Creating Inclusive Syllabi

Dr. Jenn Pedersen shares contemporary research and perspectives around how we can establish a supportive environment to empower students to achieve excellence through the simple act of changing the way we approach our syllabi. 

What is an Inclusive Syllabus?

The use of a syllabus in college courses dates back to the 17th century, and has long been used as a form of outline that maps the expected progression of a course.  Traditionally, syllabi fall into one of three broad categories:

  1. administrative
  2. organizational
  3. interpersonal

—(Eberly et al., 2001)

Administrative syllabi often serve a contractual function between instructors and students. They set forth a series of rules and regulations that can be used in support of grade disputes or conduct grievances. It may be a stretch to give organizational its own category as most course syllabi include some form of organizational construct for students to refer to.  However, in this context, organizational syllabi refer to those whose structure centers around the explicit responsibilities of students and instructors thereby codifying the expectations and norms of each classroom experience as they relate to the schedule of concepts, activities, and assessments. Interpersonal syllabi focus heavily on faculty’s scholarly reflections of teaching, and student behaviors required for success. 

Regardless of which category or if a combination of all three is utilized, faculty tend to view a syllabus as a central component of their teaching practice.  Not only are syllabi usually required by institutions, an effective syllabus as described in the previous iTeachU page can assist  students to successfully complete a course.  Emphasis over the years focused on key elements of a good syllabus that cross disciplines and institutions: basic course and contact information, learning objectives, required materials and course calendars, grading information, and a variety of institutional and classroom policies.  More recently, research has begun to move away from what is included in a syllabus to how that information is presented.

The style and tone of a syllabus can leave the impression that an instructor is either warm and approachable, or cold and uncaring. Similarly, a friendly tone can signal that a classroom is a community where it is safe to explore and learn. Unfriendly language, however, immediately creates barriers to learning and flags a class as undesirable. It is safe to say then that students can learn a great deal by simply reading a class syllabus (Cullen & Harris, 2009; DiClementi & Handelsman, 2005; Harnish et al., 2011; Rogers & Abell, 2008). 

Traditional syllabi tend to be structured in a manner that clearly identifies what a course will do and highlights what students will not do; it is focused on content and policies presented as dos and don’ts. 

Inclusive syllabi galvanize that staid process: they prioritize learning and community over content and rules. An inclusive syllabus is one that forms a solid foundation for a warm, welcoming classroom which seeks to support the needs of all learners. Put a slightly different way, an inclusive classroom begins with an inclusive syllabus.  As you begin to think about writing an inclusive syllabus, ask yourself a few questions originally posed by Dr. Matthew Cheney:

 What is the tone of your syllabus? 

 Do negative commands overwhelm positive invitations? 

 Is the premise of the syllabus that students are   untrustworthy? 

 Are your policies designed to punish more than support?

Why should I make my syllabus inclusive?

As college classrooms become more diverse it is more important than ever to incorporate pedagogical strategies that improve equity gaps and ensure all students enrolled in online courses are empowered to succeed. Research has shown that minority and low-income students are less likely to succeed in online courses (Pacansky-Brock et al., 2020; & Harnish et al., 2011). One way to create a more inclusive learning environment is to humanize online teaching. The relationships between instructor and students comprise the core of humanizing pedagogical strategies; this begins with the use of inclusive syllabi as a means of establishing a positive and lasting first impression.  That first impression is extremely important when you consider that a syllabus can either inspire or impede student success in your class and ultimately in their overall academic progress. 

An inclusive syllabus is intentionally welcoming, supportive, and meant to encourage students to fully engage in the learning experience. It begins the rapport building process with you as the instructor. A robust instructor-student relationship is positively correlated with an increase in student academic performance, attendance, participation, and motivation (Richmond et al., 2016). This is especially important in courses where academic content can be difficult for students to master (Slattery & Carlson, 2005). 

Guideposts for syllabus (re)design

  • Prioritize learning by changing headings to student-centered questions such as:
    1. “What will help you succeed in this course?” 
    2. “What will you be doing?” 
    3. “How will you know you’re learning?”
  • Consider tone and use of personal pronouns:
    1. Instead of “Students will…” consider “I encourage you to…”
    2. Instead of “Late work is reduced by…” consider “You have the opportunity to earn up to 60%…”
  • Frame course policies and expectations around active participation in the learning process 
    1. Instead of “Mandatory” consider “Plan to…” 
    2. Instead of “Requirement” consider “What you need to succeed”
  • Explain rationale behind any class norms or values 
  • Incorporate content that represents a diverse set of perspectives & experiences
  • Allow for multiple ways to interact with material and demonstrate learning
  • Set high expectations followed by what supports are in place to help students master them


Cullen, R., & Harris. M. (2009). Assessing learner-centeredness through course syllabi. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 34(1), 115-125. Doi: 10.1080/02602930801956018

DiClementi, J. D., & Handelsman, M. M. (2005). Empowering students: Class-generated course rules. Teaching of Psychology, 32, 18-21. 

Eberly, M. B., Newton, S. E., & Wiggins, R. A. (2001). The syllabus as a tool for student-centered learning. The Journal of General Education, 50(1), 56-74.

Harnish, R. J., O’Brien McElwee, R., Slattery, J. M., Frantz, S., Haney, M. R., Shore, C. M., & Penley, J. (2011).  Creating the foundation for a warm classroom climate. Association for Psychological Science.

Pacansky-Brock, M., Smedshammer, M., & Vincent-Layton, K. (2020). Shaping the futures of learning in the digital age: Humanizing online teaching to equitize higher education. Current Issues in Education, 21(2). DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.33218.94402

Richmond, A. S., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N., & Morgan, R. K. (2016). Can a learner-centered syllabus change students’ perceptions of student-professor rapport and master teacher behaviors? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. 2(3), 159-168.

Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching, 53(4), 159-164. DOI: 10.3200/CTCH.53.4.159-164

Questions & Considerations

Hidden Curriculum:

Change and growth are often the byproducts of earning a degree, and are things that are sought after by students, perhaps even part of the reason for attending college in the first place. Many classes are structured in a way that challenge students to examine current beliefs and expand their mindsets.  When this is made clear to students, it can be a powerful tool that empowers students to achieve their personal and professional dreams.  As you think about making your syllabus inclusive, ask yourself how a student might have to change as a result of attending your course, will this help or hinder them? Are you teaching more than you claim to teach?  Here are several questions to help you consider ways in which you can make your syllabus and thus your course more inclusive. 

  • What are you not saying in your syllabus? 
  • Did you provide enough detail to create a shared understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior?  
  • Are there any classroom norms, behaviors, or beliefs that are not expressly stated but implied that students need to exhibit in order to do well in the course? 
  • Do those norms, behaviors, or beliefs value one cultural or racial behavioral set over another?  
  • Is your course set up to reward “high performers” (those whose participation is visible) or those who learn/demonstrate learning in a certain way while devaluing others? 
  • What perspectives/concepts/viewpoints are presented in the course content? 
  • Have you connected the course content to your students in personal or professional ways? 
  • What values do you emphasize in your course? 
  • Are you sharing content that is specific to one demographic or subset of the population while not including additional views? Are you emphasizing one single way as “ideal”? 
  • Does your field of study place importance on inclusivity? If so, are you demonstrating that within the context of the course materials chosen?
  • Do you reward creativity and critical reflection in activities and assessments or do you require students to conform to a single common norm?

Do your priorities lie in student success or in punishing failure? 

I invite you to read through your syllabus as if you are a student in your course.  Do you get the feeling that you are trustworthy?  Do you feel supported? Are you set up to succeed?  You might even want to go so far as to tally up negative commands versus positive invitations, seeing which one has more tally marks. The answers to those questions go a long way in identifying where your priorities lie, at least on paper! Going one step further, would you feel comfortable coming to you as a professor if you were a student who had to ask for help?  If the answer to any of those questions is no, you may want to consider addressing the tone and rhetoric of your syllabus.

A syllabus is an extension of personality 

Your syllabus is a window into your personality and your priorities.  It tells students up front in a clear, detailed manner what is important to you, what you are willing to do for and with them, and more importantly, what you are not willing to do. Your syllabus is  the first impression that students will have of you and in an online environment, especially when courses are delivered asynchronously, it can be difficult to get past a poor first impression. 

While it is true that there are a number of elements that must be included in every syllabus per faculty senate guidelines, there are still ways to ensure that students have a positive first impression of you. Harnish, et al., (2011)  identified six aspects of a syllabus that students found made instructors seem approachable and provide you the opportunity to interject elements of your own personality: 

  1. Positive, friendly language
  2. Providing rationale for assignments
  3. Self-disclosure language (“I developed this…” “my hope is…” etc.)
  4. Humor
  5. Compassion
  6. Enthusiasm


While there are no specific tools that exist that allow you to input information and export an inclusive syllabus, there are several templates and rubrics available that you may find useful when (re)designing your syllabi including: 

Research Foundations

A Syllabus Is Not a Contract John Warner

Creating an Inclusive Syllabus The University of Kansas

How can I use my Syllabus as a Tool for Inclusion Tufts University 

Inclusive Syllabus Design UCLA CEILS

Inclusive Syllabus Design University of Massachusetts Amherst


Additional Resources

Inclusion By Design: Survey Your Syllabus and Course Design

Equitable Syllabus Design

Liquid Syllabus (Open Canvas Course on Creating Liquid Syllabi)

The Liquid Syllabus

Jenn Pedersen, PhD

Jennifer Pedersen

Executive Director, CTL

Certified QM Peer Reviewer
Online Pedagogy Peer-Reviewer