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Using an accessible syllabus to create an inclusive classroom

As we reach the end of one academic quarter and prepare for the next here at EvCC, you may find yourself thinking about updating the syllabus for one or more of the courses you’ll be teaching. Revisiting a syllabus is always a good opportunity to make some simple changes that can dramatically improve its accessibility. There are already many guides to creating versions of your syllabus that are accessible to students. Taking just ten minutes to follow one of these guides and reformat your syllabus will greatly help students who use assistive technologies, like screen readers or text-to-speech software.

So long as you’re updating your syllabus, though, it’s worth considering a few additional steps that can enhance course accessibility in other ways. None of these will take much time, but collectively they will provide better support for students with disabilities while also establishing an inclusive learning environment that benefits all students.

Add an accessibility statement

This is probably the single easiest thing you can do right now to ensure students know about the resources available to support them. The immediate function of an accessibility statement is to inform students with disabilities that there is an office on campus dedicated to supporting them.

But accessibility statements do far more than simply inform students of their rights and then refer them to support services. They can also communicate your philosophy as a teacher and help establish an inclusive environment for your class. Letting all students know that you want every one of them to succeed in your class is essential to creating conditions that are conducive to genuine learning. Students who need help–whether due to disabilities or for other, unrelated reasons–are often reluctant to ask for it. Using an accessibility statement to speak more broadly about your efforts to include and support all students is one easy way to lower the barriers students may feel prevent them from approaching you.

The Center for Disability Services here at EvCC provides a number of sample statements that you can add to your syllabus. You can use any one of these as a starting point, then modify to suit your particular aims. Or you can craft your own statement that includes essential information about support for students with disabilities while also addressing broader themes of inclusion. For instance, here’s a statement I’ve seen used effectively in the past (modified slightly for EvCC):

Your success in this class is very important to me, and my goal is to create an environment in which you can learn and participate fully. If there are aspects of this course that you feel prevent you from learning or that exclude you in any way, for any reason, please speak with me as soon as possible. Together we can develop strategies that meet your needs and fulfill the requirements of this course. I am always happy to talk with you confidentially after class or during my office hours. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to contact the Center for Disability Services (located in Parts 267) for help in documenting and determining appropriate accommodations for any specific disabilities or needs you have.

Of course, a statement of this kind doesn’t automatically improve the accessibility of the course, but it does signal that you want students to feel included, supported, and well-informed about the options available to them.

Update course policies to support diverse modes of learning

You may have heard of Universal Design for Learning, a general framework for curriculum and course development that seeks to remove the barriers for access and understanding that can affect any student, regardless of disability status. One of the core principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the notion that providing “multiple means of access, assessment, and engagement” will better support all learners.

Fully incorporating UDL principles often requires a sustained effort to rethink and redesign your course, but even when that isn’t feasible you may still be able to adjust some of your course policies or assignments in accordance with UDL. For example, Tulane University’s Accessible Syllabus project suggests a number of ways that you can update course policies to promote accessibility. Among the many possibilities are:

  • Flexible deadlines that give students the opportunity to take more time to complete some assignments
  • Assignments that allow students to develop their own ways to show their achievement of desired learning outcomes (in consultation with you, of course)
  • Grading policies that allow flexibility, choice, and student input

It’s possible some of these may strike you as unsuitable for your class, or incompatible with your philosophy of teaching — and that’s OK. You can no doubt think of other ways to make course policies flexible and supportive that are consistent with your views on teaching. What really matters is the common thread uniting all of these options: the idea that empowering students, acknowledging their agency, and providing them with choices can be an effective way to support their learning. That, in turn, helps establish a classroom climate in which differences can be acknowledged and respected.

Make rhetorical choices that establish an inclusive and welcoming tone

Finally, taking a few minutes to review the language of your syllabus can be well worth the time. Many syllabi adopt a highly impersonal tone that can have the unintended effect of distancing students from the class or even creating resentment and resistance. As the Accessible Syllabus site notes, a number of research studies have demonstrated that syllabus language can have a striking effect on how students perceive their instructors. In some cases, a “cold” or overtly authoritarian tone can actually dissuade students from asking questions or seeking guidance from an instructor. That’s never a desirable outcome — but it’s especially problematic for students with disabilities, who need to know they can approach their instructors for help.

Here are a few suggestions for adjusting syllabus language to be more open and welcoming:

  • Address students directly, using pronouns like “you”. For example, consider phrasing course learning objective in terms that directly signal your students’ involvement and engagement: “In this class, you will learn…” rather than “The student will learn…
  • Emphasize students’ choices whenever possible. Instead of phrasing course rules as prohibitions and emphasizing behaviors you don’t want to see (“You will not be allowed to…“, “Such-and-such will not be tolerated…“), recast the same policies in positive terms that promote the behaviors you do want students to display (“I encourage you to…“).
  • Use cooperative and collaborative language that promotes a sense of community, shared responsibility, and mutual respect.
  • Write in the first person. There’s really no point in trying to hide that you’re the teacher, so you might as well  acknowledge the syllabus is a document you have written to communicate with your students!

Not every course policy can be translated into an expression of sunny optimism and open possibilities, of course, nor should it be. But you can establish clear policies and expectations that are conveyed in a welcoming and inclusive manner. That can be a powerful message for all students, but it’s especially important for those who may feel vulnerable or marginalized.

Will any of this really help?

In a word — yes! There is ample evidence to support the conclusion that small changes which establish common ground,  create a climate of mutual respect, and signal your support and encouragement of students will, in fact, lead students to feel included. That sense of belonging, in turn, has been shown to have a profound effect on student learning.

In the book How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose and her co-authors note that “course climate is…about how the instructor communicates with students, the level of hospitableness that students perceive, and the more general range of inclusion and comfort that students experience.” They go on to describe the broad range of effects on learning and student behavior that result:

For instance, Ishiyama and Hartlaub (2002) studied how the tone an instructor sets affects climate […]. They discovered that the tone used influenced students’ judgments about instructor approachability. In their study, students are less likely to seek help from an instructor who worded those policies in punitive language than from the instructor who worded the same policies in rewarding language. […] The impact of tone extends even to classroom incivilities such as tardiness, inappropriate cell phone and laptop use in class, and rudeness. Boice (1998) studied student incivilities and linked them to the absence of positive motivators, both in the instructor’s speech and nonverbal signals. Thus we see that one impacts learning and performance through motivational and socioemotional mechanisms.

—Susan Ambrose et al., How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (2010),
pp. 176-177.
[Edited 3/22/2017: Typo correction and adding a few missing words.]