Many instructors are exploring ways to write a syllabus to make it more inclusive, anti-racist, decolonizing, humane, learner-centered, just. This page collects many of these ideas into a single resource.
A course syllabus serves multiple purposes. It is a document that communicates the design of a particular course: learning outcomes, a schedule of content covered, instructional activities, assessments (assignments, projects, exams, etc.), grading and feedback practices, and so forth. It communicates a particular mood or tone for a course, and for the instructor(s) leading it, through language choices, the course design, and explicit and implicit statements about the kinds of behaviours that are welcomed in the learning space. It is an informal contract between instructors and learners, a promise about a course’s design that learners can rely upon and that will not change without their consent. And, most importantly, it helps students learn, both by articulating the course’s design and the strategies and steps needed for success.
Yet a syllabus can also be authoritative, controlling, and serve to reinforce a dominant culture’s norms and values. Consequently, many instructors are exploring ways to write a syllabus to make it more inclusive, anti-racist, decolonizing, humane, learner-centered, just. This resource collects many of these ideas into a single document.
It is important to remember that inclusion cannot be reduced to a checklist. It is helpful to have starting places, but building inclusion in teaching and learning, and elsewhere, is an ongoing process that takes continuous time and development.
Floating on the surface Quick and easy shifts
- Humanize yourself for your learners by including a picture, a link to a welcome video, or a welcome letter.
- Include your personal pronouns and encourage (but don’t require) students to share theirs with you.
Syllabus tone and language:
- Use gender-neutral language (e.g., “Every student should bring their own laptop” or “Students should bring their own laptops” not “Every student should bring his/her own laptop”).
- Address learners directly (e.g., “You will read four books” not “Students will read…”).
- Use invitational rather than compliance-based language (e.g., “You are invited to meet with me during student hours.” not “You should attend student hours regularly.”).
- Emphasize important points with graphic design features (e.g., white space, placement at the start of the document) and in-class reinforcement rather than using all uppercase letters in the syllabus document.
- Use your software’s accessibility checker to catch common problems in your syllabus document. You may also wish to check your UM Learn course shell using the Yuja Panorama add-on; to learn more, see the Panorama support website
- Use clear, plain, and jargon-free language wherever possible.
- Explain key concepts, tasks, words and abbreviations that might not be obvious to everyone (e.g. office hours, GPA).
Assessments, grading and feedback:
- Ensure that assignments, tests, and other significant activities do not fall on major faith dates. Develop alternative assessments in case they do.
- Include a way for students to give instructors feedback on the course in-progress through a mid-semester feedback survey, and respond to that feedback directly (even a statement about why you can’t change certain things is a helpful response).
- Reconsider extra credit assignments, as they tend to be of most benefit to students who already have the time, capacity, resources, and/or social supports to complete them.
- Review the authors you cite and try for greater diversity in author identity (e.g., gender, race, nationality, physical ability, body size, etc.).
- Review images used in course materials, and strive for greater diversity in who is represented.
Snorkeling the shallows Medium changes
- For policies around deadlines, find a balance between a recognition of learners’ diverse needs, life situations and commitments, and recognition your own needs as an instructor or as part of an instructional team. Explore ways to offer maximum flexibility while keeping your workload realistic (e.g., an automatic 3-day grace period on assignment deadlines, offering multiple ways of submitting assignments, etc.).
- Write your course policies in learner-centered language, and take the time to explain policies in detail rather than assuming everyone understands the purpose and rationale for particular policies.
- Expand on your institution’s official land acknowledgment with personal commitments and a discussion of how the course engages with the statement you make.
- Explain your commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, and/or anti-oppressive practices in your teaching with a statement on the syllabus.
- Include statements that support a holistic approach to learning, including basic needs statements (food, housing, financial security, etc.) and the connection between physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness.
- Describe student supports in a way that encourages all students to access them, emphasizing their benefit to everyone regardless of ability or affiliation with a specific group.
- Build in timely reminders to students about specific supports throughout the semester (e.g., a reminder about mental health supports at the end of semester when students have many deadlines). Refer back to student supports again should external events emerge (e.g., violent attack, upsetting news story, etc.) that target or impact students from particular groups.
- Explain the purpose of office hours clearly and consider renaming them “learner hours” or “student hours” to encourage learners to use them.
Assessments, grading and feedback:
- Begin to diversify your assessments in terms of type of assessment and weighting of each particular assessment.
- Decrease the number of timed tests and exams in favour of alternative or authentic assessments.
- Explore ways to reduce instructor power and control in grading, such as allowing for some peer- or self-assessment.
- Provide opportunities for learners to revise and resubmit work to address feedback they’ve received.
- Revise learning outcomes to be more holistic in terms of learning, rather than exclusively within the cognitive domain.
- Design assessments that reduce the chance of academic integrity violations, rather than relying exclusively on software that tends to be biased against racialized people and those for whom English is an additional language, and that tends to cause severe anxiety for learners.
- Work towards principles of Universal Design for Learning (1): Leave some weeks open for student choice over particular content or give students options for content each week (e.g., everyone watch this video, and then choose from one of the following two readings).
- Work towards principles of Universal Design for Learning (2): Offer content in multiple formats (e.g., video, reading, infographic, audio, etc.)
- Include content from multiple knowledge systems/ways of knowing and ensure that you’re not simply tokenizing course material from non-dominant cultures and perspectives (i.e., those that are not white/cisgender male/heteronormative/European-origin).
- Consider the cost of content for students: if using a textbook, does the amount of use justify the cost? Would an open educational resource achieve the same ends for a lower cost to students?
- Ask a colleague, teaching assistant, or someone outside your field to review your syllabus looking for things that could be obvious to you but confusing or unknown to others.
- Develop an accessible and welcoming document design, using headers, in-text hyperlinks, white space, and images (with alternative text) as appropriate. Consider digital and flexible options such as UM Learn, Sway, or a website.
Diving the depths Deep commitments
Course design and delivery:
- Co-create large sections of the syllabus with students. You might provide opportunities for learners to decide some of what course content will be covered, the expectations for classroom behaviour, what course policies should be and/or the consequences for not following them, etc.
- Offer multiple modes of participation for in-class activities (e.g., working alone or in groups, active listening as well as speaking, being prepared for class, etc.).
- Consider options for student attendance (e.g., variations on HyFlex (hybrid-flexible) teaching that involve in-person and online options).
Course statements and policies:
- Integrate your commitments as expressed in land acknowledgements and other policy statements into course design and instructional strategies.
- Consider removing attendance requirements and late penalties.
Assessments, grading, and feedback:
- Cede more power to students over their course assessments and grades by using an approach to assessment called “ungrading” (options might include portfolios mastery-based grading, labour-based grading, and other ideas).
- Include learning outcomes that directly foster skills in equity, diversity, and inclusion (e.g. being able to communicate across cultural differences, being able to disagree respectfully, being able to take on perspectives other than one’s own…) and/or that move beyond Western-European taxonomies of learning.
- Allow student choice over form of expression on assignments and ensure learning outcomes are expressed to match (i.e., “express an opinion” rather than “write a position paper”).
- Ensure that course content includes multiple perspectives and ways of knowing, rather than exclusively Western European-derived approaches.
- Enable more individualized, self-directed learning by allowing students to choose their own pathways through the course.
Looking for ideas on how to make your syllabus more inclusive? Check out these instructors’ innovative approaches!
This syllabus makes it clear that content around 2SLGBTQ+ experiences, Indigenous knowledges, cultural humility, and more, are part of professional practice rather than optional extras. It describes the structure of office hours with various options for participation and offers tech support for students rather than assuming they know how to get help.
This syllabus includes subject matter that explicitly values both physical and intellectual ways of knowing. It uses images and QR-code-linked videos to enhance the text, and uses a conversational tone (“you”) that invites the reader in. There are clear explanations for university processes, including the purpose of the syllabus itself.
This syllabus features a tone that is conversational and personal, with headers framed as questions that students would genuinely ask. It includes a variety of assignment types, and a meaningful and personal land acknowledgment that ties into the course itself. Dr. Thorpe also partially co-creates this syllabus with students, particularly focusing on assignments, grade distribution, use of grades at all, deadlines, and methods for engaging with each other.
This syllabus has a creative organization and visual display that is inspired by course content. Assessment of learning happens through ungrading practices, and there are embedded links throughout. The syllabus is also licensed under Creative Commons so that other instructors can adopt and adapt.
This syllabus includes meaningful and thorough integration of Indigenous ways of knowing that puts Indigenous and Western ways on an equal standing. There are options for student expression in assignments, and an openness to discussion for assignment deadlines. Course content is also clearly linked to graduate attributes for the profession.
This resource was developed with reference to the following resources:
Brantmeier, Ed, Andreas Broscheid, and Carl S. Moore. 2017. “Inclusion By Design: Survey Your Syllabus and Course Design: A Worksheet.” https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/inclusion-by-design-tool-helps-faculty-examine-teaching-practices/
Case, Kim. 2017. “Syllabus Challenge: Infusing Inclusive Practices.” https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1l6hihdEqbwN0_BkC_xhhtRLtBUV7YuPcymtoWn09uTE/edit?usp=sharing
Helmer, Kirsten. 2018. “Six Principles of an Inclusive Syllabus.” https://www.umass.edu/ctl/resources/deeper-dives/inclusive-syllabus-design
Stanford Teaching Commons. 2022. “Building an Inclusive Syllabus.” https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/explore-teaching-guides/inclusive-teaching-guide/planning-inclusive-course/building-inclusive
Toronto Metropolitan University. (2022). “Diversifying your course syllabus.” https://learn.library.ryerson.ca/diversify-your-syllabus.
This resource was written by Robin Attas with support from Brianne Collins, Jeri Ducharme, Iwona Gniadek, and Colleen Webb.
Duck icon created by Freepik – Flaticon. https://www.flaticon.com/free-icons/duck
Snorkeling icon created by Freepik – Flaticon. https://www.flaticon.com/free-icons/snorkel
Scuba diving icon created by photo3idea_studi. https://www.flaticon.com/free-icons/scuba-diving