Designing an Accessible Syllabus
Our students' learning experiences should be equitably designed so that they reach leaners of all different styles and backgrounds. We can think of creating equitable classroom experiences in alignment with Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a set of principles for curriculum development that encourage flexible learning approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individuals' needs. According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, there are three core guidelines to consider:
- Provide multiple means of representation
- Provide multiple means of engagement
- Provide multiple means of action & expression
As you consider designing your syllabus, you'll want to think about providing "multiple means of representation" for your students. That way, all of your students have equal access to the important course information. After all, not every student will be able to process gigantic blocks of text; similarly, not all students will be able to navigate even th most visually-appealing paper syllabus.
This page will offer some quick tips for making your syllabus adhere to UDL principles. Information on this page is compiled based on articles from UDL On-Campus, a project from CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization, and Accessible Syllabus, a project designed by faculty and students at Tulane University.
Designing & Placing Text in Your Syllabus
We can really take text for granted, but it's important to think carefully about how you're displaying the text. Here are some suggestions to consider as you write the text for your syllabus:
- Keep paragraphs as concise as possible. Much of the information we are tempted into the syllabus would be easier for students to access elsewhere (e.g. the titles of readings) or for students to receive at a later day (e.g. major assignment descriptions and dates). The syllabus is already a document that students have a challenging time reading, so keeping the information as short as possible and prioritizing what you really want to frame your course is critical. Aim for writing paragraphs that are 2-4 sentences long.
- Include headers and/or clear document hierarchy. Dividing your syllabus into clear sections gives students the ability to skim your syllabus with ease and know where to find the most important pieces of information.
- Include hyperlinks and text that students can manipulate. It is important to create a digital version of your syllabus so that students can follow key hyperlinks to get more information (e.g. about resources they need to purchase, about on-campus facilities they may want to use). It is also important to give students a digital version of your syllabus so that they can enlarge text or change the colors in the text if they need to do so for their ability to read and process information.
- Divide the organization of your syllabus into two columns (rather than one long block of text). By organizing a lot of your syllabus information into columns, the amount of words per line will be shorter and, therefore, easier to access for students who may learn better by processing information in smaller chunks.
- Be judicious about your use of bold text; pay attention to what factors in your syllabus you want to highlight. Many instructors may wish to put deadlines or penalties for tardiness in bold. Highlighting these parts of the syllabus, however, may emphasize the punishment rather than your willingness to communicate with students or accommodate particular needs.
For more on displaying text in your syllabus, check out this page of information on text use from Accessible Syllabus.
Using Images in your Syllabus
Incorporate images into your syllabus to help students get a visual understanding of the course material and content. Some examples of images to include may be:
- Pictures to represent key concepts, texts, or people that you'll study in the course
- Images of logos to represent the tools or technologies that you'll use that will be key for course communications and infrastructure
- Pie or bar graphs to represent the grading scale
Note that you should ALWAYS offer a text-only option of your syllabus to students who may prefer reading in that format. We cannot assume that all students will find images very useful. Perhaps of even greater importance, students who use screen readers will struggle to read image-heavy syllabi. Therefore, be sure to offer your syllabus in a completely text-driven form in addition to the image-heavy form.
For more on using images in your syllabus, check out this page of information on image use from Accessible Syllabus.
Placing Language About Accommodations
Many instructors will put language about accommodations and services at the end of the syllabus. However, by placing language about accommodations throughout the entire syllabus, instructors emphasize their commitment to inclusion. For example, you might place language about your commitment to inclusivity (in the form of an Inclusivity Statement; see the link for best practices on developing an inclusivity statement) at the very top of the syllabus. When you get to your course's major assignment sequences, you could decide to place the description of on-campus resources available to students at that point in your syllabus. In other words, language about accommodations should not be a mere afterthought, but rather should be a consideration throughout your syllabus design process.
For more to this point, see UDL On Campus' Syllabus Guide.