This post offers a pedagogical and technical grounding for accessible and inclusive syllabus (re-)design using digital tools. To explore these topics and tools at greater length, consider registering for the upcoming ATS workshop Accessible and Inclusive Digital Syllabi, offered on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023.

Returning to Campus, Revisiting Syllabi

As a new academic year approaches – and as the Hyde Park campus scurries to prepare for the arrival of new and returning students – faculty and staff are beginning to envision the classrooms they will support over the next three quarters. This mid-summer juncture represents a timely opportunity to consider syllabus (re-)design: a critical, if often dreaded or procrastinated-upon, component of academic life. In this blog post, we invite you to approach syllabus design, redesign, and revision with a slightly different mindset. While updating an existing syllabus may feel tedious, and creating an entirely new syllabus for an entirely new course may feel daunting, the process of syllabus (re-)design can be energizing and clarifying. Dread around syllabus preparations, after all, often emanates from a sense of having to go through long-since-established motions (often long-since-established as boring in one’s own mind!) as if by rote. In this post, we will propose a different stance, approaching the syllabus as a dynamic document that fosters collective urgency and energy – and that has a life cycle.

We will focus on three broad goals for syllabus design and revision: creating, sharing, and maintaining a syllabus that is accessible to all members of a course; crafting the syllabus’s content in a way that supports inclusive teaching and pedagogical practices; and effectively leveraging digital tools in order to bolster accessible and inclusive course design. These three parameters of syllabus design – accessibility, inclusion, and digital practice – can be the site of considerable overwhelm for instructors in the midst of a busy academic year. (How, an instructor might ask, can I possibly pivot to a fully accessible syllabus – or craft a syllabus using totally new digital tools – overnight?) The intersession summer period, however, can be an invaluable opportunity to self-evaluation and incremental goal-setting for the coming year. This post will offer both a framework and a set of tools for moving forward toward more accessible, inclusive, and digitally streamlined design practices.

Approaches to the Syllabus

Syllabus as Repository of Resources

Instructors and students alike often treat the syllabus as merely an administrative document – something to be taken for granted as a formality or as a legalistic compendium of class, departmental, or university policies. It is not untrue, of course, that the syllabus is an administrative document; however, there is nothing insignificant or uninteresting about what this document contains. In addition to compiling any institutionally-mandated policies, the syllabus functions as an index of course content, a map to student learning, and (in the best case) a meaningful repository of resources. A clear and thoughtfully crafted syllabus is a resource to which students will return on innumerable occasions throughout the term. When every syllabus component – from an instructor’s policies to assignment descriptions – has a purpose and is presented with concision and consideration, not only are students empowered to address their own questions and uncertainties about the course; they are also able to get their feet on the ground of their new classroom from the first day.

Syllabus as Anchoring and Orienting Device

Beyond its significance as the administrative cornerstone of a course, the syllabus performs a range of complex and dynamic roles in the classroom. Most immediately, students often first encounter their instructor through the syllabus when accessing it prior to the start of a term; in this way, the syllabus serves as both a snapshot into their future learning environment and an initial message from their teacher. The syllabus also represents a foundation upon which the members of this course will build – and a blueprint to that collective project. It is also the site of a promise, especially when grounded in learning objectives that articulate to students what they will be able to do by the end of the class and how they will hone those capacities along the way. Some instructors explicitly treat the syllabus as a contract, taking care to express what students can expect of them, what they will expect of their students, and what students can expect of one another as colleagues.

As the term proceeds, the map, blueprint, or foundation that the syllabus lays out will be fleshed out through instruction, learning activities, assignments, and collaborations. On the first day of class, the syllabus offers a clear glimpse of the transformation to come: not only the assignments, exams, readings, and problem sets that students will complete, but optimally a view of how students themselves will transform and find themselves equipped with new analyses and tools.


Three Key Anchors for Syllabus (Re-)Design: Inclusive, Accessible, Digital


When approaching the syllabus as a key tool for inclusive instruction, we ask ourselves: How will we invite all of our students into the intellectual work of the course? The students in our classrooms bring with them diverse skill sets and academic and personal experiences. In crafting an inclusive syllabus, we ask how we can invite every student into the course’s collaborative project in a way that draws upon their experience without setting a rigid expectation for who the so-called “typical student” is.

As pedagogical researchers have demonstrated (Harnish & Bridges, 2011; Saville et al, 2010), the ways that we address our students through the syllabus matter significantly to engagement throughout the quarter. Numerous researchers have proposed approaches to syllabus design thoughtfully attuned to constructive alignment and rhetorical tone – from the “promising” syllabus (Bain, 2004) to the “invitational” syllabus (Brown University CTL, 2021), the “motivational” syllabus (Harrington & Thomas, 2018), and the “collaborative” syllabus (Germano & Nicholls, 2020). Three particular takeaways emerge across these models:

  1. Transparency: Bolstering transparency helps reduce what scholars sometimes refer to as the “invisible curriculum” of higher education – unwritten expectations that some students, particularly students from minority groups underrepresented in academia, have not previously encountered.
  2. Equitability: The syllabus can contribute to creating a more equitable learning environment by incorporating resources (e.g. information about the University writing center and writing support for ELL students) some students may not know exist.
  3. Purpose: By constructing a clear, well-scaffolded narrative of what’s to come in the term, the syllabus offers an opportunity to share the stakes of academic work in ways that hold meaning for our students.


When working toward an accessible syllabus, we ask ourselves: How will all of our students access course resources and sources of challenge throughout the term? When designing an accessible syllabus, we commit ourselves to considering what our students might need in order to engage with course content – even if we aren’t yet sure what those access needs are.

Accessibility and digital accessibility, in other words, represent both dynamic design processes and a mindset. Every academic term brings with it surprises, as we learn more about our students’ interests, points of curiosity, and experiences – and these surprises have a great deal to teach us about how our students move through the classroom and the world. When developing an accessible syllabus, a few small considerations can go a long way:

  1. Policies and statements: Signaling your commitment to accessibility in so many words can go a long way. A syllabus statement that points students to accessibility resources, such as Student Disability Services (SDS), and that expresses your commitment to working with students’ accommodations tells students they can approach you with concerns.
  2. Pathways to engagement: Incorporating multiple pathways to class engagement (beyond what we might think of as “traditional” seminar participation by making comments during class, for example) enables students with diverse learning needs to contribute meaningfully to the course. When relevant, providing students with multiple options for assignments can do the same.
  3. Digital accessibility: Ensuring that your syllabus document is optimized for accessibility goes a long way for all students, whether or not they use assistive technologies or require accommodations in the classroom. Incorporating alt text for images and using built-in accessibility checkers in your word-processing or PDF application are two powerful first steps toward digital accessibility on your syllabus.


Making thoughtful use of digital tools in syllabus design challenges us to raise two questions: First, what digital strategies, tools, and resources will we require in order to share the course syllabus with our students? Second, how can digital tools support pedagogical goals related to inclusion and accessibility? Whatever our personal orientation to digital technologies – from curiosity to ambivalence to aversion – we all rely upon digital tools when implementing a syllabus, even if only in the form of a word-processed and photocopied document. Our students, moreover, often have wildly different experiences with technologies: whereas we as instructors might work at laptop or desktop computers, many of our students work exclusively from smartphones and tablets. Making thoughtful use of digital tools when designing and disseminating a syllabus thus matters significantly; it provides us, quite literally, with a way of meeting our students “in the middle.”

When finalizing your course syllabus and preparing to share it with students, consider offering both a digital version and a hard copy to your students. While most students are likely to access the syllabus digitally (i.e. via the course’s Canvas site), some students require a hard copy for accessibility reasons; bringing printed syllabi to the first course meeting and offering them for interested students can go a long way.

As you work to update and revise an existing syllabus, or to construct a new syllabus document from the ground up, consider one of three following strategies for implementation along with its implications for digital accessibility:

  1. Static syllabus file (e.g. .docx, .pdf): One implementation strategy that will be familiar to all instructors is to construct a static syllabus file using a word-processing or PDF application.
    1. Digital accessibility implications:
      1. Have you used built-in accessibility checkers to test for concerns?
      2. Have you incorporated alt-text for images?
      3. Have you given the file a clear name (one that indicates the version of the syllabus, or the date of its most recent update)?
      4. If producing a PDF, be sure to Save or Export from a word-processing file; avoid Printing as a PDF.
  2. Living syllabus on Canvas (e.g. Canvas homepage or “Syllabus” page): Another strategy is to construct your syllabus within a page on your course’s Canvas site. This enables you to make updates easily throughout the term – and enables students to access the syllabus from a range of devices.
    1. Digital accessibility implications:
      1. Have you used Canvas’ accessibility checker?
      2. Have you incorporated alt text for images?
      3. How will you indicate updates or changes you make throughout the term?
  3. Standalone website: Some instructors prefer to use a standalone course website or blog as part of their teaching – especially when certain forms of content creation, collaboration, and workshopping are important aspects of the class. This strategy represents a significant burden of labor for the instructor and instructional staff.
    1. Digital accessibility implications:
      1. What resources do you require to assess digital accessibility on this site?
      2. Can students contribute to the site or to the syllabus? If so, when and how?


Toward a New Term

Juggling curricular considerations, assignment and assessment options, and questions of inclusion, accessibility, and digital practice while crafting a syllabus demands a considerable balancing act! As you move toward the new academic year and the Autumn 2023 quarter, consider what small steps you might take to bolster your pedagogical goals in incremental ways. We recommend creating a small personal checklist of policies, structures, or other syllabus components you’d like to reconsider or revise – and holding yourself accountable to starting there.

Campus Resources

Accessibility at UChicago

Center for Digital Accessibility

Student Disability Services

Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning, Accommodating Students with Disabilities

Inclusive Teaching Support at UChicago

University’s Inclusive Pedagogy website

Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning, Inclusive Teaching and Diversity

Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning, Syllabus Guide, September 2021.

Center for Identity and Inclusion


Additional Resources

Brown University Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, “Diversity & Inclusion Syllabus Statements.”

Kevin Gannon, “How to Create a Syllabus: Advice Guide,” The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Jason B. Jones, “Creative Approaches to the Syllabus,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 August 2011.

James M. Lang, “How to Teach a Good First Day of Class: Advice Guide,” The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Tulane University, “Accessible Syllabus” project.

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, “Syllabus Design.” 2014.

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and Learning, “Tip Sheet for Creating Accessible Materials.”


Ken Bain, “What Do They Expect of Their Students,” in What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004, pp. 68-97.

Brown University Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, “Inclusive Teaching Newsletter: Invitational Syllabi.”

William Germano & Kit Nicholls, Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Richard J. Harnish & Robert K. Bridges, “Effect of Syllabus Tone: Students’ Perceptions of Instructor and Course,” Social Psychology of Education 14.3 (September 2011): pp. 319-330.

Christine Harrington & Melissa Thomas, Designing a Motivational Syllabus: Creating a Learning Path for Student Engagement. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2018.

Michael Hernandez, “Promote Inclusion with Small Changes Enabled by UChicago Teaching Tools,” Academic Technology Solutions, University of Chicago, 18 July 2023.

Thomas Keith, “Make Your Canvas Site More Accessible!” Academic Technology Solutions, University of Chicago, 15 February 2021.

Saville et al, “Syllabus Detail and Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Effectiveness,” Teaching of Psychology 37.3 (July 2010): pp. 186-189.

Daniel Yuschick, “Keys to an Accessibility Mindset,” Smashing Magazine, 20 February 2023.

Image Credit

Edwin Andrade, @theunsteady5 on Unsplash. 2016.