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Designing an Inclusive Syllabus

First impressions matter, and in many cases, the syllabus is your students’ first introduction to your course. The syllabus can help set the tone for the rest of the course, often before your class has even met. An inviting syllabus can signal to students that they are entering an inclusive learning space, one where they will be supported throughout the course and where their diverse experiences and perspectives will be welcomed. When designed with a focus on inclusivity and transparency, the syllabus can provide students with a clear guide of what they will learn in the course, and how they can demonstrate and monitor their learning. 

This resource is intended to provide a starting point for instructors designing inclusive syllabi. Explore general strategies for inclusive syllabus design, dive deeper into specific syllabus elements, and reflect your current syllabus and re-imagine it with a focus on inclusivity. 

Strategies for Designing an Inclusive Syllabus

Although the syllabus is a document made of many parts, there are overall design strategies that instructors can employ to make their syllabi more inclusive.

1. Foreground Accessibility

Foregrounding accessibility requires thinking about your students’ potential needs and potential barriers to their access. For example, rather than providing the syllabus in only hard copy at the first class, consider also offering an accessible digital version (e.g., using Microsoft Word) so that students might return to the document or use a screen reader as needed. Make use of accessible formatting strategies (such as Headings and Content Formatting in Microsoft Word) so that screen readers can properly read the content of your syllabus and deliver the information to students. (Additionally, Microsoft Word has a built-in accessibility checker feature.) For support with foregrounding accessibility in your syllabus, see the CTL’s Accessibility Resource, as well as Principle 4 in the CTL’s Guide for Inclusive Teaching. Tulane University’s Accessible Syllabus Project is also a great resource for thinking about accessibility and inclusivity in all aspects of syllabus design.     

2. Adopt a Welcoming Tone

While the content of the syllabus and what you say is important, how you say it is equally important. Apart from the information instructors hope to share in the syllabus, their tone can likewise communicate particular values and expectations to their students. For example, lists of what students should not and cannot do in the course may communicate that you do not trust your students to act appropriately in the course. In contrast, communicating to your students what they will learn throughout the course, along with how they will demonstrate that learning, communicates a promise, as Ken Bain (2004) writes in What the Best College Teachers Do. Bain describes the promising syllabus as one that: establishes the promises of the course, explains what students “would be doing to realize those promises… avoiding the language of demands” and lastly, clearly identifies “how the instructor and the students would understand the nature and progress of the learning” (p. 75). 

3. Be Transparent and Explicit

Although you may clearly understand how all the pieces of your course fit together, like why and how certain assessments measure specific learning outcomes, or why a particular set of readings precedes another, these connections may be less clear for your students. The syllabus is an opportunity to be transparent and explicit; for example, how do the course assessments support students’ achievement of specific learning outcomes? Why is the course divided across specific topics? These connections can help students better understand the course structure, while also helping them to further categorize their learning into schemas. For more about transparency in learning and teaching (TILT), as well as examples of what this looks like in action, see the TILT Higher Ed’s webpage and their additional example and resource database

4. Reflect, Revise, and Iterate 

As with all course elements, it’s important to reflect upon, revisit, and iterate your syllabus at the end of a semester. During this reflection, you might consider what worked on the syllabus, along with what questions or areas of the syllabus that required continuous or further clarification. You might also use the CTL’s Inclusive Syllabus Review Tool to help you reflect upon and revise your syllabus for inclusivity. Additionally, consider partnering with your students during the reflective and revision process. In addition to general feedback on the syllabus, you might collaboratively revise syllabus elements with your students. For example, consider asking students to help expand your course reading list by contributing to a shared document for future course iterations; inviting students’ voices around course content, while not only an inclusive and learner-centered practice, can help to diversify your course content and materials. 

Re-Imagining Syllabus Elements for Inclusivity

Many of the syllabus elements in this section may look familiar, and perhaps already appear in your syllabus. But, what are they actually communicating to students? While the previous section offered overall design strategies, the following section helps to put these strategies in action, highlighting how you might make specific syllabi elements more inviting and inclusive.   

Instructor Information 
It’s important for students to know where, how, and when they can contact their instructors. At a basic level, this means including your preferred contact information (e.g., email, office phone number, etc.), along with your office hours and location; you might even consider including information about expected response times (e.g., weekend email response, how long to wait before sending a follow-up, etc.). Being explicit benefits both students and instructors: for students, they will know the best methods of communication and expectations around response times, while for instructors, this helps to set boundaries around response and meeting times early on. This is also an opportunity to talk with students about the purpose and value of office hours, and how they might leverage that time. 

Statement of Values
Perhaps less common on syllabi are statements of values. You might consider including a summarized version of your teaching philosophy. Or, you might include a statement about your commitment to inclusive or anti-racist pedagogies. These statements can help set the tone of your course, and demonstrate what you value in your teaching. You might also consider including a bit of information about your own interest in the course topic and material. Your enthusiasm about a particular topic can help inspire students taking the course, while also helping students get to know you in the process. 

Course Goals and Objectives 
The course goals and objectives are a key part of any syllabus. They are an opportunity for instructors to tell students what exactly they will learn and do throughout the course. Bain (2004) describes this section as the promises, or opportunities: “What kind of questions would [the course] help students answer? What kind of intellectual, physical, emotional, or social abilities would [the course] help them develop?” (75). In this way, course goals and objectives, rather than a list of decontextualized skills or competencies (e.g., “Developing algorithms” vs. “Developing algorithms to identify patterns in large datasets”), can become a roadmap for students, helping them more deeply understand their own learning and role in the course. For further support with designing course objectives, see the CTL’s Course Design Essentials self-paced course, specifically module 2, “Articulating Learning Objectives.”

Assessment 
The syllabus should clearly identify for students how they will demonstrate their learning in the course, and how this work will be assessed. In the “How to Create a Syllabus” guide, Gannon (2018) describes assessment as “the vital practice of telling your pedagogical story: What are your students learning? How well are they learning? How can we prove that learning is occurring?” (n.p.). In this way, assessment and grading policies become less about specific rules, and more about providing students with a roadmap for success. A clear outline of assignments and grading expectations can help students understand what they will do throughout the course, how they will practice and demonstrate learning, and how they will be assessed. A clear and transparent assessment section similarly benefits instructors, as they will often see “less student frustration, anxiety, and/or complaints with a thorough and accessible presentation” in the assessment section of a syllabus (Gannon, 2018, n.p.). For further support with designing course objectives, see the CTL’s Course Design Essentials self-paced course, specifically module 3, “Assessing Student Learning.”

Policies 
There are a number of policies instructors include on a syllabus: attendance, technology, late work, accessibility, etc. While these policies are important, and, in some cases, required, there are ways to communicate expectations that are inviting and clear. Consider being transparent about why you have certain policies in place; for example, if you have a strict attendance policy, you might include a note about the important role of participation and discussion in your course. Additionally, consider how you might “[reframe] ‘accessibility’ as a matter for the entire class — and not just a few student ‘exceptions’ who need to be ‘accommodated’” (Gannon, 2018, n.p). Lastly, consider how you might build in flexibility with your policies, and make that flexibility explicit for all students. 

The policy section of a syllabus is also a great opportunity to partner with your students to co-construct or collaborate on course policies. For example, you could talk with students about the role of technology in the classroom and what kinds of behaviors are appropriate; this discussion could then result in a co-constructed technology policy. This collaboration can leave students feeling a greater sense of agency and ownership over their own learning. It’s helpful to think of the syllabus as a living document, rather than a static one; elements like policies can be returned to and revisited to incorporate students’ diverse perspectives throughout the course.     

Resources to Support Student Success 
In addition to addressing how you, as the instructor, and TAs (when applicable) will support student success throughout the course, the syllabus is also a great place to include other institutional resources for students. Including resources to support students signals to students that you care about their success both in and outside of the classroom, while also showing students where they might turn for further support. Some of these resources might include: 

    • Columbia University Writing Center
      The Columbia University Writing Center offers 1-1 writing support for students at any stage of their writing process, from brainstorming to final drafts.
    • Columbia University Libraries
      The Columbia Libraries offer several areas of support for students, including research support, workshops and training, and more.  
  • Well-Being at Columbia, Office of University Life
    Overview of campus resources, programs, and practical strategies for well-being for Columbia students.
  • Live Well | Learn Well, Undergraduate Well-Being at Columbia
    Comprehensive list of resources for students to maintain their well-being at Columbia. These range from Academic Advising to Inclusion and Belonging.

Course Schedule 
The course schedule gives students a full scope of the roadmap of the course; it is also an opportunity for students to see different elements (e.g., course materials, assessments, learning goals) come together in a clear plan for the semester. The course schedule likewise presents an opportunity for instructors to introduce students to potential information schemas that could further help them categorize their learning. For example, you might consider framing weekly readings by overarching questions, themes, or topics; such an organization would help students begin to make connections between the various course materials and assignments. Lastly, when designing your course schedule, be sure to consult not only the university academic calendar, but other major religious holidays as well. The inclusion of these dates on your course schedule signals to your students that you care, and that you recognize the various identities and perspectives your students are bringing to the course. For guidance on religious holidays, see the Academic Affairs Office Religious Holidays resource page.

Reflecting on Your Syllabi

In closing, there is no perfect example of an inclusive syllabus. You might ask colleagues for examples of their syllabi, or look online for examples within and/or outside your discipline. Ultimately, however, the most inclusive and authentic syllabus is the one written by you, and for and with your learners. An inclusive syllabus should be in your voice and for your audience, tailored to your course. It is, after all, a document for students, with the purpose of helping them see their learning journey throughout the course and understanding how you will help them through. 

As you begin to re-imagine and revise a current syllabus with a focus on inclusivity, a few questions to consider include: 

  • How do you expect or hope your students will use the syllabus? How do they actually end up using the syllabus?
  • What is the tone of your syllabus? How would your students characterize the tone?  
  • In what ways does the syllabus invite students to engage with you and each other? 
  • What values and expectations do you make explicit to students? What might you want to make more explicit?
  • In what ways do your course objectives and assessment encourage student learning?
  • What are the rationales for your course policies? How might you infuse greater transparency and flexibility into your course policies?
  • What resources do you share with students to support their success? What additional resources might you include
  • In what ways does your course schedule provide students with a clear roadmap to the course and their success in it?

In addition to these questions, you might also consider using the CTL’s Inclusive Syllabus Review tool to better determine the inclusivity of your syllabus.

The CTL is here to help!

You don’t have to re-imagine and revise your syllabus alone; the CTL is available for syllabus consultations and support. To request a consultation, email CTLFaculty@columbia.edu.

References & Resources

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press. 

Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.) Accessibility in Teaching and Learning

Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning. (2017). Guide to inclusive teaching.

Gannon, K. (2018, September 12). How to create a syllabus: Advice guide. The Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Gannon, K. (2020). Radical hope: A teaching manifesto. West Virginia University Press.

Germano W. & Nicholls, K. (2020). Syllabus: The remarkable, unremarkable document that changes everything. Princeton University Press. 

Grunert O’Brien, J., Millis, B.J., & Cohen, M.W. (2008). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach, second edition. Jossey-Bass. 

Moore, C.S., Brantmeir, E., & Brocheild, A. (2017). Inclusion by design: Tool helps faculty examine their teaching practice. Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching Strategies from Magna Publications.  

Ross, C. (Host). (2021, February 18). The syllabus with William Germano and Kit Nicholls. (No. 2.3) [Audio podcast episode.] In Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning. Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning.  

University of British Columbia Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology. (n.d.). Inclusive syllabus: What is it?