosexual,
global north, colonial perspectives.
Inclusive design and design justice invite us to rethink our course content selections,
asking, “Who might be harmed by a lack of diverse perspectives in my field?” To be
more inclusive, re-evaluate the content you choose, the formats in which you offer
it, and the financial costs to students.
Intentionally Select Diverse Experts and Authors
“Decolonizing the curriculum should also address the materials used in the course.
This process involves expanding our notions of good literature so it doesn’t always
elevate one voice, one experience, and one way of being in the world. It is about
considering how different frameworks, traditions and knowledge projects can inform
each other, how multiple voices can be heard, and how new perspectives emerge from
mutual learning.” - Keele University
The course content selection process should be done with great care--not as a checklist
for diverse authors, but instead as a careful validation of the work of diverse experts
and authors, and perhaps a decanonization of experts and authors who have caused significant harm to marginalized communities through their work.
Consider Affordable Course Materials, Such as Open Educational Resources (OER)
Purchasing expensive textbooks or course-related software can be a hardship for many
students. As you assemble your course materials for the semester, consider what additional
costs your students will be incurring when taking your class (and then multiply that
figure by the likely number of classes they are taking). Are there free and open materials (textbooks, software, interactive websites) that
would suit your course and help alleviate some of the financial burden?
Not sure where to start with open educational resources? Librarians can be great partners
Offer Course Content in Multiple Modalities
A key tenet of Universal Design for Learning states that we should provide multiple means of representation in our courses. This
tenet largely focuses on the “what” of learning and outlines recommendations for ensuring
that students have multiple options for perceiving and comprehending course content.
This may mean, for example, providing content in multiple modalities. For example:
- If you have course videos, you may also share or extract audio-only versions to offer
alongside the videos.
- If your video is captioned (highly recommended), you may be able to download the captions
and offer a text transcript that students can read.
For more about multiple modalities, see the Approaches to Accessibility section.
Resources and Examples
Kansas State University Professor Michael Wesch creates mixtapes—recordings of weekly course readings and other materials.While helpful and maybe necessary for students who need accommodations, the mixtapes
also provide support for students facing other learning barriers, such as time limitations
due to work or long commutes.
Co-design Corner: How might you co-design parts of your content?
Prof. Claudia De Grandi shares: “I include historical perspectives when possible and portray non-traditional scientists
(e.g. non eurocentric scientists, women, scientists of color, disabled scientists,
LGBTQ etc). Most of this material has been so far either developed or inspired by previous students.”
“Inclusive teaching can mean drawing from a rich set of examples, case studies, and
images that work across cultures, ages, and socioeconomic groups; explaining American
idioms for international students; asking about and using preferred names and pronouns;
and continuing to check in with students about their learning and sense of the class
climate.” - University of Oregon
Classroom dynamics often privilege the students for whom educational experiences have
typically been designed. Being attentive to class climate and inclusion/exclusion
is an important part of providing an inclusive learning experience for learners. An
inclusive class session is one in which all students feel that their contributions
and participation are valued, that they have equitable opportunities to participate
in and to benefit from the class session, and that the language and resources used
in the class are respectful of all students.
Co-create Classroom Norms that Guide Behavior in Class
Classroom norms can help all students understand what behaviors and mindsets are expected
of them during class sessions and what behaviors and mindsets are unacceptable. By
co-creating these class norms with students, you increase the likelihood that students
will share in the ownership and responsibility for class participants’ following those
Use Inclusive Language
The words and language we use in class matter. Intentional use of language shows and
models respect for all students. Faculty may at times feel paralyzed by the fear of
making a mistake. Proactive measures like asking students to write their preferred
name and pronouns on table tents can help, but faculty should also be willing to acknowledge
and seek to rebuild trust when they make a mistake. Be particularly careful with the
use of colloquialisms and jokes that may rely on disrespectful phrases and terms,
and address any problematic language or offensive comments immediately.
Create Opportunities for Students to Check in with Themselves
In Anti-Racism and Universal Design for Learning, Andratesha Fritzgeraldnotes that she invites students to reflect on the question: “What do I need to participate
in this class?”
This question invites students to check in with themselves physically, emotionally,
and mentally; honors the students’ needs; and acknowledges that the material is intertwined
with their learning experience.
Use Structured Discussion Techniques to Support Equitable Discussions
Most class discussions privilege the students who feel comfortable speaking up in
a group or the students who are accustomed to having their voices and perspectives
valued. Structured discussion activities can be used to make discussions more equitable
by creating structures that support all students’ participation in a discussion.
Assessment and Grading
A rigid approach to assessment and grading, often driven by a desire for “rigor,”
can restrict how much flexibility and support faculty feel they can offer students.
Rigid approaches to assessment--especially high stakes assessments--may not fully
capture students’ learning and may propagate practices like surveillance and invigilation,
practices that disproportionately harm marginalized students.
Try a Different Approach to Grading
Consider approaches to grading that increase flexibility, such as ungrading or contract
grading. These approaches provide options for students to decide how much work they
want to complete, to reflect on their learning and the quality/quantity of their work,
and to engage collaboratively with the professor about their grades. There is a bonus
benefit, too, as faculty who have used these approaches say that they have made grading
“fun” and that they don’t plan to go back to traditional approaches to grading.
Rely on Formative Assessments and Feedback
Formative assessments are low-stakes assessments aimed at helping students reflect
on and demonstrate their learning as an opportunity for feedback that helps them improve
or build on what they are learning. Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) are one approach to formative assessment that can be done that provide faculty with
information on students’ learning and provide an opportunity for individual or group
feedback. Formative assessments should provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate
their learning, not just through oral or written means.
Provide Flexibility and Agency in Assessments
A key tenet of Universal Design for Learning is that students should be encouraged and supported to engage in learning through
multiple means of action and expression. As you consider assessments for your courses,
explore offering different ways students can show their learning--not just through
testing and writing. Give students options and agency, including choosing different
formats for assignments and different approaches to demonstrating their understanding.
Co-design Corner: How might you co-design assessment and grading?
- Cate Denial, as part of her approach to ungrading, invites her students to shape the grading standards for each assignment.
- Prof. Claudia De Grandi shares: “I always seek feedback from my teaching team (Teaching Assistant and Learning Assistant)
on most aspects of my class.” She also uses a mid-semester and end-of-semester survey to gather student feedback
that she uses to adapt and improve her course.
Approaches to Accessibility
We often think of accessibility as something we provide when there is an ADA request.
Providing appropriate responses to ADA requests is essential and, rather than seeing
accommodations as responding to a deficit, we should see accommodations as responding to a mismatch between our designs and what a particular student needs. Additionally, making accommodations
available to all students can benefit students who do not have a documented ADA-related
need. Inclusive Design principles remind us of the curb-cut effect--that approaches to inclusion should address the
needs of individuals but can also extend broader benefits.
Provide Content in Multiple Modalities
We might think that offering multiple modalities for course content is a response
to a request for accommodations: a student has a hearing disability, so we provide
captions on course videos. However, course content provided in multiple modalities
can support diverse student needs, as highlighted in the core principles of Universal Design for Learning. For example, captioned and/or transcribed videos can help a student who is an English
Language Learner. An audio version of a reading can help a student who has long commutes
to work or who may need to listen while working or caretaking.
Resources and Examples
Prof. Claudia De Grandi: “For any adjustment/accommodation that I made once for one student, I tried to make
that then universal and available to everyone moving forward (e.g. use a microphone,
enable closed captioning on Zoom, record lectures and post them after class, post
a draft of notes and lecture slides before class and a finalized version after class,
excuse everyone for missing 1 or more of each type of assignments, do not force everyone
to work in a group, let them keep their camera off if they need/want to, etc.).”
Survey Students to Learn about Them and Their Needs
Asking students what they need to be successful in your courses may surface barriers
that students may face. A carefully worded survey can provide helpful insights into
what students may want and need and may help you to offer appropriate resources to
Resources and Examples
Prof. Claudia De Grandi: “I have a survey for all students to share their needs regarding access to resources
(housing, health care, food, mental health, accommodation). I reach out to the students
that seem more in need to welcome them to the class and share resources.”
Co-design Corner: How might you co-design for accessibility?
Prof. Claudia De Grandi shares: “At the beginning of the semester, I individually email all students with an ADA accommodation
and I schedule a quick check-in meeting with them, to discuss how I can best implement
their accommodation and how I can support them in general.”
“As we explore educational innovations made possible by a wider technology adoption
among faculty, we should carefully consider the downstream impacts on equity for our
students and proactively ensure equity at the course level and institutional level.”
- Sarah Lohnes Watulak and Amy Collier
Learning technologies are often viewed as helping or assisting with accessibility
and inclusion in courses, for example, in making multiple modalities of content and
interaction possible. Technologies are not neutral tools, however. They embody and
enact exclusions--they are typically designed for users at the center of the wheel of power and privilege and exclusions are hard-coded into them. The pandemic further exacerbated issues of inequity, when the “continuity of instruction relied on technology, specifically, Internet-enabled
devices such as tablets and laptops.”
The increased uses of invigilation technologies--surveillance technologies--and other
technologies that extract and misuse student data disproportionately impact and harm
Design for Low-bandwidth Users
Video conferencing technology proliferated across higher education institutions and
its use increased significantly during and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While
video conferencing allows faculty and students to interact in real time, simulating
the immediacy of a live classroom setting, it can also exclude students who do not
have the bandwidth, hardware, or other infrastructure needed to participate.
Consider weaving into your course asynchronous activities that use learning technologies
for certain class interactions.
Take Privacy Seriously
Many of the technologies we use in our classes extract and even exploit student data.
This is particularly harmful for marginalized students, whose data is often more heavily
surveilled and who often face predatory and prejudicial practices on digital platforms.
Minimize your students’ exposure to harmful practices by limiting how many technologies
you use in your class and by carefully considering the privacy and data practices
of the technologies you do select. Even technologies that have been vetted and adopted
by your institution can carry significant risks for your students--for example, how
companies handle students’ data often changes when a company is acquired by another.
Consider adding a syllabus statement about privacy so that students are encouraged
to think about how the technologies they use in classes could impact their data privacy.
Resources and Examples
Reconsider Surveillance Technologies
“If we view students as adversaries bent on cheating the system, then of course we’d
want to surveil them to catch their inevitable dishonesty. But students aren’t our
adversaries and they deserve compassion, now more than ever. Rather than engaging
in punitive pedagogy, we might instead start from a place of trust and care for our
students. We can listen to them when they express confusion, frustration, or distress
about educational technologies and support them by creating meaningful assessments
that don’t cause harm.” - Sarah Payne
The surveillance technologies we use in education--such as online proctoring software
and plagiarism detection software--are not only harmful to students (often causing
trauma and mistakenly identifying behaviors they associate with cheating) but they also embody a sense of distrust of students, assuming that students will
Co-design Corner: How might you co-design uses of learning technologies?
Let students choose what technologies they will use or allow them to choose not to
use technology at all for certain class activities and assignments.