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The most important part of inclusive design and design justice is putting your intentions into action. This section serves as a "toolkit" of principles, questions, and examples to help you evaluate every aspect of your courses.


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 this? 

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. 26). 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. 26), 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 to inclusivity.

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."

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 to inclusivity.

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 class.

  • 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.

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 for this!

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.


Class Sessions

“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 norms.

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 Fritzgerald notes 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.

Resources and Examples

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 students.

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.


Learning Technologies

“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 marginalized students. 

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.

Resources and Examples

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.

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 cheat. 


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.

Last Updated: 4/10/24