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Diversifying your course syllabus

A resource guide for instructors and faculty to assist in reviewing or building new course syllabi with a focus on inclusivity and diversity in both style and content.

What is a diverse syllabus

What are the goals of an inclusive syllabus? 

Creating an inclusive environment for your course begins with an inclusive syllabus. It is not a question of checking demographic boxes, but of ensuring that students of all social identities feel welcome, represented, and seen, and that everyone has equitable access to the course materials. As Dr. Rai Reece (2021) points out, the traditional higher education classroom was not designed to include Black and Indigenous folks, People of Colour, women, persons with disabilities, persons with neurodiversity, etc. As a result, these spaces can still be unwelcoming. Bringing an inclusive lens to all aspects of course design, from the planning stages to lectures and assignments, will help to make all students feel welcomed and improve the learning environment for everyone. 

An inclusive syllabus will:

  • Have the flexibility built in, to provide options in timing, content, teaching approach, and delivery
  • Will address the needs of the students in the class

The overall goal is to ensure that inclusive strategies and practices become the norm and are built into the course plan from the beginning rather than being an afterthought or seen as an extra requirement. 

Visual chart. Diversity: of people, perspectives. Equity: in policy, practice, & position. Inclusion: via power, voice, & organizational culture. Justice: with equal rights & equitable opportunities


Defining Diversity

Types of inclusiveness to consider

People construct their identities in a number of intersecting ways. It may not be immediately clear how many and how deeply students can be affected by not feeling included, or how simple it can be to include them. Many things can affect a student's experience and success in your class including age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, neurodiversity, mental health status, educational background, work background, parental status, socioeconomic status, geographic location, political ideology, appearance, religious beliefs, and so on. It would be difficult to predict how a student's experience may be affected, but being flexible in assignments, assessment, timing & scheduling can help. 


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Where to begin

Steps to work towards inclusion

Review your course structure and materials to determine how accessible, diverse and inclusive they are.

You can start with the Syllabus Self-Assessment Tool highlighted above.

Interrogate why you have selected the content/readings/examples you have.

Can you broaden the perspectives that are represented by including different authors? Resources in formats other than textbooks and journal articles may provide access to more wide-ranging views (consider diverse guest speakers - see our section on finding diverse experts -, podcasts, academic blogs, Ted Talks, or films and videos).

Take an informative rather than punitive tone in your Syllabus.

Your syllabus is often the first communication you have with your students (Boucher, K. and Ryan, K. 2018). If your outline of deadlines, assignment weight, and class participation focus on punishments for not adhering to requirements, it can leave students feeling unfairly mistrusted and "never actually guarantee that unwanted behavior disappears" (Tulane University, 2015). Focus on positive language, like the terminology suggested by the Tulane Syllabus Project.

Punitive Syllabus Cooperative Syllabus
“Come prepared to actively participate in this course. This is the best way to engage you in learning” “I hope you actively participate in this course . . . because I have found it is the best way to engage you in learning.”
“traumatic events . . . are no excuse for not contacting me within 24 h” “traumatic events . . . are unwelcome and because I understand how difficult these times are, if you contact me within 24 h of the event and provide documentation, I will be happy to give you a make-up exam.”
“You must complete makeup work to receive credit.” “Feel free to complete makeup work to earn credit.”


“You are allowed to…” “You are welcome to…”
“I only accept…” “I encourage you to…”
“Late work receives a 40% reduction.” “Late work is eligible for 60% of original points.”

Adopt a growth mindset

A growth mindset "involves the belief that abilities are malleable and can improve with effort, feedback, and the appropriate strategies" (Canning, 2021). Wherever possible, be flexible with deadlines, assignments, and what you expect from your students. Focus on recognizing improvement and allow for feedback and resubmission. 

Confront the "canon"

If you are teaching from texts that are standard in your field, review them critically in terms of their inclusion. If they do not include diverse perspectives, examples, and authors consider adding additional resources to fill the gaps, replacing certain chapters, or finding an alternative to the textbook. If your discipline has diversity issues, address these with your class, and discuss what effects this has on the students and on the field.

Be aware of your own biases

Be aware of the types of unconscious bias that you may have, and how they can affect your teaching and how to counteract them. Take an implicit association test, created by Project Implicit, to learn about any implicit biases you may have about race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or other issues.

Start with a Syllabus Self-Assessment

Syllabus Self-Assessment Tool

Developed by the University of Kansas Center for Teaching Excellence, this assessment tool allows you to evaluate the inclusivity of your course and syllabus design and provides tools and guidelines to highlight the strengths and areas for improvement in the syllabus and improve the level of inclusivity for all students. 

The assessment tool is structured in levels, to help plan and make changes in the most effective way based on the needs and status of the individual course. 

Level 0 - Establish a Baseline

Level 1 - Perform a self-assessment

Level 2 - Make improvements to the course description

Level 3 - Make improvements to fundamental course elements

University of Kansas Syllabus Self-Assessment Tool website


Two tone illustration of poet Audre Lorde with the quote "There is no such think as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives"

Image source.

Students may experience a variety of different types of oppression resulting from a variety of aspects including gender, race, ability, religion, age, socio-economic status etc. Designing course plans and materials to be inclusive and flexible will better support the different experiences of each individual.

Syllabus Design Boot Camp

Want to revamp your syllabus but don't know where to start? University of Saskatchewan Professor Loleen Berdahl has put together a 5-day Syllabus Boot Camp that walks you through the process step by step. You can access the resources in this guide for each step to support you as you go.