Think UDL Podcast Logo


Inclusive Syllabus Design with Kirsten Helmer

Welcome to Episode 31 of the ThinkUDL podcast: Inclusive Syllabus Design with Kirsten Helmer. In this episode, we get the chance to discuss her presentation on inclusive syllabus design that is based on UDL principles. There are 6 parts to her presentation that we will discuss in detail and she has graciously provided her handout and presentation slides which are included in our resources section on the web page. These resources have a plethora of information and many links to other fantastic sources which will help anyone who is interested in designing their own inclusive syllabus. In our conversation, Kirsten mentions that these ideas will be included in an upcoming book chapter, but as of the release date of this podcast, it is not yet published. As soon as the book is available, we will update our resources to add a link to the book and her chapter in it. This really informative conversation provides a chance for those who are not able to travel to a conference themselves to still be able to benefit from the ideas shared there. I am so excited to share the work of such dedicated scholars and impassioned educators through the Think UDL podcast!


Start with your Syllabus: See the 30 slide presentation (PDF version) that Kirsten Helmer put together for the Goodwin College UDL symposium that goes through each of the 6 inclusive design principles based on Universal Design for Learning

UDL and Inclusive Syllabus Design: Here is Kirsten Helmer’s Word document format (8 pages) that goes through each of the 6 principles she mentions along with many links to external sources that you may find very helpful for designing your inclusive syllabus.

Find Kirsten Helmer here at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Center for Teaching and Learning to see all of her contact information

Learn more about what she and her colleagues are doing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Center for Teaching and Learning here.

2nd Annual UDL in Higher Education Conference at Goodwin College +1 Transformation by Design Conference 


[Lillian]  Welcome to Think UDL, the Universal Design for Learning podcast.  Where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. 


I’m your host, Lillian Nave, and I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding, and facilitating, but how you design and implement it, and why it even matters.  


Welcome to Episode 31 of the ThinkUDL podcast: Inclusive Syllabus Design with Kirsten Helmer. In this episode, we get the chance to discuss her presentation on inclusive syllabus design that is based on UDL principles. There are 6 parts to her presentation that we will discuss in detail and she has graciously provided her handout and presentation slides which are included in our resources section on the web page. These resources have a plethora of information and many links to other fantastic sources which will help anyone who is interested in designing their own inclusive syllabus. In our conversation, Kirsten mentions that these ideas will be included in an upcoming book chapter, but as of the release date of this podcast, it is not yet published. As soon as the book is available, we will update our resources to add a link to the book and her chapter in it. This really informative conversation provides a chance for those who are not able to travel to a conference themselves to still be able to benefit from the ideas shared there. I am so excited to share the work of such dedicated scholars and impassioned educators through the Think UDL podcast!  

So, welcome to the Think UDL podcast.  I’m here today at Goodwin College in East Hartford, Connecticut at the second annual Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education Conference, and today I have with me Kirsten Helmer who is the Director of Programming for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with the Center for Teaching and Learning at University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  So, thank you very much, Kirsten, for joining me today! 


[Kirsten]  Thank you very much, Lillian, for inviting me. 

[Lillian]  So, today’s conference is all about transformation, +1 by design, how we can use Universal Design for Learning in our teaching in higher ed, and you have a great idea that I wanted to talk to you about, which includes starting with your syllabus.  But, my first question for you is something I ask all of my guests, and that is what makes you a different kind of learner? 


[Kirsten]   So, when I think about that, I don’t really think I’m a different kind of learner.  First of all, I think every learner is different from any other learner, and so it’s a hard question for me to answer.  And even though I have been a really high achieving student throughout my whole life–which, for me, it indicates that I was able to really access the curriculum and participate in my education in ways that were expected and valued and so forth, I still know that certain types of pedagogy are really hard for me.  So, for example, I have a really hard time following lectures even when they are supported by visuals, like a powerpoint, which we usually do nowadays, right, I just feel myself zoning out very very quickly and get distracted so it doesn’t really work for me to lecture.  What I really need as a learner is to be highly engaged, for it to be highly interactive, and for the content to really matter and be relevant to my life.  So, when I really excelled in what was being asked of me as a learner, it was when I had a choice, for example, in topic, and I could really dig deep into something that was important to me.  So, I think that was the best way for me to learn and also to learn with others.  So, I’m not a–even though I never really liked study groups, but in the classroom, I really liked to engage with other people and talk it through and not just think for myself.  


[Lillian]  So, I would imagine then once you know that about yourself, you’re going to provide options for your students and allow for that kind of effective part, learning with others, that’s an important part of your teaching.   


[Kirsten]  Oh, absolutely, yes.  I’m teaching a first year seminar, and its all what some people nowadays call relational teaching, so I mean its very important for me to really build a community in my classroom, and my class is very engaged, and some people might say, well, you’re not really teaching because I lecture very, very little, right, so I really think about like my students of course they do get readings, they usually have a reading response to make sure that they have engaged with the readings, and sometimes students say well, but we don’t really talk that much about the readings because I really try to engage them around the readings, you know, with in-class activities, discussions, but also experiential learning activities and so forth.  So, that is very, very important to me.   


[Lillian]   Oh, yes.  You know, I happen to teach first year seminar as well, and I used to be an art history professor, so it was a lot of lecture, and kind of the general survey.  And now that I teach first year seminar and I’ve really come to adopt UDL in my design thinking, I lecture–out of forty classes, I think I have three days that I do a mini-lecture because it is all that relational learning, they have a reading recap I ask them to do before they come in so we can dig in, and I’ve found that, like you, I need that community of learners.  So, there’s probably a reason why I sought you out, I needed to talk to you and now I know partially why that was. 


[Kirsten]   Yeah, and another thing that I do is I do try to provide options for my students in ways they respond.  So, for example, during different weeks I ask them to choose between writing their reading response as the mini essay, which is what they are used to, right, or doing a concept map.  And then I say the next time I offer you the option, those people who wrote an essay the first time, please do try the concept map this time, and vice versa, right?  Or for the final reflection, I encourage them to be creative and I give them a lot of different options because sometimes I feel like even our students are sometimes, they don’t quite know what to do with the freedom.  So, if you just say write a creative reflection, they don’t really know what to do, so I give them like a list of twenty-five different things.  So, you can do a blog, a podcast, you can do a collage, you can use photography, you can even create a board game or a mind map or whatever you want, so just be creative, and I’ve had some really really amazing stuff come out of that.  So, some of my students have used–they created like an animated cartoon where they talked to–so, one represented the student, and the other his Grandma and he was explaining course concepts to his Grandma, which was really awesome.  One student wrote a poem and talked about every single class–all the things we talked about in each class, but in poem form, it was so amazing.  One student did a podcast and led into that with a very personal anecdote from his family and connected it to what we talked about in terms of classroom agreements, you know, and connected it even to the topic of love, this was a male student, you know, and so it brought out really unexpected things from this side of my students.  Things I could have never anticipated before, you know, just by opening it up, it was awesome. 


[Lillian]  That’s really fantastic.  So that’s a lot of learning and you’re allowing the students to use their strengths and their desires, those choices, to bring that class content forward.  Fantastic.  So, you’ve–you’re coming here today to talk about the “Start with your Syllabus: Applying UDL Principles to an Inclusive Syllabus Design,” and I would love for you to be able to tell our listeners who all can’t be here because the conference sold out, so how can we find out more about what that means, and you have six principles of an inclusive syllabus.  So, I’d love for you to walk us through what those are. 


[Kirsten]  Ok, so I think what I first want to say is why I did this work.  So, I think its because the syllabus really is typically the first point of interaction that we have with our students, right, and more and more like at U Mass where I work and teach, we are required now to post our syllabus online through our student management system, through SPIRE, and so students can access this document before they even set foot into the classroom, right, so knowing that, for me it becomes really important to use that document in very intentional ways.  And if I want to create an inclusive and welcoming and supportive classroom environment, to already use this syllabus as a tool to communicate that, right, to communicate to my students right from the onset, you know, by the way, of how I design my syllabus.  This is for me, for example, a different type of class.  So they already know what to expect  when they step foot into my actual classroom then later on.   


[Lillian]   Great.  So, do these–so students can have access to this weeks before they’re starting?   

[Kirsten]  Yes, yes absolutely.  I mean, I think as soon as they enroll in the course, if the syllabus is posted, they can access the syllabus.  So, its really important I think to pay attention to that and not just see it as–often, when I do a workshop on the six principles of an inclusive syllabus, I ask the audience members: so what are the first words that come to your mind when you think about a syllabus?  And the first word that comes to most minds is contract, right?  A lot of people think of the syllabus as simply a contract.  Something that backs them up, you know, that is meant to provide them some sense of safety in terms of maybe legal issues that might follow, and what that does to a syllabus is it turns it into this kind of fake legal document because it really isn’t a legal document, right, but it gives a false sense of being that.  What it also means is that–we have seen a trend where syllabi turned more and more punitive, really, right?  It was all about you can’t do this, if you do this you’re going to be penalized for it, you know, just to prevent certain behaviors that faculty see as problematic in students, you know, to prevent that from happening.  And I think that’s a very problematic approach because right away it puts us into an almost adversary position to our students.  So instead of like connecting with them, we kind of put up a wall already, right, and so the idea behind this work is really to remove that barrier.  Similar to Universal Design for Learning, right, where its like we want to remove barriers to learning, and so the syllabus actually can be a barrier for learning.   


[Lillian]  Right, and I know that as a faculty member, we have so many things we’re required by the administration to put in these syllabi, and it feels like it becomes a document for the administration.  And you are really bringing to mind the idea that this is actually for the students, as the learner-focus, that’s your first principle, it really should be for the students, and not for the administration because when it’s for the administration, it has this adversarial, somewhat aggressive tone to it.  “If you don’t attend class, here’s what happens.  If you cheat, or plagiarize, here’s what happens.  If you have to miss class, for a religious event, here’s our policy, policy, policy.”   And it sets the tone, you’re right, it really sets the tone for that class, so I’m really excited that you are having faculty think about that tone that they set for the community they are about to create with these students. 


[Kirsten]  Yes, absolutely.  And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t put policies into our syllabus, right– 

[Lillian]  They’re important, too. 

[Kirsten]   I’m advocating for slightly re-framing how we do things, right, so the tone that we are using, the language that we are using, to adapt that.  And the other thing is–and we can talk about that a little bit later because you really wanted to go through the six principles, right so I’m already tapping a little bit into one of the principles which is about having supportive course policies, and it really becomes about also getting our students to understand why these policies matter and to give them the resources necessary so that they can abide by these policies because often, our syllabi are kind of, I don’t know, not everybody knows the term hidden curriculum, right?  So, a hidden curriculum are kind of the unwritten implicit rules and norms and expectations and messages that circulate in any institution and also in our classrooms.  And a syllabus actually is part of that hidden curriculum often because we don’t talk explicitly about why these things matter or we don’t tell our students what is academic honesty actually, what does it mean to plagiarize, and not everybody knows that, right?  And so the idea is really to make these things also explicit in an inclusive syllabus.   


[Lillian]  And I know that those ideas too can be different in different contexts, you know, and if you want your students to be sharing ideas with each other and creating content together, that is different than what they might be told in another class where you’re not supposed to share.  And its much more competitively focused.  So, students are really learning what is expected, right, in that class. 


[Kirsten]   Exactly, yes. 

[Lillian]   OK, wow, I know our listeners would like to know all about this, and we will have in our resources some–for this–on our website for the Think UDL podcast, we’ll have resources that they  can look up these, and I know you’ve got a book chapter coming out, so we’ll have a link to that, too in the website.  So–but, for now, tell me about these things that we must think about when we create an inclusive syllabus design. 


[Kirsten]  Yeah, so, to lead into that I just want to acknowledge that this is not original work in the sense–I didn’t come up with all of these things, but I really read as much of the relevant literature as I could find out there, you know, and then I synthesized it into these six principles.  So I just want to like give credit to all the folks–and I’m not going to mention them, but I will give you the resources, you know, and the references that I’m really using in the book chapter and also in the presentation today.  And so, I really focus on six principles and I want to preface it all by saying one principle is not there and that is the diversification of course content.  So, because I wanted to focus more on things that a lot of people don’t think about, I think the first point for many people is when they think about a more inclusive syllabus, inclusive course, is maybe to make the content more diverse, right?  So, to have a diverse representation of voices in the curriculum and that is critically important too, so I’m not addressing that here and you already mentioned it so the first principle that I identified is really a focus on student learning.  So, really think about, as you write your syllabus, your audience might also be your department and other administrators, right?  But its also your students.  So to really write your syllabus with the student as the audience in mind.  And so that also means to shift away from a focus more on content to one that is really focused on learning, right?   A lot of the times, a syllabus just lays out, you know, what we are doing in a course like the readings, the assignments, the grading, all of those things.  But that doesn’t really provide what some people call a pathway of learning through the course.  So, I really like to think of the syllabus as providing signposts, you know, where students know, OK, so, this is something that I need to know about the content, but these are things I need to know to be able to learn successfully in this class, for example.  So, I also re-phrase the headings in my syllabus, for example.  So, I try to move away from saying just course overview, you know, but to phrase it in terms of questions, for example, or more intriguing statements, and, like I say, I have a whole section on what will help you be successful in this course.  And so that’s where I have a lot of the policies and grading and resources and so forth.  So that already shifts, I think, the narrative somewhat for the students. 


[Lillian]  And, those essential questions, is that how you–instead of saying topic one, topic two, you say that the essential questions are ideas that you cover, is that kind of that organizing part of what the students are seeing?  Tell me about those big essential questions that you talk about. 


[Kirsten]  So, the essential questions, that’s really like connected to Wiggins and McTighe’s Backwards Design process, so because the syllabus and course design, they are intricately linked, right, so I mean, the syllabus is basically the document that communicates your course design.  And so the idea is really instead of just giving topics, which doesn’t give the students a lot to anticipate, right, because when they enter our course, they might not even understand often the terms, or it doesn’t really give them any idea of what they will be doing in any class session if it just says chapter two and the title of the chapter, right?  But, if you think in terms of questions, right away you know, like, what are the questions you want to explore with your students throughout the course?  And then how do these questions connect, you know, it also helps you actually design your course from–so, what I like–the first questions leading into a topic and then building a narrative arc almost, right, and it makes it easier for students to follow, too.  What I also found is that as faculty, we come into a course–we design a course and come from an expert’s mindset, right?  These are usually things we know a lot about, our students don’t.  They come into our classes with a beginner’s mindset, and so what might seem obvious to us is not obvious to them.  But if we create like these questions, first of all, its intriguing, it motivates students, so all of these are also things that are connected to Universal Design for Learning, right, because it–Universal Design for Learning is not just about accessibility, its also about recruiting interest from our students.  So, this is one of the ways we can do that. 


[Lillian]  And I love that idea about helping those novice learners or beginners in a particular field to connect the dots.  And as an expert in the field, we often forget that it took a while to connect those things in the beginning, and if we start going 100 miles an hour, our students are never going to catch up.  So, helping them make those connections, I feel its like a spider web, you know, that we are drawing these lines to connect the dots, is really essential especially you and I both deal with first year students.  So, they’re coming into something they’ve probably never been apart of, they’ve never heard of, and there’s just different ways to think in each discipline.  Like, how you piece together something in biology is very different than how you piece together something in the arts, art history or poetry, right, so–really different ways of thinking that we have to in essence train our students on how to do and maybe its innate, we feel its innate, but really we’ve just been doing it so long that its part of our job to teach those students you know how to make those connections.  So, I love that, I wanted to bring that out and spend time on it because oftentimes we think its–or professors will think its our job to be the expert and not give the insight into the beginner brain, but we really do and that’s part of the teaching part. 


[Kirsten]  Exactly, so its like talking–allowing our students to see the bigger picture, right?  And often, that is not the case and its very like discreet just week by week by week, right, but its hard for our students to really see how it all comes together and so if we really think in terms of the big essential questions or big themes, and communicate that to our students, it makes it easier for them to follow that. 


[Lillian]  Right.  Otherwise, it’s a bunch of these discrete, almost overwhelming parts, and they don’t see how it fits together and then its easy to forget, like why did I learn this part?  If you don’t know how it connects to the next part.   


[Kirsten]   Absolutely, yeah.   

[Lillian]  Great.  And the third principle that you have is UDL connections, and here we are at a UDL conference, and so what are kind of the main takeaways that you wanted to get about point three of UDL connections in an inclusively designed syllabus?   


[Kirsten]   Yeah, in part, we already talked about that a little bit, right, in terms of setting the tone for the course, motivating our students, being intriguing and so forth, and to add onto that, I think, a syllabus can really provide an opportunity for us as instructors to showcase our pedagogical practices and intentions.  And so if we embrace Universal Design for Learning pedagogy, right, or that as a framework for our course design and our pedagogical practices, then we can use the syllabus to already communicate that to our students.  And so the syllabus in that sense can also function as an organizational tool so it can really help you to strengthen your syllabus in a way that makes it more accessible to students, for example, to communicate that accommodation is the norm and not the special case, and this is a quote actually from Annemarie–and I hope I pronounce her name right–Womack, of Tulane University, you know, because of the way we structure our course and our syllabus to illustrate how we design our course with learner variability in mind, you know, so already we communicate how we provide multiple paths to learning and success in our course and we already communicate that there will be a variety of options and flexibility for accessing and processing course content or participating in the course or assessing skills and knowledge.  So if our students read, OK, there’s not just quizzes and a midterm exam and a final exam or maybe a final essay or whatever, right, but that there are other options so this is already like these are the signposts I talked earlier about, right, its like, oh, its possible for me, you know, to show that I’m learning in a different way in this course, so I can already do that in my syllabus and we can already acknowledge that students learn differently, right, by re-framing  some of the policies, for example.  We can also provide explicit information for our students that will help them plan priorities and we talked about seeing the larger picture of learning in the course.  So, there’s a lot of ways, you know, Universal Design for Learning really connects  


[Lillian]  Yeah, its hard to pull it out, right, into a different point and it seems–when you were telling me this, it seems like when you have a UDL designed syllabus or infused, you’re telling the students about those three parts, like the three columns on the CAST guidelines, about the how, the what, and the why.  Why are we learning this?  How are we going to learn this?  And what are we learning?  And usually the syllabus just concentrates on the “what.”  So, when you add the why should we learn it and the how are we going to learn it, it really does re-frame and re-shape what that learning experience is going to be like, and moves I think also it moves away a little bit from that adversarial, somewhat aggressive “here’s what I know, you’re going to have to know it,” to–and “I’m the expert and I will judge you”–into “wow, look at all these questions we get to ask together and how we’re going to ask them and why should we be asking them.”  It’s a really different framing. 


[Kirsten]  It is a very different framing, exactly, and it really goes back to the first principle where its like moving away from the content focus to the how and why learning focus, right? 


[Lillian]  Yes, absolutely.  So, you also have really pulled out some I think important things in your last three principles of an inclusive syllabus design.  So number four is inclusive, motivating language, and I’d love for you to tell us a little bit more about what you mean there. 


[Kirsten]  The starting point for this is really to think also of a syllabus as any text.  It is not just a document, but it’s a rhetorical document, right, so we do need to be aware of the tone and the rhetoric we are using throughout our syllabus.  And so, it really communicates issues about power and authority between the instructor and the students, right, I mean you just talked about, again, the adversarial roles we sometimes take, right, and how we can re-frame it in ways of I become more the guide of your learning, the facilitator, which is really the pathway we’re trying to take more and more in higher education, right, where we’re moving–want to move away in many ways from the instructor as the expert, the sage on the stage, the one who holds all the expert knowledge, and just impart it to the student’s brain, you know, and they’re just kind of meant to absorb it, to one where the instructor is the one who actively engages students with their learning, right, and provides opportunities for learning and guides them in their learning.  And so if we want to go that route in our classroom I think we really need to think about how we already begin to communicate that in our syllabus, right, because otherwise there’s kind of this gap. 


[Lillian]  Right, a real disconnect between what you say and what you do. 

[Kirsten]  A real disconnect, exactly.  And so its also that often syllabi present really problematic assumptions about students, right, so its already–the students read the syllabus and they might feel like, oh, so I’m not being trusted, I’m not viewed as somebody who brings something to this classroom, strength, prior knowledge, experience, questions, and all of these things, right?  I’m not one–somebody who can assume responsibility, you know, and become self-motivated and an independent learner, and so forth.  So, if we want our students to be all that, right, we–I think we really need to communicate that in our syllabus.  And there’s actually research out there that shows if we like use what some people call “warm language” in our syllabus, that students already come into the classes with a different expectation, so they often regard the instructor as more friendly, as more supportive, you know, they come with more openness into the class, they’re more willing to take risks in the classroom, you know, and to ask questions themselves and so forth, so that’s really important. 


[Lillian]  And that neuroscience of the brain, I know that has influence and is the basis of many of the UDL principles, talks about that effective part of learning and effective part of the brain.  So if you are in an environment where you feel aggression or you feel like that’s–somebody’s out to get you, somebody doesn’t trust you, right, you are less likely to open yourself up to learn something because you’re closing things down.  So, just that warm language is inviting the student to learn.  Not just inviting them into the class, but putting them in an environment where they’re much more likely to learn the things that you have for them to learn, rather than it be a struggle.  So, I was so impressed by learning the neuroscience that goes into the UDL guidelines.  Allison Posey, whose also here at the conference and I talked to her before about that, engaging the brain neuroscience, that something we think is so small actually has a huge effect on the environment and the ability for the brain to absorb material and for the student to learn.  So, I’m so glad that inclusive motivating language means that we’re thinking about the diversity of students, the variability of learning, and we are trying to motivate with that language.  So, really important for a professor to have in mind if we go through our syllabi, you know, hopefully our listeners will then be able to look through their syllabus and say is that motivating language?  Is that discouraging language?  What can I do that creates the environment for a brain to learn?  So, thank you for that.  Is there anything in particular you want to–do you highlight about your motivating language or inclusive language that you do in your workshops or anything you wanted to share about that? 


[Kirsten]  Yeah, one very simple shift is, for example, to move away from the impersonal, the course, or the students will do this or that, to using personal pronouns.  So, to really address the student.  This is a document for the student, so say, “you” will do this or that, or “my hope is” that you will  learn this throughout the course, or by the end of this course “you” will have achieved these learning outcomes, right, so that’s a really small thing that I think all of us can do without getting into any intricacies about  what is warm language, because sometimes people feel like, well, maybe if this is going a little too far, some people have said, be more inviting you know instead of telling students what to do like if you miss an assignment, you know, instead of saying “for every day that you turn in your assignment late, it will be deducted by so and so many points or whatever you use, half a letter grade it will be penalized,” often the word “penalized” is actually used in the syllabus, right?  Why not just say “you have the option to turn in missed assignments for partial credit.”   


[Lillian]  There you go, yeah. 

[Kirsten]  Right?  I mean, because that, for me, is a very empowering way, because it leaves it up to the student, its like OK, I missed an assignment, because we also know our students nowadays, they are so stressed out, so many of them hold jobs, right, they’re involved in all kinds of activities, they have family responsibilities– 


[Lillian]  They’re commuting, its not the old student that we knew twenty years ago, right?  That had all the time in the world, that were totally focused on school, lived on campus, we have a wide variety of students now. 


[Kirsten]   Absolutely, and so in addition to student who struggle with mental health issues and anxiety and so forth and depression, right, and so a lot of students have a hard time with deadlines.  And I’m not saying we shouldn’t have deadlines at all, right, but just to provide this option to still turn in assignments, you know, even if they’re late, for partial credit, its an important shift for me, you know? 


[Lillian]  Yeah, it definitely lets off a little bit of that steam or pressure and gives students choice, again, not just in which assignment or how they’re doing the assignment, but if they know that they can take a partial credit, or they can have that choice, then that gives them a little bit more ownership, right, the ability to make some choices for their daily living and what they can do that week, I guess.  And you also have–really that’s somewhat similar–the fifth part of an inclusive syllabus design is supportive course policies.  You hinted at that, talked a little about that before, can you tell me a little bit more  


[Kirsten]  Yes, so, this is, I think, a really critical and central part for me about an inclusive syllabus, to think about course policies because they often make up a major part of a syllabus, and also we are often required to really put those into a syllabus, right, and one important thing is that just like any text I think policies and procedures and expectations are not neutral, right, they reflect cultural norms and expectations, and so again as we have a more diverse student population, not all of our students implicitly understand all of these policies, right, and the rationales behind them.  And so they might not understand why they are even there.  Another thing is that often these policies around attendance and punctuality and deadlines or classroom civility more recently, right, we already talked about the punitive approach, but also they really stress just accountability and how students self-present in a class as keys to success.  So, rather than focusing on learning, they focus on accountability and self-presentation, which I think is really really interesting, right?  So, if we want to move away from that really acknowledge that students have an active part in their learning, right?  We often need to think about how we frame or re-frame course policies and how they can do this and so these supportive course policies, they really help students understand the rationale behind them–the course policies–and they provide also comprehensive information about resources and supports that will help them abide by the policies  and be successful learners.  And so they clearly state what we otherwise might just imply, right, again coming back to what I said earlier about the hidden curriculum.  Often, its part of the hidden curriculum.  And so, part of that has to do with warm and supportive language, and part of it has to do with resources and helping our students to develop self-coping skills basically. 


[Lillian]  Right, and how they can be successful, right, this is all part of how a student can be successful in that course.  Like, here’s the reason why I’m telling you this, not to get you in trouble, and not to cover my back as a faculty member, I’m telling you about these policies because this is how you can be successful in this environment, at this school, in this class.  I want you to know the how and they why of what we are learning and how to be successful. 


[Kirsten]  Absolutely, and even that already re-frames something, right, or it tells the students, OK, my professor is not out there to get me.  Its not about weeding me out, but my instructor has a real interest in me succeeding in this course, and that is just so so important, right? 


[Lillian]  Yes, it is.  And that–we talked about–we’ve been talking around this issue of relational learning and that so many of these things that–all of these things that you’ve been talking about that relationship even when you said changing “the student” and “the course” to “I” will do this and “you” will do–you know, you are going to learn this, that makes it into this relationship rather than an abstract concept, right?  So, super important again part of that effective brain part and a warm environment so that the brain can learn.  Alright, and the last part of your inclusive syllabus is about accessible design, which is a major part too of what UDL is, so– 


[Kirsten]  I was just wondering if I could give a few examples about how to re-frame some of these statements 


[Lillian]  Please do! 


[Kirsten]  Yeah?  So, one is in relation to disability accommodation statements.  I think most institutions probably nowadays they have a disability accommodations statement, and the problem behind that is that it really only provides students who have legal access to accommodations with–so, the instructor is communicating only those students, you know, are covered by this accommodations statement.  But we know that a lot of our students actually do not access legal accommodations for disability services office for a variety of reasons.  Some students simply don’t want to go there even though they could have them.  I think the numbers are actually pretty low for students, I think that’s changing a little bit, but still, not everybody who could get accommodations actually does get it.  And then there are all those students who have all kinds of learning differences.  You asked me at the beginning of the interview, right, how am I a different learner?  And so nothing like that would ever be like covered by legal disability accommodations.  So, to change it into an inclusive learning statement would really go a long way, and that doesn’t mean–you still probably need the disability accommodations statement that the university wants in there, but to add onto that.  And so, for example, I lead into mine by saying “your success in this class is really important to me.  I recognize that all of us learn differently,” right?  So, “if at any point in the semester you find that there are barriers to your learning, please contact me and we will work together to find ways so that you can be successful in this course.”  So, that way we don’t just also kind of focus on students with disabilities and make them feel maybe like an outcast or different or whatever, right, but its something that applies to all students.    So, it normalizes you know that we all learn differently.  So, a really important place.  The other statement that I change is really office hours.  Again, often, it is really a barrier to learning because some students know how to use office hours and they do use them.  Other students do not use them because they are either afraid, intimidated, they don’t know what the purpose is, or they think the purpose is just to go when they are struggling and not before, and so I write it in a very inviting way, first of all.  I provide lots of flexibility so I don’t just have office hours but I say right away if those office hours don’t work for me–and quite honestly none of my students ever come to my office hours, they always come at different times, right, and so just talk to me or email me and we will find a time because I have a small class, I have the privilege of inviting every single one of my students to my office hours.  So, everyone has to meet with me for fifteen minutes during the semester and I tell them, you know, this is important, its important that you forge connections with your instructors.  At some point, you will need letters of reference, for example, right, and so you need to know–some of your professors need to know you beyond just being an anonymous face in the classroom. 


[Lillian]  Right, and I heard a lot of great ideas about those office hours, from virtual office hours, you could do a Zoom or a video conference, students can–that way they don’t have to navigate a faculty building, and they can have a conference, especially–I’ve had it at nine at night, you know, so a student in their dorm who needs some help about their research, and–or changing the idea of office hours, the name, to student hours, like that’s–its serving the students, so I put student hours on my door, and then I’ve also just learned–again, I didn’t come up with these, but ideas about walking meetings.  So, walking around–we have a big lawn on our campus, so I say, hey, I need to get some exercise, so we can walk and talk, I’ve done that with students, or meet at the coffee shop, or meet–you know, I have a colleague who thinks about our students and food insecurity, and has made one of his office hours at our local pizza place where they sell a dollar a slice, he says he’s there every Wednesday, come on over and have pizza at this kind of low cost meal.  So, its inviting, right, to have the students come and he gets more people at that office hour than any other, so again, that warmth, that relational part, is so important for our students. 


[Kirsten]  Absolutely, yeah.  And the last thing I wanted to mention, we talked a little bit about plagiarism already, but I wanted to mention pronoun policies.  So, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, students and now also staff and faculty actually have the option to identify their pronouns.  And so the Stonewall Center created a pronoun statement and–which really communicates to students first of all that its OK to have a chosen name and your chosen pronouns, also that everybody in that classroom will be attentive to that and be respectful.  It doesn’t mean that mistakes will not happen, right, but at least if we already put that into our syllabus, it communicates especially to students who are non-binary in their gender, right, that they are also welcome in our classrooms. 


[Lillian]  Right, again that safer place, welcoming place lets the brain learn.  Awesome.  And that last part of the inclusive syllabus is about accessible design, tell me about that. 


[Kirsten]  Well, that really is about how reader friendly and accessible is the syllabus.  So, often when you think about a syllabus,  its either very short and brief, and holds basically no information beyond the assignments and the course topics, or a traditional syllabus is very dense and text-heavy and actually really hard to read, right, so its no surprise that a lot of our students don’t read it and its especially hard for students with dyslexia or with ADHD or a learning disability or non-native speakers of English, right, and so the idea behind that is to change the visual design of our syllabus to make it more reader-friendly.  And one of the things that you can do, for example, is to make sure that you use true headings in a syllabus so that it can be easily navigated, and to think about including a table of contents because often our students now access on an electronic device, right, so if you have in your syllabus hyperlinks, document internal hyperlinks in a table of contents that links to these parts, students don’t have to scroll through all the pages, right, they can just click on it and then they are in that section that is really important for them right now.  And the same is actually true for screen readers as far as I know, so I’m not a screen reader expert by any means, but from what has been communicated to me, its like when you have the table of contents, then again the student can tell the screen reader OK go to that hyperlink and they don’t have to go through the whole syllabus, right, so that’s a really important thing to do.  Another thing is that often its like over multiple pages what’s the course schedule is spread out over multiple pages which I think makes it really hard for students to read it too.  So, the research shows that a course schedule in table form is much easier for students to read, right, and so you can have each class session with the date, and then you can have for example the essential question of the day leading into the topic, and you can have a column that tells students OK, so what do I need to do to prepare for this class all in that column and then some reminders maybe in another column.  And that way its really concise and easily readable. 


[Lillian]  Yeah, so–and that tells everybody that they’re important, right, so everybody can access it, everybody can read it in the way that they’re comfortable, everybody knows what’s going on.  So, again, everybody’s included, so it makes sense that this is inclusive syllabus design.  So, thank you very much, Kirsten, for talking with me and going through all of these six principles of an inclusive syllabus.  I can imagine our listeners can take their syllabus and listen to this podcast episode and go through and say, what can I do that makes my syllabus more inclusive?  So, I appreciate all of the work you did, I know you said this isn’t original, but really the synthesis of bringing these important concepts together, we really appreciate all of that work that you’ve done.  So, thank you very much. 


[Kirsten]  Thank you so much, Lillian, for having me and allowing me to share this work, and hopefully a lot of people find it inspiring and will make their syllabi not just more accessible, but also more student-friendly. 


[Lillian]  Oh, great.  I hope so too, thank you.   

[Kirsten]  Thank you very much. 



[Lillian]   You can follow the Think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the website.  The Think UDL podcast is made possible by College STAR, the STAR stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post-secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aids based on UDL principles.  If you’d like to know more, go to the website.  Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University, where, if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw an apple at you!  The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey Quartet, comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell, and Jose Cochez.  Our sound engineer is Tanner Jones, and I am your host, Lillian Nave, thank you for joining us on the Think UDL podcast.  


Blog at

%d bloggers like this: