Designing the Document

Table of Contents:

    1. Overview
    2. Tone and rhetoric
    3. What to include
    4. Accessibility and inclusion statement
      1. Example accessibility statements
    5. Visual organization
    6. Sample syllabus


A syllabus should be an expression of your personal approach to teaching. It will shape students’ first impression of the course, whether they are interested in the material, whether it is accessible, whether you are approachable and flexible to their needs. Often this will be reflected in the document itself. An inaccessible syllabus can be a deterrent for students considering your course. Rather than presenting as a list of rules, we believe the syllabus should provide a shared road map for students and instructors to achieve course goals.

Tone and rhetoric:

  • Collaborative: The syllabus presents an opportunity to counter-act the suggestion of power dynamic between instructor and student. By using collaborative language and explicitly expressing a desire to work together, you acknowledge that individual students know best how they can be accommodated and the problems they face, and should have a role alongside your own in determining course practices to meet those needs.
  • Display empathy and warmth: Your language on the syllabus provides students with a preview of how you will interact with them. A friendly tone signals that you are receptive to students and they should feel comfortable approaching you.
  • Demonstrate approachability: Be specific about when, where and how you prefer to be approached. Provide opportunities for individuals to privately disclose a specific need.
  • Demonstrate enthusiasm and a desire to help students achieve learning goals. Show that you have an expectation for their success.
  • Avoid punitive or authoritarian language. Phrasing expectations within a punitive mode re-emphasizes the implicit power dynamic between instructor and student, reduces the perception of learning as a collaborative and positive activity, and communicates an implicit expectation for students to fail or engage in perceived misbehavior without negative incentives and your regulation. Instead, phrase preferred behaviors as suggestions for how students can maximize gains.
  • Explain reasons why a requirement or rule exists and how it will improve learning, rather than remaining arbitrary
  • Avoid institutional, bureaucratic language, shorthand, or code. The language you use in the syllabus should reflect how you speak, as well as the manner of language seen as necessary to the course. See: code-switching.

What to include

  • Your name and preferred pronouns. Listing your pronouns immediately demonstrates an interest in using the preferred pronouns of your students and creating a welcoming environment for those of non-binary gender.
  • Contact information: Indicate preferred contact method, and when and how you like to be contacted.  Include dates and times you will not be available and your communication habits (e.g. not checking email after 10 PM). This will prevent the student from feeling rude or invasive when contacting you. Providing specificity reduces the pressure on the student to take the initiative on figuring out what procedure to follow.
  • Office hours: Designated office hours are a key component of making yourself approachable as an instructor. Restricting your office hours to “by appointment” places an additional burden and deterrent on the student by forcing them to formally request (and justify using) your time in advance. Ideally, office hours should be an opportunity for casual interaction, reflected in where and how office hours take place. Formality and academic etiquette involved in requesting specific appointments can be significant barriers depending on student background.
  • Learning Objectives / Course Goals: Delineates your expectations for what students will learn from the class. Incorporate major assignments. This will allow for individualized planning and strategy and should help students decide whether they are interested in the course.
  • Course pre-requisites: Students may have had varying opportunities to take gain AP or IB credit, extracurricular skills, and special experiences that are relevant to your material. This includes writing and reading proficiency. Think carefully about how these experiences can influence student outcomes, and explain this honestly on your syllabus. Specifically express confidence that students with less experience in your material can still succeed in your course. Consider utilizing the phrase “No experience in ___ required.”
  • Required materials: (See First Day of Class for suggestions on how to plan ahead regarding required materials and equipment.) Discuss how the materials will be used. Explicitly acknowledge your willingness to individually support students for whom affordability is a barrier.
  • Anticipated daily and/or weekly work: Describe what students need to do to succeed in your class beyond completing major assignments. Include preparation for lectures, note taking, and amount of reading. Note that time needed for these tasks can vary widely among students.
  • Link to course website / online platform or essential resource. Include username and password if necessary. Clearly explain what it will be used for, and when and how materials will be posted.
  • Assessment and Grading Policy: Include a visual representation of grade distribution alongside a text description. Note that participation-based grades can disadvantage certain students. Plan to discuss re-grade policy in class after an assessment rather than in your syllabus. Visit Assessment and Grading for suggestions on how to formulate grading policy.
  • Course schedule and assignment requirements should be hyperlinked and/or on separate handouts that allow for later changes or updates. This will increase the navigability of course information. Assignment descriptions should express learning objectives, which should be reflected in a grading rubric. Students should understand why they are doing an assignment and understand the connection with how they are graded.
  • Lateness and absence policy: Consider how demands on the time of students of marginalized backgrounds are relatively elevated. Avoid characterizing lateness or absence as a personal affront, rudeness, or misbehavior. Provide opportunities for makeup, or if unallowable, specifically explain why an in-class experience is essential for achieving course goals.

Accessibility and Inclusion Statement 

  • Avoid using “disability” or other specific identity markers in the header: The Statement should be framed as being applicable to all students, and discourage the perception that it is addressing a perceived deficiency among certain groups or conditions.
  • Early and prominent in the syllabus: Closeness to the top of the page is a visual signifier of relative importance.
  • Personalized: It should be in addition to your institution’s required statement, thereby asserting your personal interest in creating an inclusive atmosphere for students. By exceeding institutional standards you will demonstrate that you do not perceive to accessibility to be an administrative or bureaucratic matter, and recognize that institutional support is not always sufficient to fulfill students’ needs.
  • Collaborative in tone: While the responsibility for access is on you, assume students know best how they can be accommodated and express a desire to work together.
  • Indicate flexibility and possibility of individualized adjustments. Demonstrate willingness to be approached by, work individually with, and make adjustments for individual students.
  • Refer to offices of institutional support: provide location and contact information of other resources at your institution that can support students’ needs.

Example Accessibility Statements:

Below are three sample accessibility statements.

The first two appear in Tara Wood and Shannon Madden’s “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements.”


Margaret Price:

“I assume that all of us learn in different ways, and that the organization of any course will accommodate each student differently. For example, you may prefer to process information by speaking and listening, so that some of the written handouts I provide may be difficult to absorb. Please talk to me as soon as you can about your individual learning needs and how this course can best accommodate them. If you do not have a documented disability, remember that other support services, including the Writing Center and the Learning Resources Center, are available to all students.”

Jay Dolmage:

“We will all need some accommodations in this class, because we all learn differently. If you need specific accommodations, let Jay and your section instructor know. We will make an effort to ensure that all students have multiple means of accessing class information, multiple ways to take part in class activities, and multiple avenues for being assessed on class work. You should also seek the accommodations you need through the Waterloo Office for Persons with Disabilities.”

The third sample accessibility statement was shared in a Facebook post by Aimi Hamraie on August 23, 2021.

Mimi Khúc:

“Everyone’s access needs matter, and we will try collectively to meet them as they arise. Access needs are needs that when met enable participation in the course to the fullest–therefore they are wide-ranging and can be met in wide-ranging, creative ways. I am committed to making participation as accessible as possible. Please let me know if anything comes up that makes participation feel hard. Perhaps you are unused to thinking about access needs–no worries, that’s what this course is supposed to help you develop. We are taught not to have needs, that needs mean we are ‘weak’; resist this impulse. That is the biggest lesson I want you to take away from this class.”
“Access, as Aimi Hamraie has taught me, is relational. This means that creating access and accessibility is something we do together, in relationship and community. It requires a shared commitment to each other’s wellbeing and participation in the community space, and requires communication and negotiation and flexibility. We learn each other’s needs and try to meet them as best we can, so that we can all participate as much as possible in this classroom space. Everyone has access needs, and these needs change over time. I will try to anticipate as much as possible but I cannot know everyone’s needs at all times. When you become aware of your access needs, please communicate them to me. I do not require any documentation or working with any university support services–I believe you, and will work with you to generate structures to meet your needs as much as possible. I repeat: I believe you.”

Visual organization

A user- and reader-friendly syllabus document fosters good expectations for the accessibility of your course. See “Text-based material” in Lesson Design and Delivery for more detailed recommendations.

  • The syllabus should be as concise as possible, without repetitions or internal contradictions.
  • Aim to make the document simple and visually attractive.
  • Announce hyperlinks as links (e.g. use the phrase “follow this link”)
  • Use images alongside text whenever possible for visual learners. Use alt text for images. Ensure that all meaning would still be conveyed in a text-only version.
  • Utilize a hierarchical organization of material with a simple and consistent pattern across the document, e.g. bulleted lists, numbering, text boxes or organized chunks of text. The content should be easily navigable so information can be quickly retrieved. It should have a Table of Contents and use section headings.
  • Avoid using special text (bolding, underlines) for “yelling.” Use to underline key information rather than express tone.

Sample Syllabus:

Click here to see the syllabus for Dr. Marion Quirici’s Writing 101 course, Disability and Representation.