Creating an Accessible Syllabus

Your syllabus is one of the most essential parts of your course, and as such it’s vitally important that it be accessible to all of your students. Of course, it’s one thing to understand the necessity of accessibility and quite another to actually know the nuts and bolts of how to execute it. That’s why we’re here to help. 

First, we’ll guide you through some of the basics of creating an accessible syllabus. Then, we’ll share a syllabus template that you can use when crafting your own that is already accessible (and bonus, includes all the legally required language a syllabus at COD needs to include). And, double bonus, we also have a guide that explains the syllabus template if you have any questions. 

Your syllabus is a great place to get started with improving accessibility in your course, so let’s get right into what you can do to make changes and things to be mindful of as you’re working on this all-important classroom document. 

Avoid PDFs.

Hang on to your hats, cause we’re about to blow your minds: your syllabus doesn’t have to be in PDF format. We know it may have been drilled into your head that your syllabus has to be a PDF, but it really doesn’t. In fact, for accessibility’s sake, it really shouldn’t be. A Microsoft Word file is actually ideal! Why? Word files are easier to make accessible without additional modifications, especially for students who use a screen reader. 

Watch your tables.

Tables can be tricky but not impossible to make accessible. You’ll need to ensure that you set a header row (find instructions here) so that your table will be able to be read by a screen reader. Without that, the information doesn’t have much context for visually impaired students. 

Also, because tables can be tricky, ensure that the information that you have in a table really needs to be in a table format. If it would be just as easy to understand in another format then consider tabling the table.

Alt-text everything!

Any image that is not simply decorative in your syllabus needs to have alt-text describing what that image is. This is actually very simple to do in Word and you can find the instructions here on the Microsoft site

Text boxes are a no-no.

Your syllabus should not include text boxes. Text boxes are very difficult to navigate for those using adaptive technologies because they float on top of the page and are not read as part of the “text” layer of the document. This means that a screen reader may not “see” these parts of the page or might read them out of context. If you have text that needs to be emphasized, instead use the Paragraph Styles tool in Word to do so. 

Use headings.

One of the most essential parts of making your syllabus accessible is creating a consistent heading structure throughout the document. You’ll find headings in the “styles” area of Word. H1 is the title of your document, H2 the title of subsections, H3 the divisions within those and so on. Headings are important because they allow adaptive technologies to easily navigate through a page. They also give the syllabus an organized and predictable structure that is beneficial to all students. 

Be conscious of readability. 

When crafting your syllabus, boring is better. We’re not talking about the content, but the fonts and color scheme. Black simple, sans serif fonts in 12-14 pt on a white background are the best choices as they are the most easily readable. Think about an email you’ve gotten using crazy fonts (Curlz LT we see you) and in a rainbow of colors. Not easy to read, right? Your students likely feel the same, so stick to basics. 

Keep it short. 

Long blocks of texts can be overwhelming to readers, and text overload can often become a problem in syllabi because you’re trying to fit EVERYTHING in. Instead, do some serious self-editing and figure out what is essential to the syllabus and what can be introduced to students in another format (another document, links to outside sources, in the LMS, etc.). 

Syllabus Template and Guide

At the beginning of 2020, Learning Technologies, the Office of Adjunct Faculty, and the TLC worked together to build a syllabus template for instructors at COD to use. Not only does this template contain everything you’ll need to include (some elements are non-optional by law or College policy), we also designed it to be accessible from the beginning. We encourage faculty to use this as a starting place for building an accessible syllabus, though you are not required to stick strictly to what we’ve included. 

For those who are new to creating a syllabus, or who just want to understand the why behind some of the aspects of the template, we also have a syllabus guide. The guide will take you through each of the sections and explain why these are included and how to find the information to fill them in. 

 Additional Resources

There are a lot of amazing resources out there that offer some additional support on accessible syllabi. Here are some we think you can and should use:

Have questions? Give us a call or email! We’re always happy to help you make your courses more accessible!