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Syllabus with Accessibility in Mind

Mon Aug 6, 2018 at 07:30 AM

The syllabus is often referred to as “the contract.” It tends to grow over the years to cover a litany of issues. We also try to give students all of the information that might help them succeed. What role does accessibility play in syllabus design? Accessibility can be understood specifically through web accessibility guidelines that ensures students with impairments can read the material, but also consider accessibility in more broad terms of how effectively students can find and use the syllabus content. The more accessible a syllabus is--navigable, clear, comprehensible--the more likely students are to benefit from the information you want them to grasp.

These six strategies provided the most impact to students and faculty.

Give students early access to the syllabus and course content.

While faculty have the power to create accessible instructional materials from the start, it is ultimately up to students with documented impairments to identify what course materials impose barriers and contact Disability Support Services for accommodations. Since the accommodation process is often time-consuming, it significantly helps these students to have extra time to properly prepare to do well in class. This practice benefits all students as well, as students can be prepared for the learning environment, come to class with questions, and make plans based on their schedules.

Use section headings for easy navigation and clear organization.

No matter how engaging and concise we aim to be with our syllabus, it is inevitably a fairly long document as it is meant to give students the complete path and understanding of the semester ahead of them. While we might visually organize a syllabus into sections using large font or bold headings, these visual cues aren’t apparent to students with visual impairments. Use a program’s style features (title, headings, etc.) to make these section headings. This not only allows a screen reading program to detect how a document is organized, but also provides easier navigation for all students, increasing the likelihood they will check the syllabus in Week 4 on the late submission policy.

Use descriptive hyperlinks, and double-check their accuracy.

Linking students to more information helps reduce the length and legalese of our syllabus. The best way for students to understand where a link goes is by hyperlinking text that describes its destination. (e.g. If you are linking to the Preferred Name Policy, hyperlink the name of the policy rather than “click here” or pasting the whole messy link into the document text.) Also, click on each link to ensure it works properly, as pages have a habit of moving around.

Provide text-based alternatives to tables, or simplify table design.

We often use tables to lay out a schedule for students so that we can share multiple forms of information simultaneously. Tables with many columns and rows can be confusing to discern for a blind student relying on a screen reading program. Multi-directional texts can impose barriers for other types of impairments. Consider how you can simplify a similar design, perhaps creating separate one-row tables for each week or opting for a bullet list format, as shown in a syllabus template featured in our Syllabus Resources.

Opt for text clarity, including font and color.

Use fonts that are easy to decipher, and aim for 12-point size. While color can help a syllabus stand out and provide a friendly tone, ensure that color perception is not required to fully understand the content. Use high color contrast, and if you color-code information, describe the meaning in text as well. For instance, if you mark all required reading red, also include the word “Required” next to this text.

Reflect on the tone you set.

Whether the professor is gregarious, warm, reserved, soft-spoken, or aggressive, syllabi often fall into a rut of punitive language. Is this always necessary? Consider the tone with which you write you syllabus and how it best represents your rapport with students, your enthusiasm for the course concepts, and the rationale behind the syllabus content. For example, referring to office hours as “student hours” communicates an emphasis on the time as student-focused rather than focused on your office.

Accessibility and Syllabus Design at OU

Whether the professor is gregarious, warm, reserved, soft-spoken, or aggressive, syllabi often fall into a rut of punitive language. Is this always necessary? Consider the tone with which you write you syllabus and how it best represents your rapport with students, your enthusiasm for the course concepts, and the rationale behind the syllabus content. For example, referring to office hours as “student hours” communicates an emphasis on the time as student-focused rather than focused on your office.

An accessible syllabus is a significant start to developing accessible instructional materials. The Digital Accessibility for Faculty effort at OU provides resources and training opportunities to update the learning environment to meet web accessibility standards.


For more syllabus design consideration, visit CETL’s Syllabus Resources page.

References and Resources 

CETL Digital Accessibility Resources

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NCView all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.