Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Building an Inclusive Syllabus

Main content start

The syllabus is the first opportunity you will have to give students an impression of your course. In addition to providing an overview of course policies and goals, a well-designed syllabus can demonstrate your teaching style, values, and commitment to helping each student in your course. Centering your syllabus around equity and inclusivity in this way can contribute to overall student success in your courses.

An inclusive syllabus utilizes language, policies, principles, and even the syllabus structure itself to promote equal access and opportunities for all students. Students will come to your class from a variety of backgrounds and may need different levels of support from you and any others on your teaching team. It is important to communicate to them from the start that you care about their success in your class. Below, you will find further recommendations and resources to help you design a more inclusive syllabus for your students.

Top four recommendations to make your syllabus more inclusive

1. Warm and welcoming tone

Students are likely to read your syllabus before the first day of class. By writing your syllabus with a warm and welcoming tone, you shape how students will form their first impressions of you and your course. This article on the effects of the language tone in syllabi describes how using a warm tone throughout your syllabus can make you seem more approachable as a professor and more motivated to teach the course. Consider using language that communicates your expectations for the class in an open and understanding way in order to foster positive motivation and reduce stress for students. 

Here are some specific examples:

Cold Language

Warm Language

If you need to contact me outside of class...

I welcome you to contact me outside of class...

Students are required to attend all course sessions.

We highly encourage students to attend all live lectures, but we will also be posting recordings to Canvas for students who cannot attend.

Some of the skills you should learn in the course include...

Some of the skills I hope you will learn throughout the course include...

Late work will be penalized by 50%.

Late work is still eligible for 50% partial credit. 

2. Center around student learning

Traditional syllabi often focus on course content rather than the student learning experience. By shifting the language of your syllabus from “what the course will teach” to “what the student can learn,” you can center students and their ability to learn within your course design. This lets you shift to the student’s perspective, better equipping you to understand each student’s needs and therefore foster an inclusive environment for student learning.  

Here are some specific tips:

  • Provide information on what your students will need to do and what resources are available to them so they can all be successful learners.
  • Be transparent with students about grading and expectations. Enable your students to show what they have learned.
  • Switch from saying “this course will…” or “students will…” to “we will…” and “you will…”
  • Let students know what you hope they will learn through your course and what useful skills they can plan to gain.

3. Accessible design 

Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought. From the start of your course and course planning, making education accessible to all students should be a priority. Though issues of accessibility are often associated with improving access for individuals with disabilities, all students can benefit when accessibility is prioritized. This is especially true for your syllabus—not only should your students understand from your syllabus that they will be supported equitably, but the design of your syllabus itself should be accessible to all students. 

Here are several recommendations for accessible design:

  • A syllabus can often be very dense and hard to read, especially for non-native English speakers and students with learning disabilities or dyslexia. Instead, focus on making your syllabus easy to read and navigate, such as by keeping paragraphs shorter and including clear section titles.
  • Draft your syllabus using Google Docs. Documents created with the platform work well with accessible technologies such as braille devices, screen readers, and screen magnification. 
  • Create a course schedule in table form. This is a concise and organized way to help students understand what the course will look like and how they can best prepare for each session. Make sure to use clear column and row headers and follow other best practices for accessibility with screen readers.

4. Supportive and understanding course policies

By reframing course policies to be supportive and empathetic towards students, you can help students understand your expectations and feel more motivated in your class. Try to explain the rationale behind your policies and expectations—clearly state what you hope students will gain and why your policies and assignments will help them. Communicate to your students that you want them to succeed and that you are there to support them if they are struggling in or outside of class. 

Here are some specific ideas:

  • Be empathetic with students in your attendance and assignment policies. For example, if you want attendance to be mandatory, communicate this to students, but also be understanding if students have to miss a class for health, family, or other important reasons.
  • Consider dropping students’ lowest test or assignment scores as this can help reduce stress and help students balance work with other classes.
  • Offer regularly scheduled office hours as well as flexible options for students with conflicting schedules. Explain the purpose of your office hours and what students can gain from connecting with you, especially for students who may not be familiar with the benefits of office hours.
  • Assume students’ best intentions when talking about academic honesty and Stanford's honor code. Share the information students need to know to comply with Stanford’s policies. 

Examples of an inclusive syllabus

Med 54Q: Decolonizing Global Health Syllabus Spring 2021 

This syllabus is used with permission from Dr. Takudzwa Shumba from her Spring 2021 class, Decolonizing Global Health. This syllabus exemplifies many components that foster inclusivity, including:

  • A learning-centered course description
  • Clear descriptions of course assignments and goals
  • An accessible design (i.e. the schedule in table format)
  • Resources that could be helpful to certain students

Bio 81: Introduction to Ecology Syllabus Fall 2020 

This syllabus is used with permission from Dr. Kabir Peay and Dr. Jesse Miller from their Fall 2020 Introduction to Ecology class. This syllabus demonstrates many of the inclusive practices described above, such as:

  • Clearly explaining the purpose of course components 
  • Offering understanding assignment and attendance policies
  • Including personalized statements regarding support for students with disabilities, first-generation and low-income students, and overall student well-being

Stanford resources

Consider including any of these resources in your syllabus. Some may provide helpful language if you would like to directly address these topics in your syllabus, while others are useful links that may be incredibly beneficial for certain students. 

Students with documented disabilities

First-generation and low-income 

Academic integrity and honor code

Religious beliefs, observations, and practices

Land acknowledgment

Mental health and academic accommodations

Sexual violence and sexual harassment resources

Student support and wellbeing 

Learn more