Students Not Reading Your Syllabus? Try One That’s Accessible

Women in Higher Education
AccessibilityOnline LearningStudent Success
Reading Time: 2 minutes

This post originally appeared on BizCommBuzz.

We’ve all had to stifle eye rolls when students ask about a due date or reading assignment, silently thinking IT’S ON THE SYLLABUS! But perhaps our students avoid our course bibles because they have become dated or resemble the small print on contracts or user agreements that nearly everybody skips over. That’s where the accessible syllabus comes in.

An accessible syllabus is based on universal design to enable people of diverse skill sets to engage with it. To do so, an accessible syllabus will contain four elements instead of the standard one—words: images, text, rhetoric, policy.


The idea behind using images on a syllabus is the same as inserting images into any document: It allows the reader to skim the content and quickly absorb information. In a syllabus, instructors may choose to include images of the text or its authors, word clouds that support course objectives, a pie chart to show the distribution of final grades or even a table of contents. Whichever is chosen, images should always serve a specific purpose.


Text cannot be omitted, but the accessible syllabus uses principles of design to break up large blocks of type: bulleted lists, chunked sections and hyperlinks. A text-heavy syllabus can be greatly improved by using a few strategies. First, cut down the amount of text. For example, if you currently include all course assignments in the syllabus, put them in a separate space or create hyperlinks to them. Likewise, eliminate codes of conduct and the like by creating hyperlinks that connect to those policies on your institution’s website.

Next, make the text more readable by dividing it into several columns and keeping paragraphs to no more than four-to-six lines. Use boldface to highlight important keywords. Stick to sans serif type for online versions and use 1.5 line spacing. Finally, organize the document to facilitate quick information retrieval. Create a table of contents, headings, bulleting and enumeration.


The prose in the accessible syllabus should avoid punishing language and create invitations rather than commands. For example, instead of “late assignments may not be accepted,” write “I’ve found that turning work in on time helps prepare you for success in the workplace, so late work may not be accepted.”


The final element of the accessible syllabus may affect instructors’ pedagogy. Some research points to the notion that students do better when they have some degree of control in their learning, so course policies that offer students choices become part of accessibility. Inclusive pedagogy—in which the learner and instructor work together—can be manifested in an accessible syllabus in several ways. Instructors can include an inclusive learning statement that voices the instructor’s desire for student success and asks students to discuss accommodations they may need, which may include adjusting due dates or providing extra time for exams.


Check out these links to resources for creating an accessible syllabus.

Janet Mizrahi is a continuing lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches professional writing. She is an author at BizCommBuzz, a blog that shares news, tips, teaching experiences and much more that instructors can incorporate into their classrooms. 

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