How Do I Write an Inclusive Syllabus?
A good syllabus begins the process of establishing high-quality relationships with our students. It is an entry point into the classroom community and sends messages to our students that affect how our students may perceive us. We can use the syllabus as a starting point to create an inclusive and supportive learning environment, to set the tone for the course; to motivate students; to highlight our pedagogical practices; and to tell students what they will learn and do, and how they will succeed in the course. For required syllabus components, see UMass Faculty Senate Course Instructional Guidelines.
These six intersecting principles of an inclusive syllabus offer a scaffolding framework for the (re)design of syllabi grounded in a review and synthesis of relevant literature (Helmer, 2021):
Six Principles of Inclusive Syllabus
- Essential Questions
- UDL Connections
- Inclusive Motivating Language
- Supportive Course Policies
- Accessible Design
As you think about (re)designing your syllabus, consider using the Inclusive Syllabus Template, the CTL Handout: Inclusive Course Policies & Syllabus Statements, and the CTL Handout: Six Principles of an Inclusive Syllabus for guidance. Also see the CTL “Deeper Dive” on Inclusive Syllabus Design.
STRATEGIES & EXAMPLES
Make the Syllabus Learning-Focused
Review and analyze your syllabus for its orientation. You might ask yourself: Where do you see a focus on content? Where do you focus on the learner and supporting students’ learning? For example, do you describe the learning objectives using specific action verbs that tell students what they should be able to do as learners in this course? Do the learning objectives focus only on the content? If so, can you add some that address important learning processes? Do you explain how the learning objectives connect with the assignments and assessments?
Shift the focus from content to learning and the learner. Let students know how they will engage with the course content and what they need to do to master the content. Provide a description of the type of learning environment you intend to cultivate. Add information about resources that will support your students’ learning. Let students know what they can expect from you. Offer students a statement about the values and expectations that guide your teaching and that are important for students’ success in your course.
The following rubrics and worksheets can help you review the orientation of a course syllabus:
To get students read your syllabus carefully, you can have students annotate the syllabus or ask them to post to an online discussion forum or a chat channel what they find helpful or confusing in the syllabus.
Provide a Narrative of Learning Through the Course
Begin with an engaging course description that piques students’ interest and curiosity. Think about why you want students to care about this course. Why does learning the course content matter? How is it relevant? What are the intriguing ideas, problems and big themes that you will explore with your students throughout the course?
Let students know how this course is relevant in connection to other classes. Include information about prerequisites and explain how this course fits into a particular course or program sequence, or General Education curriculum area. If this is a General Education course, make sure you include a GenEd course statement.
Use intriguing questions to guide the narrative. The use of questions signals to students that they will be actively engaged in problem- and inquiry-based learning, that it is okay to ask questions, and that their input and their voices matter (Eberly, Newton, & Wiggins, 2001).
Apply Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
A syllabus that reflects UDL principles allows students to see how you intend to create a flexible learning environment that provides students with multiple paths for engagement, learning and success. See this UDL Rubric for Evaluating Your Course Syllabus.
Provide options for accessing and engaging with content through multiple formats and modalities. Indicate how you will present content in multiple ways beyond printed text through various formats (for example, in the form of images, graphics, videos, blogs, podcasts, or websites that feature real-world applications of content). Consider how you could provide opportunities for students to access and engage with the content in different modalities, e.g., in person or online.
Consider providing options and choices for assessments and assignments. What opportunities can you provide for students to draw on their prior knowledge and life experiences as well as their interests and passions? How could they contribute to the course content? Consider how students can demonstrate their learning and the achievement of learning outcomes in various ways that go beyond quizzes, exams, or written papers, for example through video productions, oral presentations, projects, performances, or the creation of products.
Help students plan, prioritize, and understand the connection between content, learning objectives, learning activities, and assessments. Create an easy-to-read detailed course schedule that provides information about what students can expect to learn during a class session, what they need to do to be prepared for class, and when assignments will be due. Label particularly important information as "Important". Add to the assignments that you describe the learning objectives addressed by these.
Use Warm and Inclusive Language
Consider the general tone and rhetoric. The language we choose and the way we frame course content, student engagement, and our course policies communicate explicitly and implicitly our values, expectations, and how we view our students as learners. A positive, respectful, and inviting tone throughout the document that addresses the students as competent and engaged learners fosters motivation.
Use personal pronouns. One simple but powerful shift is to use personal pronouns (e.g., I, you, we, us) instead of the traditional “the students,” “the course,” or “they.”
Choose learner-friendly language. Consider replacing the headings in your syllabus, such as Course Overview, Assignments and Due Dates, or Grading with ones that are learning-oriented. Headings such as “What will you learn in this course?”, “What will help you to be successful in this course?”, “What will you be doing?” or “How will your learning be assessed?” provide signposts for your students and directly address the questions your students may have. In addition, avoid using acronyms and academic or discipline-specific language without explaining them.
Choose words that invite, encourage, and support. Replace negative and punitive language that positions students as potential rule breakers with positive language.
|I encourage you to…||Students must…|
|You have the opportunity to…||I only accept…|
|Late work is eligible for partial credit of 60||Late work will be penalized by a reduction of 40%.|
|It is important that you attend every class session. Otherwise, you will miss out on the many learning activities that we will engage in. If you have to miss a class, let’s talk about how you can make up missed work.||Students are expected to attend every class session. Unexcused absences will result in a lower grade.|
|The following course values will guide our interactions and help you learn.||Students are expected to comply with the following course policies, or will face consequences.|
Write Learner Supporting Course Policies and Syllabus Statements
Reframe course policies in ways that communicate support and interest in students’ success. To optimize motivation and facilitate personal coping skills, help students understand the rationale behind expectations, values, and policies. Provide information about helpful resources.
You can find sample inclusive course policy and syllabus statements in the Inclusive Syllabus Template or in the CTL Handout: Sample Inclusive Course Policies and Syllabus Statements.
Create a Disability Accommodation and Inclusive Learning Statement. Signal to your students that you acknowledge that all students learn differently and that you are willing to provide needed supports for all students so that they can succeed. Include hyperlinks to important student service resources on campus, such as the Disability Services office, the Writing Center, the Learning Resource Center, the Student Success website, the Center for Psychological Services and Counseling, and the ESL program for non-native speakers of English. Add links to resources offered by your college and department. Consider placing the inclusive learning statement in a prominent place in your syllabus, not at the end.
Write a diversity, equity and inclusion statement. Let your students know how you intend to shape a positive class climate that will provide students with a sense of belonging within a mutually supportive community where differences are respected and valued. You can find a variety of examples online that you can adapt to fit your own personality, teaching style and philosophy, and disciplinary context:
- Sample Diversity and Inclusion Statements compiled by The Sheridan Center at Brown University
- Diversity and Inclusion Syllabus Statements - San Diego State University
- Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University
Craft an office hour statement that motivates students to meet with you. Explain to your students why office (or student) hours matter and what they can gain from meeting with you. Consider offering flexible and/or virtual meeting hours. As students work on projects, presentations, or other assignments, consider offering group meetings to support students. These are a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate your availability, caring, and support.
Write an explanatory Academic Honesty Statement. Explain what plagiarism is and is not, let students know that they can consult with you to clarify any points of confusion. Provide hyperlinks to the UMass Amherst Academic Honesty Policy or an external resource, such as the Purdue Owls Online Writing Lab - Plagiarism Overview. See our page on How do I support students in maintaining academic during exams?
Include an inclusive Name and Pronoun Statement. Students at UMass Amherst have the opportunity to identify their chosen names and pronouns. See a Sample Statement by the Stonewall Center. To learn more read: UMass Pronoun Policies and Practices for Instructors - Genny Beemyn, Stonewall Center.
Use flexibility for attendance and deadlines as appropriate. Fixed deadlines and strict mandatory attendance policies often function as barriers to student success. Think about when deadlines and attendance truly matter. Where can you offer flexibility through built-in extended time for exams/quizzes, extended deadlines or an allotted number of late days for some assignments? See Janice Carello's Trauma Syllabus for examples.
Add a Wellness and Success Statement. Let your students know that you care about them and that many resources are available for them on our campus to help them thrive and succeed. See UMatter at UMass: Culture of Caring and other downloadable UMatter at UMass mental health and wellness tools.
Ensure Document Accessibility
Create an easy-to-read and navigate syllabus. Assign styles (Title, Heading 1, Heading 2) to establish a hierarchical structure within the document that you can use to create a table of contents or online navigation pane. Create document-internal hyperlinks to connect to information located later in the document. Add hyperlinks to external resources to provide easy access to academic and social support services on campus as well as administrative information. Make sure to use informative link labels (e.g., the title of the page) to indicate where a link goes.
Follow recommended practices for accessibility. Highlight and focus attention, enhance clarity, strengthen the organization of your syllabus. Use short paragraphs, bullets and numbered lists, and tables. Add visual interest to your syllabus by trading some text for accessible images and visual representations of content. Describe images by adding alt-text. Explore these resources for further suggestions:
- Tulane University - Accessible Syllabus
- Google tips for making your document or presentation more accessible
- Microsoft Accessibility Checker
See our CTL Webinar - Video Series - Inclusive Syllabus Design for more resources.
Eberly, M. B., Newton, S. E., & Wiggins, R. A. (2001). The syllabus as a tool for student-centered learning. Journal of General Education, 50(1), 56-74. https://doi.org/10.1353/jge.2001.0003
Helmer, K. (2021). Six principles of an inclusive syllabus design. In R. Kumar & B. Refaei (Eds.), Equity and inclusion in higher education : strategies for teaching. University of Cincinnati Press.
Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beyond laying out the content and structure of a course, a well-designed inclusive syllabus offers a pathway of learning through your course, providing signposts for students about what they will learn and do and what they need to know to succeed in the course.
A well-designed, detailed syllabus serves as a roadmap of the course for both instructor and student and decreases a number of problems that may arise. It also shows students that you take your teaching seriously and that you care about their learning.
Practices and strategies that you can use to help you and your students talk in ways that support positive engagement and minimize harm and unproductive conflict