Building a Syllabus: Universal Design for Learning and Syllabus Design

How universal is your course and syllabus design? In addition to using backward design principles to design syllabi, you should also consider principles from Universal Design for Learning (UDL), 

a research-based framework for designing curricula—that is, educational goals, methods, materials, and assessments—that enable all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. This is accomplished by simultaneously providing rich supports for learning and reducing barriers to the curriculum, while maintaining high achievement standards for all students. (CAST, 2011)

UDL urges teachers to consider that students learn in different ways and that multiple means of (1) engagement (by offering choices of content and tools that align with learners’ interest), (2) representation (by using a variety of methods to present information and a range of means to support learners), and (3) action and expression (by providing learners with alternative ways to act skillfully and demonstrate what they know) should be made available to them (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). 

Thus, a syllabus that reflects UDL principles allows students to see how you intend to create a flexible, supportive, engaging and motivating learning environment. It illustrates how you design the course with learner variability in mind by providing students with multiple paths for learning and success through options and choices. 

The rubric in Table 2 includes several major elements of a syllabus and corresponding UDL considerations. In addition to the syllabus, you might consider including a separate learning guide for each week or unit that outlines the specific learning objectives for that week and how they relate to assignments, due dates, and the course calendar. Click on each of the elements listed to learn more.

Table 2. Applying UDL Principles to Syllabus Design Elements

Traditional Syllabus UDL Considerations Enhanced Syllabus Exemplary Syllabus
Syllabus provides a single way to contact the instructor for student questions or concerns.  Engagement




 
Syllabus offers varied ways (including social media) to contact the instructor.  Syllabus offers varied ways (including social media) to contact the instructor and provides a brief video/audio introduction to the instructor and course. 
Traditional Syllabus UDL Considerations Enhanced Syllabus Exemplary Syllabus
Syllabus lists required and recommended course materials. 
Engagement




 
Syllabus lists required and recommended course materials with information about where they can be purchased. Short statement provided explaining why the course materials were selected. 
Syllabus lists required and recommended course materials with information about where they can be purchased. Electronic equivalent provided or texts ordered early to ensure timely conversion to an alternative format. Materials other than printed texts are available to increase representation and engagement. Short statement provided explaining why the course materials were selected.
Traditional Syllabus UDL Considerations Enhanced Syllabus Exemplary Syllabus
Student resources and accommodations are listed at the end of the syllabus. Representation




 
Student resources and accommodations are listed at the top of the syllabus. Student resources and accommodations are listed at the top of the syllabus and details are provided about what they offer.
Traditional Syllabus UDL Considerations Enhanced Syllabus Exemplary Syllabus
Syllabus identifies all learning objectives, course requirements/ assignments, and appropriate due dates, and provides information on how to complete major course projects, activities, or papers.
Representation / Action and Expression




 
Syllabus identifies and explains all learning objectives, course requirements/ assignments, and appropriate due dates and provides detailed guidance on how to complete major course projects, activities, or papers.  Syllabus clearly explains and links all learning objectives, course requirements/assignments, and appropriate due dates and provides detailed guidance on how to complete major course projects, activities, or papers. Offers links to examples and illustrations as appropriate. Assignments provide choices for physical actions, expression, and communication; executive functions are provided.
Traditional Syllabus UDL Considerations Enhanced Syllabus Exemplary Syllabus
Syllabus requires students to submit course assignments in a single or specific way. 
Action and Expression




 
Syllabus allows specific students to submit course assignments in alternative formats with prior instructor approval.  Syllabus provides multiple ways for all students to submit course assignments and offers extended deadlines for a few key assignments. 
Traditional Syllabus UDL Considerations Enhanced Syllabus Exemplary Syllabus
Syllabus stipulates grading criteria for all course requirements. Action and Expression




 
Syllabus stipulates grading criteria for all course requirements and offers detail on items requiring further clarification.  Syllabus stipulates grading criteria for all course requirements and offers detail on items requiring further clarification and links to instructor grading rubrics. 
Traditional Syllabus UDL Considerations Enhanced Syllabus Exemplary Syllabus
Syllabus has no or minimal information in calendar form. 
Engagement




 
Syllabus utilizes a course calendar to specify due dates for course activities. 
Syllabus and Learning Management System (LMS) utilize a course calendar to specify and periodically reinforce due dates, highlighting key course events and activities. Dependable routines and expectations within the course help students plan and prioritize.
Traditional Syllabus UDL Considerations Enhanced Syllabus Exemplary Syllabus
Syllabus provides basic information in a few pages. 
Engagement / Action and Expression




 
Syllabus contains all course information, guidance, and examples, but may be cumbersome for some to navigate.  Syllabus is carefully crafted to provide sufficient information and guidance yet clearly links to additional resources and examples avoiding a text heavy document. 
Traditional Syllabus UDL Considerations Enhanced Syllabus Exemplary Syllabus
Syllabus is offered in hardcopy form on the first day of class. 
Engagement



 
Syllabus is made available in hardcopy and electronically upon student request.  Syllabus is made available to students in an accessible electronic and hardcopy form. 
Traditional Syllabus UDL Considerations Enhanced Syllabus Exemplary Syllabus
Syllabus is offered in hardcopy form on the first day of class. 
Engagement




 
Syllabus is offered in multiple ways so students can access information as needed throughout the course.  Syllabus is offered and posted in multiple ways so students can access information easily and repeatedly. Key items are periodically reviewed with students. 


Reflective Question:

  • Looking back at Table 2, which UDL considerations are and are not included in the syllabi currently in use in your language program? Among UDL considerations, which one(s) should be more readily included and why?
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