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Module 4: Course Design

Designing a Syllabus that Attends to Accessibility

The syllabus is your opportunity to map a path for students through your course. As it is typically the first set of instructions your learners will encounter, it’s the ideal place to begin planning for accessibility and inclusion in the classroom.

 

All students benefit from an organized and complete syllabus, and from advanced access to the syllabus. They are better equipped to plan their semester if they have a clear idea of:

  • Their instructor’s expectations and teaching style;
  • The course learning goals and schedule of activities;
  • Required purchases and reading material;
  • Due dates and descriptions of assignments; and
  • Any classes or activities that will be held outside of the primary classroom environment (e.g. library session, field trip, lab), access to which may take advanced planning.

 

Accessible Education Suggestions: Applying Explicitness

There are several ways you can apply the Accessible Education method of Explicitness in your syllabus. We encourage you to explicitly communicate to students your:

  • Availability and Interest;
  • Plans and Expectations;
  • Commitments to Equity and Inclusion; and
  • Routes for Accessing Resources and Supports.

 

Availability and Interest

Clearly list your contact information (office, email, phone), varied ways that students can connect with you, and what they can expect in terms of a turnaround time for a response. The idea isn’t to be available to students 24/7, but to be explicit about your availability and to offer several different ways for students to approach you.

This could include:

  • Regularly scheduled in-person office hours held in your office or in a more informal environment (e.g. coffee shop on campus)
  • Email communication and meetings by appointment
  • Time at the beginning or end of class to address student questions
  • Designated online office hours where students can contact you and expect a quick response
  • Online discussion boards or chats on Avenue2Learn
  • Offering feedback on draft assignments

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Plans and Expectations

Prepare and make available to students information about course plans and expectations, including details related to: course learning outcomes, classroom activities, the schedule of topics, and assessment instructions and due dates.

 

Learning Outcomes: A list of well-developed learning outcomes can act as a compass or anchor, orienting students to course goals and themes. Augment this list with a jargon-free, plain language, narrative description of your course.

 

Teaching and Learning Activities: Describe the learning approaches that will be used throughout the course (e.g. seminars, labs, simulations, hands-on learning that will require the manipulation of materials/tools). This will help students identify possible accessibility barriers early on so that they can be addressed.

 

Class Schedule: In order to arrive at your class ready to learn, students need time and information. Be as explicit as you can about weekly topics and stick to your course outline of scheduled activities. Give advance notice in multiple ways if there will be changes. Offer instructions for how students should prepare for class.

 

Assessment: Explain to students how they will be assessed and lay out test and/or assignment deadlines. It is possible for students to demonstrate achievement of a course’s intended learning in multiple ways as long as both the instructor and student know what these essential learning outcomes are.

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  • Listen to Dr. Catherine Anderson describe the checklists she creates for students in a first year course to support them in understanding expectations and staying on track.

  • Consider these tips for writing clearly and simply. While applicable to the preparation of all course materials, writing clearly and simply is especially important in course outlines that set up expectations and instructions for the course (WebAIM, 2017).
  • Enroll in this free online module to review best practices for lesson planning, including the creation of learning outcomes, selection of active and engaged learning activities, and the use of assessments to evaluate learning (MyGradSkills.ca, n.d.).

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Commitments to Equity and Inclusion

Include information about accessibility, equity, and spiritual and religious accommodation.

 

Accessibility: Add an accessibility or teaching statement early on in your syllabus that encourages students to approach you to discuss their learning needs or any barriers they are experiencing in the classroom. Including this material early in the syllabus informs students that accessibility is an intentional and integral aspect of your teaching, rather than a formality.

 

Equity: Consider incorporating an equity and inclusion statement that informs students of your commitment to mutual respect and full participation for all students. It could also encourage students who believe they have experienced harassment or discrimination on the basis of grounds protected by Ontario’s Human Rights Code (1990) to contact the Equity and Inclusion Office for support.

 

Spirituality: Include information about McMaster’s relatively new Policy on Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances (otherwise known as the RISO policy) so that students know how to request accommodations (McMaster University, 2015a). A RISO statement for course outlines is expected to be reviewed by Senate in the near future. In the meantime, here are sample statements to include in your syllabus.

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  • Listen to Dr. Sue Baptiste describe the use of accessibility statements in the School of Rehabilitation Science.

  • Review sample equity and inclusion statements made available through the Refocus Project, a resource developed to support equity work in higher education (Funckes, Kroeger, Loewen & Thornton, n.d.).

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Routes for Accessing Resources and Supports

Let students know that there are supports available both on and off campus to assist them with any number of concerns, such as: academic skills, English as an additional language, employment, housing, finances, food access, spirituality, isolation, emotional distress, sexuality, health, and harassment.

This includes the existence of a Sexual Violence Response Coordinator, who can assist students who have been impacted by past or present experiences of violence.

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  • Review available on and off campus supports that you can recommend to your students.

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License

Designing a Syllabus that Attends to Accessibility Copyright © 2017 by McMaster University. All Rights Reserved.

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