Syllabus and Course Policies for Inclusive Teaching

Chemistry 110. First day of classes.

August 20, 2018. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication.

The syllabus is an essential feature of any course. While instructors often approach the syllabus as a contract that sets out expectations for what learners can expect in a course, it accomplishes much more. The information that we include, the language we choose to use, and the expectations we set all send implicit signals to our students about our values as instructors. To develop a course that is mindful of equity, it is essential to consider how students of differing backgrounds might interpret what is written. 

Key Strategies

  • Use welcoming and plain language. Communicate empathy and warmth while also reminding students you maintain high standards, as described in the Warm Demander quadrant of this chart. This can increase academic belonging and willingness to ask for help, particularly for marginalized and first-generation students (Hammond, 2014; Gurung & Galardi, 2021). Try to avoid punitive language when discussing course policies. Also avoid disciplinary jargon since students should be able to understand the course syllabus before they take the class!  Listing your pronouns in your syllabus and giving them when you introduce yourself demonstrates your openness and commitment to inclusion of various gender identities.
  • Make your syllabus accessible. This means ensuring that students can navigate it using assistive technology such as a screen reader. Not all students that use these technologies have formal accommodations, so creating accessible materials ensures all students can access everything they need for the course. Some easy things you can do include using defined heading structures, using descriptive hyperlinks, and ensuring tables are used for tabular data only and are formatted correctly. Microsoft has an accessibility checker built into all programs allowing to check for additional accessibility challenges. Canvas also has a built in accessibility checker you can run on each page or assignment. Avoid posting your syllabus as a PDF since they are more difficult to make fully accessible and cannot be easily edited by students that may need to change the font for better readability. For a quick list for implementing accessibility in specific programs, visit the CTT Accessibility Resource.   Consider using this LISTS Accessibility Essentials Checklist to learn the general accessibility rules that apply across all programs and course materials or go through the asynchronous online NU Accessibility Training course.
  • Make clear how the coursework relates to students' future career plans or lives. In your syllabus, discuss how the skills developed in the assignments and course activities connect with students' future careers and lives. Students from marginalized groups tend to learn more effectively and to be more engaged when they understand how coursework relates to them and their lives (Harackiewicz et al., 2016).
  • Be clear about your office hours. First generation college students are often unfamiliar with terms like 'office hours', so they may not stop by to get help without a more detailed explanation. Be clear about what they might discuss during office hours and why it is important for students to use them. Be sure to explain when and where they will be held and how to reach out if they need to meet outside your stated times. You might also consider calling them something friendly like “Student Hours" or "Ask Me Anything Hours". If you have a TA, explain their role in the course and what help students can expect from TAs.
  • Check the UNL syllabus policy and link to university-wide policies and resources. Ensure that the syllabus includes all required components, so students know how to find the information and campus resources they need. Do not remove this information to decrease the length of the syllabus or assume that all students know about all available resources. For students who need the information on those policies, for example those with disabilities or those needing help with mental health, having the policy stated in your syllabus signals your support and can encourage students to get the help they need. If you include the descriptive link above rather than the policies in text in your syllabus, you can reduce the length of the syllabus while ensuring students have access to the most up-to-date information on resources they may be looking for.
  • Include a diversity and inclusion statement. These statements set the tone for the course and serve as reference points throughout the course.  Read examples from UNL classes. Consider including a land acknowledgement statement. An additional statement about how the land is valued from an indigenous perspective may be added.
  • Make the syllabus available to students as early as possible. Posting the syllabus as early as possible, preferably well before the course starts, helps students know what workload to expect and schedule their time so they can be successful. This is particularly important for students with disabilities or large work or caretaking responsibilities outside of school that may need to adjust their schedules accordingly.

Developing equitable course policies

  • Be flexible about deadlines. Deadlines are beneficial for helping students progress, but there are numerous legitimate reasons why students may not be able to meet those deadlines. Allowing flexibility in deadlines can improve student learning and help students who are facing difficult circumstances be successful. Learn more about how to humanize late policies for better learning and different models for late policies.
  • Focus grading on improvement and growth. Use assessment strategies that focus on continuous improvement and progress toward demonstrating proficiency by the end of the course. Personalize feedback as much as possible. Using multiple smaller assignments rather than large assignments worth many points will give students more opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of the material.
  • Consider flexibility in attendance policies. Consider the goals of required attendance and examine if there are ways to meet those goals while allowing flexibility with attendance. When attendance is required, consider adding an alternative assignment that reaches the same goals. This attendance policies guide from the CTT discusses several types of and strategies for implementing equitable attendance policies.
  • Explicitly state course policies and follow those policies. For students without much familiarity with higher education, particularly first-generation college students, the practices and norms that are obvious to instructors can be difficult to learn and navigate. Anthony Jack discusses the experience of many students who are unfamiliar with the culture of higher education in his TedX talk. To ensure all students understand expectations, explicitly state all course policies, including things like attendance, late work, and academic integrity. Also, ensure all written course policies reflect what you do in practice. If you are more lenient on deadlines or attendance than your written policy states, it may disadvantage first generation or marginalized students who tend to assume that all policies are enforced exactly as written and are less likely to ask for unstated lenience. Consider making a syllabus quiz or use an interactive class activity to ensure that students are familiar with the key details of the course (Raymark & Connor-Greene, 2009).


Attendance and Institutional Outcomes

Attendance is an early indicator of student success and research supports the four following points:

  1. Attendance improves performance
  2. Impact of attendance varies by subpopulations and students with less access to technology, mentorship, and cultural capital often benefit the most from attendance
  3. Attendance can give insight into student motivation and learning strategies
  4. Attendance matters to students. When offered a choice between a mandatory attendance policy versus one that did not penalize absences, students chose the mandatory policy by a large majority. Even when they dislike such a policy, they say they would miss class more often without it.

For more details about these themes and a concise summary of research-based interventions for attendance, read "How Student Attendance Can Improve Institutional Outcomes" (Educause, 2019).

Additionally, attendance can be strongly encouraged even while remaining flexible in large-enrollment courses. (Fetter and Verbitsky, 2023).



Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.

Gurung & Galardi, 2021:

Harackiewicz et al:

Raymark, P. H., & Connor-Greene, P. A. (2009). The syllabus quiz. Teaching of Psychology, 29(4), 286-288.

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