2 The syllabus

In this chapter, we describe ways that the syllabus can be made more approachable and be used to communicate the inclusive nature of your course. First impressions count, and the syllabus serves this purpose. Since the syllabus is the students’ first contact with your course, this is an opportunity to communicate your intentions and create the environment you want for the course. While there are required elements, there is lots of room for your own voice and approach. “Accessible Syllabus” provides excellent recommendations for making the syllabus more readable, accessible, and additional tips on how to set and sustain an inclusive tone.

Sections in this chapter:

 Starting principles

The course’s syllabus needs to convey information to students that will be fundamental to their success. The information a syllabus contains needs to be easy to find and easy to understand. These characteristics are also part of engaging in inclusive teaching. Yet, reading the syllabus is likely to be the first interaction a student has with a course. Sure, the syllabus can take a “just the facts” tone with students, but this misses an opportunity to welcome students actively to a new learning experience.

As you launch into teaching, it’s a good time to examine your own assumptions, however many times you may have done so before. Are all the students equally ready to take on this new challenge, whether academically or in terms of their past experiences? Remember that the ongoing pandemic has created, for many, a sense of isolation that is distinct from what most present-day instructors have experienced in their own academic or personal backgrounds. For others, pandemic-related isolation might well be a relatively minor issue, given that many people have experienced grave personal challenges and losses that might make starting something new more difficult.

Students will need to demonstrate their capacity to learn the material courses convey, so setting an inclusive and welcoming tone at the outset of a course does not dilute the rigour of the course’s content. The objective of evaluating students’ learning in a course is to encourage them to learn course content well and to be able to apply it to solving problems. Another objective is likely to help students build foundations for more advanced learning and perhaps to impart professional skills as well. Conversely, the course should not apply a filter to students at the outset, tacitly encouraging students who fit the unconscious starting assumptions of the instructor, and discouraging others.

The syllabus is a place where you can embrace the diversity of all students, while still being clear about your expectations and pathways to success in the course.

As you work through this chapter, we recommend having your syllabus open and working along.

Remember to share the document with students in an accessible format and share it in a small file size (e.g., as a PDF set up for electronic distribution and accessibility).

Elements the syllabus has to include

There are some items that a syllabus has to include. For uOttawa, the list is below and is provided in the Academic Regulations:

  • the course description approved by Senate;
  • learning outcomes,
  • teaching methods;
  • assessment methods and weighting of grades;
  • a list of required and recommended readings;
  • a calendar of activities and evaluations;
  • course attendance requirements;
  • the professor’s contact information and office hours;
  • a reference to the regulation on plagiarism and academic fraud;
  • a statement that assessments can be written in French or English.

Starting to seem long? A little dry? Students will likely not take in the entire syllabus in a single sitting and that’s okay. The syllabus is their road map and reference document for important information in the course, which they can consult as needed. You may want to highlight various aspects of the syllabus at various times in your course, such as expectations about academic integrity leading up to major assessments and student resources throughout the course.

Rather than only stating regulations at students (the “just the facts” approach), which can come across as patronizing and impersonal, consider explaining why you value critical teaching practices. Academic integrity matters enormously as a matter of equity, for example, not simply because universities have rules about it. Cheating creates academic outcomes that do not reflect the effort that students put into their learning, subverting learning objectives and potentially contributing to perverse outcomes when scholarships are awarded. Maintaining standards around academic integrity is in the interests of students, in other words. There are learning opportunities for students, even at such moments, that might lead to better understanding of the challenges that professors must also meet.  A little mutual understanding is always a good thing, and illustrating that you care about why rules matter, not just that there are rules, can help students see past the imposition of conditions on their conduct to a deeper perspective.

Many institutions provide a template that can be used to make the job easier. uOttawa currently uses Simple Syllabus, a cloud-based syllabus template that is accompanied by university regulations and recommendations for creating the syllabus. Systems like this are great for ensuring your syllabus includes everything your university requires. The key thing is to ensure the content is there, not that you follow a pre-defined format. For most of the required elements, you can choose the tone and wording. More on that in the next section.

Screen capture of the course learning outcomes section of the online tool Simple Syllabus. Course Learning outcomes: General Course Learning outcomes and Specific Course Learning Outcomes. There is an information section on the right that says: This section is required (Academic Regulation I-8.5) but can be modified. Course learning outcomes (e.g., course objectives) are brief statements describing what students are expected to achieve or be able to accomplish by the end of the semester through participation in this course. Learning outcomes should be specific, measurable, and attainable. For more information on learning outcomes, please visit the TLSS resources. Updated 2021-07-20.
An excerpt from Simple Syllabus, a syllabus creation tool available at uOttawa and elsewhere.

Developing a tone of welcome and inclusion

Periodic table with rainbow, trans (white, pink, blue), and black and brown colours, with the title: "You are welcome here"

As the first document the students read in the course, the syllabus is a great place to welcome students and prepare the environment you want for the course. For example, you can introduce yourself and teaching assistants, including  pronouns (bear in mind that sharing pronouns is optional).

First impressions are made quickly. Set the tone when you start.

You can also include a statement about diversity and inclusion, which provides a chance to welcome all students to the course and to demonstrate that you care about doing so. However this is done, it is far better to include such a statement (even if you feel it is imperfect) than to avoid the matter entirely. You could also include a specific statement that you will work with students to implement approved accommodations (e.g., academic, religious, illness) or other flexibility that you include (e.g., sliding scale on a grading scheme).

Statements regarding diversity are likely to convey sincerity more effectively if they are personal to the instructor. It is easy to quote regulations or standard policy comments at these junctures, but that approach can be mistaken as performative, and the appearance of insincerity is antithetical to the aim of welcoming students of all backgrounds.

Image of the "KWEY" (welcome) sign on uOttawa campus with an Indigenous person standing behind it.
You can include an Indigenous affirmation, using one developed by your institution, another source, or going beyond the script. Here are some resources:
We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. We pay respect to all Indigenous people in this region, from all nations across Canada, who call Ottawa home. We acknowledge the traditional knowledge keepers, both young and old. And we honour their courageous leaders: past, present, and future. – Indigenous Affirmation from uOttawa

Course content sometimes takes a “colonial” tone, overwriting or ignoring Indigenous peoples’ experiences, knowledge, and precedence in history. Decolonizing curricula effectively requires thoughtful consideration of bias and conveying these views to students is worthwhile, even if completely eliminating such biases is a longer process. For example, one of the authors teaches ecology, and part of the history of this field, in a western scientific sense, is the pioneering work of 19th century naturalists, such as Darwin. Describing his work as stemming from “voyages of discovery” is accurate, on one hand, in that Darwin made observations leading to unique and new hypotheses about the evolution of life on Earth. On the other hand, most of the places he and other naturalists went had been occupied and shaped by human cultures for thousands of years or longer. The peoples in such areas, like the Amazon, had and have profound knowledge of their environments and the organisms that share them, and most of this wisdom was unacknowledged in the development of western science. The beginning of knowledge about how the world works is often treated as when western science first turned its sights on a particular topic. This view can be too narrow, in many contexts.

Yet, decolonizing a curriculum can be a long term challenge and consulting with Indigenous scholars and colleagues can help accelerate such an effort, and with reconciliation.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples notes (Article 15:1) notes that: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.” Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified a series of key principles and concluded with a series recommendations that are relevant to remodelling education to be more respectful of Indigenous cultures. Among these is the recognition that, “Reconciliation requires constructive action on addressing the ongoing legacies of colonialism that have had destructive impacts on Indigenous peoples’ education, cultures and languages, health, child welfare, the administration of justice, and economic opportunities and prosperity.” Surely, overwriting or failing to acknowledge Indigenous cultures is not in keeping with such aims.

Finally, we note that acknowledging the value of Indigenous inclusion explicitly sets a valuable and positive example for students, whether there are Indigenous persons in a particular course or not.

A note on gender declarations


Five people with signs that look like speech bubbles and contain their pronouns (she/they, he/him, she/her, they/them, they/them)..

Some people identify their gender (e.g., she/her, they/them) when they introduce themselves, in their signature, etc., including professors in their syllabi. A core reason for stating pronouns is to communicate that everyone is welcome in the course, including people of all genders. Declaring gender is completely optional; you, the teaching assistants, or students may not wish to do so. While there are good reasons for some to declare their gender, there is an endless array of reasons why people may not want to do so (imagine someone transitioning, for example). Such a declaration should remain a personal choice. Nevertheless, there is an important distinction between welcoming and embracing gender diversity (do this), versus forcing a choice upon others to declare their gender publicly (don’t do this).

In a related vein, there are a number of resources to learn more about sexual identity; UBC has created an infographic that can serve as a starting point.

Decisions about course resources

Textbooks and other course materials

Diversify Chemistry: Highlighting the diverse community of chemists.

As you make decisions about which textbook or other material to use in the course, choose accessible ones, respect copyright, and consider selection criteria that include EDI concepts: what experts (e.g., scientists) are represented, how are discoveries described, what kind of language does the resource use? For example, Diversity Chemistry is a site that can help find diverse examples of chemists who work in a variety of fields.

If you have any questions, the Library’s experts are available to support you—be sure to give them enough time to answer your questions or for additional support. For example, if you need to scan materials, the library’s Course Reserve Service (using Ares at uOttawa) can scan these for you, in an accessible version. If you’re showing films or videos, the library can support you in adding captions (and meet AODA requirements); they do need sufficient advance notice (e.g., 1 – 6 weeks).

Be sure that the course documents are accessible and respect copyright. Bonus points if you purposefully choose diverse sources and role models.

Open Education Resources (OERs)

OER by Discipline Guide: University of Ottawa

Consider using (OERs) in your course. OER are “learning and teaching materials that are freely and openly available”. They range from textbooks to entire courses and everything in between, including videos, podcasts, tests and exercises, websites, software, simulations, case studies, presentations slides, and more. The key is that they can be widely distributed and adapted because they are at no cost to the user and are not subject to the usual copyright restrictions. This openness is most often indicated by a Creative Commons licence.” –uOttawa Library


Benefits of OERs

Based on uOttawa’s description, here are some key benefits of OERs:

  • OER are affordable for students, making education more accessible.
  • OER allow you to customize and adapt to the course context, providing a richer teaching and learning opportunity.
  • Students can benefit from multiple learning styles because OER can incorporate various content formats (text, audio, video or multimedia) and interactive elements.
  • Remote and continued access since most OER are digital, do not require an access code and do not expire.
  • Contribute to students’ success and completion by easing their financial burden without having a negative impact on their learning (e.g., Bol et al., 2021)

Finding OERs for your discipline

You can find OERs through your library (e.g., uOttawa Library, by discipline) and other sources such as eCampusOntario and BCcampus.


Students can be intimidated by the idea of speaking with a professor—with you. 🙂  Introducing yourself is one of the ways you can become a little more approachable. Encourage students to connect with you and other members of your instructional team.

Some professors find that their office hours are not well-attended. There can be a few reasons for that, such as mis-matched schedule, difficulties finding or accessing the prof’s office, students not knowing what office hours are for, or students being intimidated by approaching the professor. Professors have taken a number of approaches to encourage students to make contact, described in the Chapter on course content and classes.

Learning outcomes

While this eBook talks primarily of changes the educator can make to create more inclusive course environments, we can also have expectations of the students’ knowledge, skills, and values with respect to equity, diversity, and inclusion as they complete a course or program. Much like other professional skills that students are expected to develop (e.g., teamwork, communication), what are your expectations for students’ learning in your course or program with respect to EDI?

Some examples could include the following, which are based on uOttawa’s chemistry graduate program-level learning outcomes and other sources:

  • Demonstrate and promote academic and professional integrity, including:
    • EDI-related knowledge, skills, and values and strategies to improve EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion)
    • Ethics in conducting experiments/studies and analyzing findings
    • Identifying potential conflicts of interest.

You may decide to ask students to self-assess these skills and later develop formal assessments ( or ).

Grading policies

Share your policies and procedures for for missed assessments, considering the language you want to use (e.g., Accessible Syllabus) and your institution’s existing policies (e.g., uOttawa’s academic regulations).

People things happen to people

All sorts of issues can arise for students (or ourselves!) during a semester, such as a sick family member, caring for siblings, technical issues, etc. You can consider other ways to incorporate flexibility in the course without adding to your own workload, such as allowing students to drop the lowest quiz/assignment mark or allowing multiple formats for an assignment submission.

Including other sections can also help students learn policies, regulations, and resources of the institution, including academic integrity policies, mental health, bilingualism (e.g., being allowed to write assessments in French or English), and Academic supports.

In summary, the syllabus is an opportunity  for inclusion, to engage with students and set a welcoming tone for the course!


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