Illustration of educational items such as papers, ruler, glasses, formulas, grades.
Image by chenspec from Pixabay 

This post is the second installment in the series that describe the main characteristics, major benefits, design considerations, and practices and challenges of implementing an ungrading approach. This second blog presents the types of ungrading practices, challenges to implementation, and main takeaways derived from the book chapters and discussion with my colleagues in the Ungrading book club.  

Types of Ungrading Practices

To begin, it is important to recap that the underlying concept supporting ungrading is deep, extensive, and formative feedback. This means that instructors are expected to design low-stakes formative assessments and devote substantial time and effort to craft feedback that students can use to revise their work. This section summarizes several contributions the book chapters authors made in regards to pedagogical practices, strategies, tips, and resources to adopt ungrading. Instructors can combine the ungrading practices or use them as stand-alone activities. 

Approaches to Assignments

  • Portfolios: Students can build their portfolios with different digital tools that allow them to create personal or professional materials that are useful beyond the class (e.g., website, content curation). The critical element in a portfolio assignment is that there needs to be space for critical thinking and metacognitive work that can be shared with others. An additional element can include portfolio conferences. For these conferences, students meet with their instructors to review their course work and make annotations about their learning journey (they can also discuss their final grade).
  • Project-based Learning, Problem-based Learning, Inquiry-based Learning: Students work on activities that relate to their own experiences, real-life applications, and ill-structured scenarios. These activities encourage students to work with others, find solutions, investigate deeper, and apply concepts studied in the course to realistic situations. 
  • Staged Assignments: Students work on reviewing/redoing assignments to allow them to learn from the feedback they received from their peers and/or instructor.
  • Minimal Grading: Use of a holistic or simplified grading schema (e.g., pass/fail, strong/satisfactory/weak).

Student Participation

  • Contract Grading: Students can be graded over the labor completed. Students are responsible for reviewing their workload in the class and determining how they will accomplish it. Students will be in a process of understanding why grades matter to them and that the grade they give themselves will be attached to the amount of work they complete. Students sign a contract that clearly specifies the assignments and student responsibilities to achieve an A-C letter grade in the course. This grading system can allow students to negotiate their contracts with instructors. 
  • Process Letters: An activity where students describe their learning process and how they evolve in their work in the class. This can be multimodal (e.g., presentations, reflections that combine audio, video, and text) and/or accompany major assignments.
  • Student-made Rubrics: Students can develop their own rubrics, which can become a learning activity in itself. 
  • Participatory Voices: Students can contribute to course content by creating content, adding items to the syllabus, selecting the type/format of feedback they want to receive, evaluating peers, and developing an intellectual voice. Through self-evaluation and peer evaluation, students can reflect on their learning, understand the process of evaluating others, and focus on excellence and building confidence. Students are given a set of guiding questions to engage in self-and peer evaluation. At the end of the project or term, they recommend a grade for themselves and their peers.
  • Declaration Quiz: A quiz that asks students to select a checklist of the assignment requirements that they have completed. This can be a low-stakes assignment that helps students reflect on how they accomplished the task. Instructors can create declaration quizzes for each assignment and associate the number of points to the letter-based system.


  • Peer Assessment: When students work in groups, they can evaluate each other. Students can write about their contributions to the group projects as well as their experiences with the team. This can give instructors a view of the team dynamics and activities that are not usually visible.
  • Grade-Free Zones: This involves reviewing major assignments and/or providing a sandbox space for students to experiment before they engage in completing formal assignments. Students can submit early assignments or portions of them for peer comments or the instructor’s early feedback. 

Mastery Orientation

  • Mastery Learning Artifacts: Students collect learning artifacts that they have developed to demonstrate their mastery of the learning concepts based on the exemplary work and expectations provided by the instructor. Students submit these artifacts at the end of the term. In addition, students describe the areas of growth based on the instructor’s feedback (e.g., revisions). 
  • Single-point Rubrics: This type of rubric includes criteria and fixed binary points  (done = 1; not done =0). Comments can be added to either point to note the improvements to be made (in case it is not done) and to highlight the aspects that go beyond expectations. A benefit of this type of rubric is that it encourages mastery of content and keeps students’ focus away from the grade itself. 
  • Feedback Logs: Students collect feedback and identify the areas in which they received more feedback, work out strategies to improve those areas, and reflect on the ways they are learning.
  • Feedback and Revisions: Students work on a series of drafts, and the instructor provides comments that students are expected to incorporate in the next revised draft. A grade can be added to the final draft.  
  • Self-Assessment: Consider metacognitive activities that engage students in their own evaluation of learning and in dialogue with the instructor. Encourage students to develop their own standards and self-scrutiny practices.  
  • Student Individual Plan: Students articulate goals and values for themselves about a class or a project. The instructor can help students by providing reflection guidelines and templates for developing their own goals. 

Challenges to Implementation

While ungrading encourages a shift from a focus on grades to a focus on feedback and metacognitive activities for student learning and success, its implementation is not without challenges. The challenges range from local critiques to structural and how-tos. 

  • One of the biggest challenges is the misunderstanding of what ungrading involves –an active activity that engages students and instructors with grades as a system, which is different from not grading. Without having a clear understanding of the concept itself, the rationale behind it, and how it will benefit students more than a grade-based system, using alternative means for grading may jeopardize the student learning experience. 
  • A second challenge is the structural system of grades that prioritizes performance over learning. If the focus continues to be on how students perform in a class rather than on their learning, Kohn and Stommel argue that using an ungrading system that gets rid of grades will not be sufficient to push toward a system that creates learning spaces for critical thinking, reflection, and metacognition. 
  • A third challenge involves the redefinition of the curriculum, innovative pedagogy, and how to assess learning. If the idea of content coverage and memorization of facts prevails, learning is treated more as information transfer –from the instructor or textbook to the students. In this transfer, students may not necessarily own their learning. Along with this is the way assessments are designed to emphasize judgment of students’ performance. If the teaching method does not allow room for real learning, ungrading will not make a difference. Thus, the convergence of changes to the curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment methods is of utmost importance. 
  • A fourth challenge is more systemic and structural. Kohn argues that control, in many educational cases, prevents students’ choice and voice in their learning journeys. If ungrading is to have a way in educational contexts, instructors, and even administrators, will be invited to relinquish some of the control they exert over students’ performance to welcome students’ decisions related to their learning needs and interests. 
  • A fifth challenge is a deep and widespread belief that grades reflect learning and action. There is a great concern that if grades are to be eliminated, students will not complete their assignments, need to do more work, or even skip classes. Also, instructors will have to “grade” more and be overburdened. 
  • A final challenge is the over-reliance on rubrics that, according to Khon (foreword, p.xvii), is a system for “judging students…They offer umpteen different axes along which to make students think about their performance— often at the cost of becoming less immersed in what they’re doing.” It is not that ungrading does not provide guidance but it is important to avoid overcontrol evaluation practices. Instructors will need to analyze when and how rubrics help students focus on the learning process (and not solely on the points they get). 


The book offered clear rationales, experiences, and strategies that instructors could consider if they feel they want to move away from the grade-focused system. In addition, as a designer, I have a better understanding and collection of resources to use during my consultations with faculty who might be looking into authentic and alternative means for assessment and grading. 

Ungrading requires a reconceptualization of the curriculum, pedagogical, and assessment practices. If an alternative means of assessing student learning is to be implemented, the content, activities, and assignments need to open opportunities for students to engage in their own process of learning, reflection, and feedback. If we don’t level the playing field for students, no grading (or ungrading) system would be worth trying. 

Grades are considered to be problematic because they contribute to widening the educational equity gaps. Ungrading, as a student-centered approach, can help mitigate some of the inequalities that students experience for access to successful learning. Since not all students come with the same knowledge and skills, ungrading, as a system that personalizes learning and assessments, will orient each student to focus on the feedback that they need. 

Ungrading does not mean that instructors do not grade or that students have a free pass. Ungrading requires a deeper understanding of what learning means and how to design learning activities and contexts in which it can be evidenced. There is no universal magic approach to do it. If you are seriously considering moving to ungrading practices, start small, one step at a time. 

Have you ventured into ungrading? If so, how did it go? What works and what does not? If not, what are your thoughts about ungrading? I’d like to invite you to share comments or experiences. 


Blum, S. D. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia University Press.

Stommel, J. (June 3, 2022). The word “ungrading. [Twitter post]. 

Warner, J. (January 4, 2016). I Have Seen the Glories of the Grading Contract…and I’m not going back. Inside Higher Ed. [Blog post].


Getting students to read the syllabus is often a challenge in online courses. It is not uncommon for students to ask faculty questions that have answers easily found in the document. Even if students do read the syllabus, they may only skim through it. Ways to encourage a thorough reading include strategies like “easter egg” hunts where students find particular items to pass a syllabus quiz. This article will explore another method that uses a software application called Perusall, which is designed to encourage close reading.

Perusall is used at the Oregon State University Ecampus as a learning technology integration with Canvas, the learning management system. Using Perusall, students can highlight, make comments, and ask questions on a document. There is a grading interface with Canvas and a variety of settings, including reminders for students to complete the assignment. It offers a useful way for students to engage with the syllabus together, which can lead to closer reading than if they had done so individually.


To test this idea, a professor used this approach with a 400/500 class that involved multiple assignments in Perusall throughout the term. If the syllabus assignment proved useful in Perusall, then it would also serve as an introduction to the platform for students. Here are some examples of student engagement that resulted from this activity:

  • Requests for additional background material to check for prerequisite knowledge.
  • Interest in the website of the professor (linked to in the syllabus).
  • Shoutouts to the course teaching assistant.
  • Concerns about the prerequisites for the class, which were addressed by the professor specifically.
  • Questions about technology used in the course based on students’ previous experiences in other courses.
  • Gratitude for ending the course week on Mondays instead of Sundays.
  • Confirmation by a student that the textbook is available as an electronic copy at the library.
  • Inquiries into the length and other logistics of Zoom office hours.
  • Excitement expressed by a student about a focus paper requirement.
  • Queries about how grade numbers are rounded and types of quiz questions.
  • Exchanges between a TA and a student looking forward to further discussions in Perusall.
  • Clarifications about the different work expected for undergraduates and graduates.
  • Ideas about how to communicate as a class.
  • Questions about the details of major assignments.
  • Appreciation of opportunities to participate in frequent knowledge checks.
  • Thanks for the late assignment policy and statements about flexibility.
  • Advice about how to check assignment due dates.


Students’ comments and conversations helped to initiate a feeling of community in the course. Many logistical issues were clarified for students by providing and encouraging a forum for discussion. There were highlights and comments by students on seven of ten pages of the syllabus. The three pages that were not discussed were university required policies. There were no negative comments about using Perusall as a syllabus activity. So this seems like a good method to engage students at the beginning of a course to prepare them for success. It may be especially helpful for classes using Perusall in other assignments because it provides a way to practice using the application.


  • Johnson. (2006). Best practices in syllabus writing: contents of a learner-centered syllabus. The Journal of Chiropractic Education, 20(2), 139–144.
  • Lund Dean, & Fornaciari, C. J. (2014). The 21st-Century Syllabus. Journal of Management Education, 38(5), 724–732.
  • Sager, Azzopardi, W., & Cross, H. (2008). Syllabus selection: innovative learning activity. The Journal of Nursing Education, 47(12), 576–576.
  • Stein, & Barton, M. H. (2019). The “Easter egg” syllabus: Using hidden content to engage online and blended classroom learners. Communication Teacher, 33(4), 249–255.
  • Wagner, Smith, K. J., Johnson, C., Hilaire, M. L., & Medina, M. S. (2022). Best Practices in Syllabus Design. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 8995–8995.

NDAs and Open Pedagogy

One of the principles upheld by the open pedagogy movement is that the role of the learner must be active and the tasks that they engage in must be meaningful. These are not new ideas by any stretch, but as we move toward a more open pedagogical environment, it becomes necessary to examine the types of assignments that we create and assign. How do these tasks contribute to efforts to democratize education and increase learner autonomy, engagement, and freedom? What makes an assignment open? To answer these questions, this post will explore the relationship between open pedagogy and open assignments. 

While interest in the topic of open pedagogy has steadily gained steam in the roughly 50 years since its inception, definitions of and familiarity with the concept of today’s open pedagogy vary among educational practitioners. Some discussions focus on the expansion of the use of these resources. You might be hard-pressed to find an instructor who hasn’t at least reused open content (See 5R framework of Open Content) or encountered such materials as a student. Other conversations emphasize the remix and revise aspect of open content and pedagogical practices, and the number of faculty-created Open Educational Resources (OERs) intended to replace the traditional textbook is ever increasing. Still others have turned their attention to implementation of open pedagogical practices that put students in the role of content creators rather than passive beneficiaries of innovations in open content. In our efforts to create tasks that accomplish this shift in the role of the learner, we must first ask what the value of the task is for the student, peers, and the larger community, and what life will such a task have after its completion. To answer these questions, we can look to the non-disposable assignment (NDA). 

Non-Disposable Assignments (NDAs) 

To define the characteristics of this type of assignment, it is helpful to first define what we mean by “disposable” assignment. It is safe to say that we are all familiar with these types of assignments: typically they include one-off or busy work tasks designed to be filed away and forgotten as soon as completed and graded. In his article What is Open Pedagogy (2013), David Wiley described the disposable assignment in this way: 

These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away. Not only do these assignments add no value to the world, they actually suck value out of the world.

Online learning within the confines of a learning management system (LMS) is particularly ripe for these types of assignments. In fact, one could argue they are designed for this type of task. In an online course, instructors create and post the assignment, students complete it, instructors grade it, the course ends, student work is deleted, the course is rolled over, and the next crop of students begins the cycle again. The work is designed to be contained within the LMS for the duration of a course, not to be shared with a broader audience of students or colleagues. 

As an alternative to the disposable assignment in favor of more meaningful tasks, Wiley coined the term Non-Disposable Assignment. The NDA (also referred to as a renewable assignment), in contrast to its binworthy counterpart, is an assignment that “adds value to the world.” Later definitions, no doubt influenced by the growing open pedagogy movement and the promotion of the use of OER materials, go further and hold that an NDA ought to produce a resource that is openly published so that “others can find, use, and if desired, repurpose or update the work,” (Jhangiani, 2015; Wiley, 2013; Wiley et al., 2017; Wiley & Hilton, 2018). Such assignments put the learner in the role of creator and impact or benefit an audience beyond the instructor and student. Because the premise of the NDA is that it can not only be shared widely, but also revised and reused without permission by both instructors and students, the content should be openly licensed. Considering the role of learners as authors of the content, they should have a say in determining the type of open license appropriate for their work.

In the article A Conceptual Framework for Non-Disposable Assignments: Inspiring Implementation, Innovation, and Research, Seraphine et al (2019) provide a set of principles NDAs must adhere to. The Five Principles are summarized as follows: 

  1. NDAs fundamentally involve information collaboration and exchange.
  2. As forms of responsive and responsible pedagogy, NDAs involve communication throughout and opportunities for revision, creativity, modifying key terms and objectives, etc.
  3. While NDAs might not necessarily involve communal assembly, the resulting product or practice must always be shared outside the teacher-student dyad, creating opportunities for communal access of the NDA as an information resource 
  4. NDAs produce learning through cooperative critique.
  5. Because they are not exams or isolated writing assignments, NDAs involve innovation as a fundamental concept.

Benefits and Value of NDAs

Apart from their ability to reach a broad audience, NDAs increase student motivation, engagement and autonomy resulting in improved achievement of learning outcomes. (Ariely, Kamenica, & Prelec, 2008; Chalofsky & Krishna, 2009; Pink, 2011). While this claim may be at least in part anecdotal, it follows that when students know that their work may be used by peers, faculty, and colleagues across their field in the future, investment in the quality of their work increases. Non-disposable assignments and authentic assessments have the potential to add value in other areas by:

  • promoting community engagement.
  • fostering innovation. 
  • interrogating and dismantling systems of oppression by centering experiences of historically marginalized groups.
  • providing opportunities for culturally rich content (inject identity, student influence over content). 
  • cultivating information literacy skills.  
  • increasing accessibility to educational resources.
  • helping students communicate in writing to a general audience.
  • offering opportunities to collaborate with peers around the world. 
  • increasing self-regulated learning and autonomy.

Despite their numerous benefits, NDAs are not without challenges and risks. For example, some students may be resistant to the exposure and the vulnerability inherent in creating open content for broad use. In such cases, instructors must provide alternative assignments or options not to share. Because student-generated content requires substantial metacognitive skills, instructors must ensure that NDAs involve significant scaffolding at multiples stages in the learning process (Zimmerman, 1990; Zimmerman, 2002). Furthermore, the open nature of student-generated content presents a quality control challenge that instructors must anticipate and address by providing multiple opportunities for revision and peer review

NDA Design and Students as Producers

Implementing assignments that have the potential for broad impact beyond the typical instructor-student dyad can seem daunting. After all, conceptualizing and creating tasks that effectively revise the role of student from a passive one to actual content creators is no small feat. However, it is important to remember that the scope can vary widely. Indeed a well-crafted discussion between two students might form the basis for a renewable assignment. Other examples may include experiential connections such as student-generated podcasts; the production of flyers, guidelines, or materials for local community organizations; or even collaboratively created and maintained global resources such as wikis like the Chemistry Library. Whatever the scope, NDAs can—and arguably should—be iterative allowing for innovation and adaptation to various contexts. 

With the role of the student as producer in mind and an understanding of the potential pitfalls that an open assignment might present, faculty can then turn to the conventional principles of backward design to develop meaningful student learning experiences that add value for learners and their peers while also promoting community engagement.

Instructors should consider the role of students as they develop non-disposable assignments to put students in the role of content creators. Source: The Non-Disposable Assignment: Enhancing Personalised Learning – Session 1 Slideshare, CC Attribution-ShareAlike

Examples & Resources 



Bringing Critical Language Awareness to Instructional Texts and to How You Evaluate Student Writing

Instructional designers spend a lot of time working with words – they’re the raw materials that instructors share with us in the development of their online courses – but it’s often unclear what liberties we should take with instructors’ writing, and, on a related note, how we should coach instructors to assess their students’ writing. If inclusivity and equity are central values in course design, how might that be reflected in the seemingly mundane act of copyediting instructional texts or in setting up an instructor’s rubric to include “standard” grammar as a criterion? When the instructional designer copy edits the instructor’s words, or the instructor assesses a student’s writing proficiency, what raciolinguistic dynamics does that enact? Critical Language Awareness gives us the insight that our “language conventions and language practices are invested with power relations and ideological processes” (Wendt and Apugo), so the work we do with instructors’ and students’ words should be understood in the context of those power relations. What follows is a letter addressed to instructors that I hope will spark conversation on these issues, in the hopes that all the participants in the course – those who design, facilitate, and inhabit the spaces created by these texts – can reach their goals while using their own voices.

How would you like me to approach copy edits and other confusions?

Dear instructor,

Let’s start first with the practical and (seemingly) neutral question of how I handle your instructional texts, as I will read all the course materials you share with me. A common agreement I reach with instructors is to let me correct any obvious typos, misspellings, and punctuation issues, but to require I check with you in all other cases. Sometimes, as a colleague of mine has shared, instructors will ask the instructional designer to leave typos untouched, because they want to model authenticity, vulnerability, and a focus on meaning over surface perfection. This can serve as an invitation to students to let go of the fear and shame associated with making mistakes – so I’d be glad to help you towards this goal, as well, provided your intended meaning is still clear. Keep in mind that Ecampus students have expressed concerns when they notice a pattern of spelling or grammatical errors in a course, citing the typos as evidence of lower-quality, less credible course materials or a lack of instructor presence (McAlvage and Racek). But if you consider the imperfections in your writing to be a feature rather than a bug, you should make that explicit to students; let them know in what ways it’s intended to serve as a model for their own writing or for their overall approach to your course. Typos aside, I will also ask about instructions that you find obvious (and that may be pretty clear to me, too), because I am trying to anticipate all the ways your instructions could be misunderstood by others. So if it seems that I am being a bit obtuse about what something you wrote means, that’s the reason! A related question is on tone – are you open to receiving my feedback in this area? Our instructional design team encourages you to use a welcoming tone; students turn away from instructors when a “punitive” or commanding tone is used in a syllabus by, for example, seeking their support less often (Ishiyama et al. qtd. in Roberts 47). If you agree, I can help you spot those areas that feel less welcoming. For my part, I will strive in my communications with you to adopt a collegial tone, but should you find that is not the case, please let me know.

Now that we’ve thought through some of the practical questions on how I’ll work with your words, I’d like to ask you to reflect more broadly on your relationship to your writing and language use. How did you learn to write in your field, and what experience would you like your students to have with your use of language in your course? What do you expect of your students’ writing, and is it something that your outcomes assess? As you think over your responses to these questions, let me share a bit about my relationship to language and writing and how it affects my work.

Who are you to correct me?

My father used to tell a joke about a guy touring a college campus who stops to ask a student, “Where’s the library at?” and is told in response, “You should never end a sentence with a preposition.” He then rephrases his question, “Where’s the library at, [ jerk ] ?” My father taught writing, after earning his PhD in English literature, and later wrote books, so I grew up believing a command of “good” written English was my genetic inheritance. But now I can see that my mastery of a particular language standard has mostly to do with my immersion in a socioeconomic group whose language practices are privileged through white supremacy. So while the joke shows that correcting other’s language can open you up to counterattack – Who are you to correct me? What makes you right and me wrong? – many will not be empowered to answer back. Nor does this language privilege typically operate on the level of overt interpersonal confrontation, as in the joke – it’s usually invisible – “a product or effect of assessment systems and structures, our [standard operating procedures] in classrooms and other places where language is judged, despite anyone’s intentions, that produce political, cultural, linguistic, and economic dominance for White people” (Inoue 7). Enforcing language standards is an oppressive practice, a way to gatekeep who can succeed and who cannot, and in the case of the joke, who is subject to judgment for the simple act of asking directions to the library.

The joke also gives us the insight that language standards are a self-replicating system of oppression, as each student who is coached to evaluate language in this way internalizes the standards and is then given license to impose them on others. As a result of my own immersion in and sense of “ownership” over standard English (Whiteness as Property), I brought into my instructional design practice a certain unexamined confidence about my ability to critique and correct others’ writing. I wanted to help instructors present instructional texts that were clearer, more succinct, error-free – more like the way I wanted the writing to sound than the way the instructor had written it. I had to stop and ask myself whether that was doing instructors a service or not. For example, in the case that a course shell was designated for a single instructor (and should rightfully showcase their voice), a colleague felt the edited text misrepresented the instructor to their students – there would be a disconnect between the “corrected” writing in the static course shell versus the writing that would appear once the term got underway. My corrections were also potentially an erasure of the instructor’s identity and the imposition of a certain language standard that wasn’t desired.

Where do you see yourself, if at all, in my approaches to correcting others’ writing? And what role would you play in the linguistic power struggle set up by my father’s joke? Are you the guy who asks for directions, the college student who corrects him, a bystander, or perhaps a mediator of some sort? I hope these anecdotes have helped you to reflect on your own positionality and how that shapes your approach to your students’ writing, and, specifically, to its evaluation.

How will you evaluate and respond to your students’ writing?

Before you answer, tell me, does your course devote time to teaching students to write according to a particular standard? Are there specific lectures, learning materials, or learning activities that scaffold how to write in this way? No? Putting aside the issue of how you’ll assess students’ writing given the raciolinguistic considerations, we generally don’t assess students’ skills in areas that aren’t part of the course itself, and we are compelled to align our assessments to show mastery of the stated outcomes of the course (What is alignment within a Quality Matters framework?). If written expression doesn’t appear in your outcomes, should you penalize students when surface features of their writing don’t match your understanding of what is standard?

Another consideration when you assess students’ writing is your own mastery of academic and dominant language standards. Respectfully, I have observed quite a few assignments in which the very instructions exhorting students to polish their writing and produce grammatical, error-free texts themselves contain spelling and grammar errors. I have even seen a grading rubric that spelled grammar as “grammer”! So, I would invite you to think about your own writing and whether you feel comfortable determining your students’ mastery of these language standards. If you do find your approach reflects a perfect or nearly perfect achievement of standard writing, how did you come about that position, and is it legitimate to wield your knowledge of dominant language practices in the way you are planning?

Who is served by your attention to students’ writing, and who is disadvantaged?

You might very well respond that college students and professionals need to write using the dominant standard as a practical necessity, since they will be judged if they do not, and their life prospects will be impacted (in much the way you and your course may be judged if students find a pattern of typos or grammatical idiosyncrasies). This may be true, but we must acknowledge how it puts “the onus on language-minoritized students to mimic the white speaking subject.” Where would you like to focus your attention? On compelling your students to meet a standard, when achievement of that standard will not wholly shield them from discrimination, or on compelling yourself to “imagine and enact alternative, more inclusive realities” (Flores and Rosa 155, 168)?

Rather than positioning yourself as the students’ judge, you might instead be their supporter, connecting them to resources like a writing center that will help them produce more polished writing. You can promote these services in your syllabus, announcements, or, for example, directly alongside an assignment’s grading criteria:

Your final draft should show evidence of having been edited and revised for clarity and organization. Reach out to the Writing Center for an appointment if you would like their feedback on global aspects of your writing or would like coaching on specific areas of grammar and punctuation. If you are a multilingual writer, the center offers Multilingual Support.

Keep in mind that, depending on the approach of the writing center, your students may end up being coached to conform their writing to the dominant standard. If you’ve decided to forgo judging students’ writing on the basis of its surface conformity to these standards, you might make it clear through a rubric which outcome-related knowledge and skills you will instead evaluate for evidence of learning. I acknowledge this is hard work to do, hard work to let go of language standards you may have invested a great deal of time in mastering, and which feel important to your discipline. But it is possible, as I’ve seen in the approach taken by OSU’s gateway English Composition course, WR 121, in which students achieve outcomes related very specifically to writing, while the focus of evaluation is primarily on the time and labor invested in their writing process, rather than on the perfection of their final product.

Turning back towards the work I do with your course, I am challenged by the same raciolinguistic considerations, so, to conclude, I would like to remind both you and me that writing and proofing services are something I can provide – but it’s not required that you make use of them in your course development. In the same way that you probably shouldn’t assess students’ writing if it’s not a part of the stated course learning outcomes, I also shouldn’t attempt to shape the writing and language in your course without your express permission, because this is not a part of my unit’s guiding standards for course design, the Ecampus Essentials and Exemplaries. And, because more broadly, when we focus on the ideal of a standard English, we perpetuate racial hierarchies. You are entitled to your own voice, form of expression, and approaches toward writing (and you might consider how your students have this right, as well).

Thanks for reading this! I hope this has given you an opportunity to reflect critically on some of the language practices that so many of us in higher ed engage in. I look forward to hearing your reactions and coming up with an approach that meets your pedagogical goals while also being concordant with your values.

Finding alternatives

I have raised considerations in this post about how, and if at all, you should assess your students’ writing, without doing much to ideate alternatives, so I’d like to share a few resources. To learn more about how you can create an equitable environment for culturally and linguistically diverse students, read my colleague Nadia Jaramillo’s post, Dimensions for Culturally Responsive Learning Design. For a compelling take on alternatives to grading writing based on a white supremacist standard, which informs the approach of WR 121, read Asao Inoue’s book Labor-Based Grading Contracts. For a quicker read, I also recommend you review the three main approaches to grading the writing of multilingual writers  – each with unique benefits and drawbacks  – which might help you to clarify your current practice and to be more intentional in the future. Finally, if you, like me, are working to undo many of the lessons you’ve learned and absorbed about dominant writing practices, you might also be interested to read about a related concept – how perfectionism, seemingly a race-neutral value that drives the pursuit of excellence, is instead a feature of white supremacy.

Works Cited

Flores, Nelson, and Jonathan Rosa. “Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 85, no. 2, Harvard Graduate School Education, 2015, pp. 149–71.

Inoue, Asao B. Labor-Based Grading Contracts : Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. The WAC Clearinghouse, 2019.

McAlvage, Katherine, and Brittni Racek. “How do you approach (if at all) grammar corrections with your instructors?.” Received by Ecampus ID team, 18 May 2022. Slack channel exchange.

Roberts, Maxine. T. (n.d.). CUE Syllabi Review Guide Appendix, Center for Urban Education.

Wendt, Jillian L., Ed, and Apugo, Danielle L., Ed. K-12 STEM Education in Urban Learning Environments. IGI Global, IGI Global, 2019.

By Naomi R. Aguiar & Tianhong Shi

For eight straight years, OSU’s online bachelor’s programs have been ranked in the top 10 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. How do we achieve that? One way is through collaboration between faculty and online learning design experts. Ecampus instructional designers support and partner with faculty to ensure that evidence-based research is applied in the courses we develop. 

Another way is through research conducted by our very own faculty at OSU. In the Research Unit at Ecampus, faculty can receive funding to conduct research in online teaching and learning through the Research Fellows Program. In this program, funded faculty members conduct original research with students and instructors over the course of a 15- to 18-month period. At the conclusion of their projects, faculty write white papers, which are open access articles published by the Research Unit and catalogued in the OSU Scholars Archive. These white papers provide actionable insights that both instructional designers and faculty members can directly apply to course design. Below, we share two specific examples from recently published white papers that can reinforce or inform decisions in course design.

Visual Design Matters

In a recently published white paper, researchers Yuzhi Sun and David Nembhard conducted an experiment examining how graphical displays of information and the use of highlighting can impact a learner’s engagement with the material, their “cognitive load” (i.e., the amount of information a learner is tasked with), and their learning performance. Using EEG (a method that measures different types of brain waves by placing electrodes on the scalp), Sun and Nembhard found that presenting information as tables rather than dot graphs increased students’ cognitive load, but also increased their engagement with the material and their retention of the information. Highlighting the most essential information also had a positive impact on students’ ability to retain learned information.

Sun and Nembhard’s (2022) findings support the Ecampus Essentials guidelines for online course design; specifically, visually representing course content in multiple ways that align with weekly and course outcomes. In many of our Ecampus STEM courses, data are presented in tables and explained by instructors in several different ways, such as in narrated PowerPoints, light board learning glass videos, or whiteboard screencast videos. 

Here is a specific example of how this is used in one of our courses, the Differential Calculus for Engineers and Scientists (MTH251). The figure below shows a table used in a math problem-solving video that helps students categorize information into what is already known and what needs to be solved for.

Another example comes from a habitat analysis course (Habitat Analysis 1), in which information is highlighted in videos to bring students’ attention to important content information. The red highlighted areas in the figure below clearly indicate a grizzly bear’s habitat.

On Writing Intensive Courses

In another white paper, Andrew Bouwma describes a study he conducted to help instructors provide timely feedback to students in writing intensive online courses. In a Zoology 349 course, Bouwma examined students’ acceptance of a web-based peer review tool, Peerceptiv, as well as the extent to which using this approach could improve students’ writing skills. Overall, Bouwma found that students’ acceptance of this peer review tool was high. Most students agreed that the Peerceptiv tool was easy to use and that comments from their peers were helpful. Students also agreed that the Peerceptiv assignments enabled them to think more critically about the subject matter and helped them produce better writing assignments. And beyond positive perceptions of the tool, students further demonstrated significant writing gains in both their thesis statements and in their essay structures.

Bouwma has since held several information sharing sessions about Peerceptiv tool for other instructors. Now, more biology and STEM courses are using the Peerceptiv tool, and it has even been creatively adapted into a Business Applications Development course (BA272) that teaches python coding. In this course, coding assignments were once assigned to students individually and debugging errors in coding could be a daunting task. With the use of the Peerceptiv, peer reviewing has assisted students in identifying coding errors more quickly. One instructor also noted that the use of this tool has improved the quality of peer feedback, as well as provided students with insights to improve their programming skills. The successful use of this tool in other courses highlights the broad application of Bouwma’s original study to other online learning contexts.

Want to Learn More?

Each year, the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit funds projects, up to $25,000 each, to support the research, development and scholarship efforts of faculty and/or departments in the area of online education through the OSU Ecampus Research Fellows program.

This program aims to:

  • Fund research that is actionable and impacts student online learning
  • Provide resources and support for research leading to external grant applications
  • Promote effective assessment of online learning
  • Encourage the development of a robust research pipeline on online teaching and learning at Oregon State

Fellows program applications are due Nov. 1 each year. If you are interested in submitting an application, reach out to Naomi Aguiar, the OSU Ecampus Assistant Director of Research. Research Unit staff are available to help you design a quality research project and maximize your potential for funding.


Bouwma, A. M. (2021). Testing the Efficacy and Student Acceptance of a Peer-Review Writing Program in an Online Course. White Paper. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit.

Sun, Y., & Nembhard, D. A. (2022). Modeling online learning performance with biometrics: Current study and future directions. White Paper. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit.

This past February, I was putting together a proposal for the 2022 Distance Teaching & Learning (DT&L) Conference, and I shared my draft with a couple of my colleagues for feedback.

Typically, when requesting feedback, our team relies on Google Docs, which has a nice feature set for suggesting edits.

However, I was not using Google Docs. I explained that they would be viewing my formatted document on HackMD, a collaborative web-based Markdown tool.

One of the colleagues I had asked for feedback responded:

What are the pros and cons compared to a google doc, may I ask?

That question inspired this blog post.

What is Markdown?

Markdown is a plain text format with a simple syntax to add formatting elements (headings, lists, quotes, bold, italics, etc.). It is easy to convert Markdown files into other formats, such as PDFs, HTML, and rich text. One of the primary uses of Markdown is creating content for the web, which can be done with almost no knowledge of HTML. The first Markdown specification was developed by John Gruber and Aaron Swartz in 2004 and released as Open Source.

What Are the Advantages of Writing in Markdown?

It Is Easy to Learn and Fast to Write

Most markdown syntax is intuitive. Perhaps you are writing a document, and you decide you want to emphasize some text using bold or italics styling. In Markdown, you can surround the words with underscores or asterisks rather than select content and apply a style from a menu or keyboard command. For bold text, add either two asterisks or two underscores before and after the word (your choice, most editors support either syntax):


For text that you want to be displayed in italics, use one underscore or asterisk before and after the word:


Creating hyperlinks in documents, a somewhat tedious process in a word-processing program or HTML, is as easy as putting a descriptive link text in brackets and then an address immediately following in parenthesis, like this:

[OSU Canvas Dashboard](

which in my document becomes: OSU Canvas Dashboard.

It Is Just a Text File

A Markdown file with the extension “.md” is just a plain text file. Storing information in plain text files has several advantages:

  1. Text files are future-proof. You can open a plain text file with any editor on any platform. You are not hostage to the proprietary format chosen by an application developer. You are not dependent on any particular software program still being around to open your Markdown files.
  2. Text files require very little storage. This blog post, written in Markdown, was almost 250% larger once converted to a Microsoft Word document.
  3. Text files are platform-agnostic, making them easy to share with other people or multiple devices. A text file can be opened on a Mac, on Windows, in Chrome OS, in a web browser, on an ios or Android smartphone, or on a Linux machine.
  4. If you open up one of your Markdown text documents in platforms like Box or Dropbox, it automatically renders the HTML.

Markdown is Highly Portable

One of the most significant advantages to writing in Markdown is how easy it is to convert Markdown into virtually any other file format:

  • HTML: With no knowledge or experience in web development, you can quickly convert Markdown to HTML. There are many ways to convert Markdown to HTML. You can use a web-based tool such as Markdown2Html or StackEdit or work in a text editor with support for exporting Markdown in various formats like Brackets.
  • RTF: An RTF file keeps basic formatting, such as links or emphasis, while retaining a text file’s flexibility and small size.
  • PDFs: Many Tools support applying CSS-based styles during a conversion. On my Mac, I use Marked 2 and several of the Marked 2 – Custom Styles to create beautiful PDF files.
  • Word: Markdown formatting information (titles, headings, quotes, paragraphs, lists, etc.) is retained during conversion. Suppose you convert a document from Markdown to Word. You can then apply any of the built-in styles available in Microsoft Word to format your file instantly.

For a much longer list of the supported conversion file types, explore Pandoc, a universal conversion utility. Using Pandoc, I have converted markdown files into a slide deck, a mind map, a Google Doc, and a Microsoft Word doc, but there are dozens of additional options.

It Is Easier to Read and Write Than HTML

Let’s look at a numbered list with some simple formatting. I have applied bold to item 1 and italics to item 4:

  1. Analysis
  2. Design
  3. Development
  4. Implementation
  5. Evaluation

Here is what that list looks like in Markdown:

1. **Analysis**
2. Design
3. Development
4. _Implementation_
5. Evaluation

If you were to write that same list in HTML, it would look like this:


Even if you are comfortable coding in HTML, writing the list in Markdown is much quicker and can be quickly converted to HTML at any time.

You Can Write Without Distraction

Using Markdown, I can focus on content rather than the formatting. I can indicate how something should be formatted (as a hyperlink, heading, paragraph, etc.) and then let a MarkDown tool transform my document to numerous other file types. I don’t have to look at dozens of text and paragraph formatting options on a ribbon toolbar or interrupt my writing to apply them.

What Do You Need to Get Started?

A Text Editor

You can write Markdown in any text editor. However, many tools provide a real-time preview of your formatted document and give you several export options. These web-based Markdown tools are free options worth exploring:

  • Dillinger is a great place to start. You can experiment with the syntax and instantly preview your content without installing any software on your computer. StackEdit works much the same way. Both are free, and both support export to HTML and PDF.
  • HackMD is another web-based tool, also free, which has collaborations options.

If you prefer working in a desktop application, there are also many options. Here is a nice write up of several Markdown Editors.

Learning the Syntax

After choosing your editor, you need to get familiar with some basic syntax. The most common and helpful Markdown syntax is very easy to master. You saw bold, italics, and a Markdown link earlier. Here are a few more examples:


To place a heading in the document, precede the text for the heading with one or more hashtags. Here’s a level two heading:

Level Two Heading

In Markdown, you would write it like this:

## Level Two Heading

Many Markdown editors also support the use of an id in a heading:

### Level Three Heading {#custom-id}

When converted to HTML, this will give you an anchor that you can use to link directly to that heading.

<h3 id="custom-id">Level Three Heading</h3>


Lists look much like they would in any other document. Here is a numbered list:

  1. trumpet
  2. french horn
  3. tubal
  4. trombone

which in Markdown is:

1. trumpet
2. french horn
3. tuba
4. trombone 

and an unordered list:

  • cymbal
  • drum
  • marimba
  • tambourine
  • xylophone

looks like this in Markdown:

- cymbal
- drum
- marimba
- tambourine
- xylophone

Or you can use the single * with a space to make a list of items like this:

* string instruments
    * cello
    * violin
    * harp

Note the support for indenting lists using spaces in the example above, which would work with either * or -. The Markdown list above would render like this:

  • string instruments
    • cello
    • violin
    • harp


To make a hyperlink in Markdown, you write a descriptive title in brackets, followed by the URL in parenthesis, as mentioned above. You can even save yourself the trouble of manually creating markdown links through the use of one of the many available browser extensions like this one for Chrome or this one for Firefox, which allow you to copy a website address as a Markdown link.

Rather than document the complete set of Markdown formatting options, I will refer you to the Markdown Basic Syntax Guide or in Markdown:

[Markdown Basic Syntax Guide](

MultiMarkdown: An Expansion of the Language

The Markdown language is Open Source. Since its inception, other developers have enhanced the language to include options beneficial to academic writers. These include:

  • tables
  • blockquotes
  • citations
  • footnotes [^1]

Adding specific examples of these items is beyond this basic Markdown blog post. Instead, I recommend reviewing the MultiMarkdown v6 Syntax Guide. As you will see, the syntax for the new items follows the same spirit of being easy to add to a document and relatively intuitive syntax.

Advanced Tools and Applications

If you want to do a deep dive on Markdown, here are a few resources you can explore:

Yes, But What Are the Cons?

You may recall that my colleague asked about the pros and the cons. So, as much as I love writing in Markdown, I should be transparent about the limitations I have encountered.

  1. Collaboration. Both Microsoft Word and Google Docs support providing feedback on documents using the review or suggestion features. I have yet to find a Markdown editor that supports this type of collaboration. When I want to have a document reviewed, I convert the Markdown document to one of those other formats and then convert it back after implementing the feedback. Converting from Markdown to something, as I have said, is something most markdown editors already do. Converting from some other format to Markdown may take more effort. In this case, I used a Google Doc add-on, Docs to Markdown.
  2. Citation tool support. When writing in academia, I use an integrated tool for citation. Zotero, when installed as an add-on to Word or Google Docs, will help generate bibliographies and inline citations. I have managed to integrate Zotero integrations into my Markdown editor of choice (Visual Studio Code), but it was very fiddly. I followed the setup described in this video: Setting Up a Scholarly Writing Environment With Markdown, VSCodium, and Pandoc. Not for the faint of heart, with a very detailed how-to, step-by-step video, it still took me the better part of a Saturday, with reasonably in-depth knowledge of Markdown, Zotero, and my editor.


To begin your Markdown journey, I suggest starting here: Markdown Guide. The easiest way to learn Markdown is to start using it; you can learn the basics in minutes. Once you do, you will find broad application and support. You can use Markdown to write HTML, draft blog posts, create documentation, and post messages on messaging platforms or forums such as Reddit, Discord, and GitHub.

[^1]: It seems worth mentioning, in a footnote, that I wrote this blog post entirely in Markdown. Feel free to download it and take a look. To see it with the formatted HTML, try pasting it in the online markdown editor Dillinger.

Tricks to creating a syllabus students want to read

In December 2021, CNN published a news story that went viral, featuring a Tennessee professor who hid in his syllabus a combination that led to a locker with a crisp $50 bill for the taking. When he announced at the end of the term that not a single student had claimed the prize, few were actually surprised. Hiding an Easter egg of this sort in the text of your syllabus is certainly a fun idea and a nice bonus for the most diligent student(s) who might find it, but there are other ways to get students to read what could arguably be the most important document in your course. 

A course syllabus has traditionally served many overlapping purposes. From an institutional perspective, a syllabus is a vehicle for sharing important policies, rules, and resources available to students. At some institutions, syllabi can be considered contracts between the instructors and students. For the instructor of the course, the syllabus serves as a published planning document, typically listing important information about the course such as dates, times, and locations of classes, office hours, required and supplemental materials and texts, course schedule and activities, learning goals or outcomes, descriptions of grading, and course or departmental policies. In addition to listing basic elements of the course, syllabi often include instructor contact information and explicitly provide course expectations and how to succeed in the course. One inclusion that has recently become important for OSU instructors to remember when creating syllabi is the recently passed Oregon Bill requiring schools to publish all materials costs and fees associated with a course. 

As students generally receive the syllabus in advance of or at the beginning of a course, it often serves as an introduction to the class and the professor. Students might get their first impression of the course and instructor based on this single document and it may weigh heavily in a student’s decision to register for or drop a course. Students often return to this foundational document throughout the course for guidance, and as such, it is important to make it easy to access repeatedly. Yet despite the fact that a syllabus is such an important document, unless there is a syllabus quiz they must take, students often merely skim or even skip reading it altogether. However, there are a few tips you can follow to make your syllabus more attractive and increase the chance that it will be read. Making your syllabus more visually appealing, providing a video tour or infographic, and using inclusive language with a warm tone are three student-friendly ways of increasing the likelihood of students reading the full document, and, coincidentally, have a positive effect on student impressions of the instructor. 

Student-friendly Strategies for Increasing Readership

1- Make it Visually Appealing

One way to increase the likelihood of your students actually perusing your syllabus at length is to make it visually appealing. If your syllabus could have been created with an old fashioned typewriter, you are missing out on a chance to use new tools to make a more modern and interactive document. 

Most students today already spend up to several hours a day reading, watching, and responding to online social media content, so asking students to read a text-heavy document can backfire due to overload. Enticing readers to take a closer look with interesting images and visuals such as graphs or diagrams, along with visually appealing organization, can be an effective strategy. Take a look at the sample redesigned syllabus above to see how one professor, Dr. Jenks, changed the format of hers to make it more visually appealing and readable. You don’t have to be a great designer to redo your own syllabus, as there are plenty of free templates available online (see resources below).

A beautifully designed syllabus can often open the door, encouraging text-weary students to take a look, but design alone will probably not keep them reading for long. Strategies employed in teaching reading are relevant in the discussion of syllabus language and design. Just as you would in an essay, writing a great opening or ‘hook’ can grab the reader’s attention and motivate them to continue reading. When deciding how to design a syllabus, instructors may want to consider using signaling (visually reinforcing important concepts), segmenting (chunking information into smaller units for better comprehension), and weeding (ridding of extraneous information), all of which can help create a concise yet effective document. Placing the most important information first for those inclined to give your document only a cursory glance is another great idea. Also, remember to ensure that your design does not interfere with and preferably increases accessibility. Additionally, some students might need a purely text document, so providing your syllabus in several ways is best practice.

If you have experience building Canvas pages, you could try out using some in-Canvas tricks to create a more visually appealing syllabus page, such as this example of a creative syllabus page design in Canvas: CS 271, Computer Architecture & Assembly Language.

2- Turn it into a Video or Infographic

You are probably already aware that if given the choice, many students tend to choose to view videos more often than read text documents. Recent research suggests that students increasingly expect video content to be part of their learning experience. You can use this to your advantage by recording a video tour of your syllabus to supplement the digital or physical document. Especially in Ecampus asynchronous courses where most of the work will be performed in Canvas, walking through the highlights of your syllabus and connecting what is written there to the pages, modules, and assignments in the Canvas course can help students gain a big picture view of the course and prevent questions later.

Especially in Ecampus asynchronous courses where most of the work will be performed in Canvas, walking through the highlights of your syllabus and connecting what is written there to the pages, modules, and assignments in the Canvas course can help students gain a big picture view of the course and prevent questions later. Using a video to introduce your course can help students better comprehend and remember the important parts of your syllabus by activating both the visual (pictorial) and auditory (verbal) processing channels that working memory uses. The same strategies mentioned as important for designing a visual syllabus can be employed (signaling, chunking, and weeding) to ensure viewers are not overwhelmed. This is one of the most effective ways to introduce your course to new students, with the added value of enhancing your instructor presence. It’s not as difficult as you may assume- OSU’s Canvas LMS has a built-in video recording tool, Kaltura Capture, with which you can create a screencast video.

Another option is to try something completely new- turning your staid, static syllabus into an infographic. Infographics have become more popular with the advent of quite a few online tools that provide a multitude of templates with simple drag and drop functionality, enabling instructors to reimagine how their syllabus information is presented (see below for resources). Infographics are appealing as a supplementary document even when a text version is evident, as they distill the elements of a course into easily presentable and understandable chunks, highlighting important information and saving longer descriptions for later. 

Infographic representing the important concepts in this article
Sample infographic based on this article

3- Consider your Tone and Wording

Another way to encourage students to read the entire syllabus in your course is to consider how the tone of the text is understood from the students’ perspective. Writing your syllabus in a warm (student-focused) tone communicates to students that you care about them as individuals and are rooting for them to succeed, which in turn motivates them to want to succeed, whereas writing in a cool (content focused)  tone can negatively impact students’ perceptions of the instructor and the course. There may be some hesitancy among instructors to shift from what is typically considered ‘proper’ academic language due to a conception that a syllabus should model this type of language. Some may be concerned that using informal or conversational language may muddy power dynamics, preferring an instructor-as-expert approach and mirroring that in their syllabus. 

While this may be the established norm, there are compelling reasons to tweak your writing style when drafting this first contact between instructor and students. Whereas in past decades teachers might have been expected to produce standard syllabi with purely academic, formal language, the more recent focus on concepts such as inclusivity, promoting diversity, and working toward equity has spurred many to take a closer look at how their syllabus language and presentation affects students and their sense of belonging when accessing higher education. Interestingly, using warmer language in your syllabus can actually impact how motivated students perceive YOU to be as well. Research from Richard J. Harnish and K. Robert Bridges determined that “a syllabus written in a friendly rather than unfriendly tone evoked perceptions of the instructor being more caring, more approachable, and more motivated to teach the course.” Recent research from OSU’s own Regan A. R. Gerung and Nicole R. Galardi supports this, finding that syllabi written in a warm, friendly tone rather than a cooler, more academic tone tend to be viewed more positively (and resulted in more positive teacher ratings in evaluations). Instructors are often missing out on a wonderful opportunity to invite students into a mutually respectful class experience by distancing themselves by using an overly cold and academic tone in their syllabus.

OSU has expressed a strong commitment to using inclusive and affirming language, recognizing that how we use language reflects how we view the world and impacts others’ sense of belonging.One of the first things to consider is your audience- are you teaching a freshman level intro course, where students may be entering the world of formal academia for the first time? Many OSU Ecampus students identify as first generation college students or non-native English speakers, which might impact how they interpret the writing in your syllabus. If your syllabus uses language that seems cold, distant, formal, or unwieldy due to overly complex structures and style, students may fail to understand, become disinterested, and/or discontinue their reading of your syllabus. Are you teaching graduate students who might have a better comprehension of academic language? Even if you are, your syllabus may not be the place to showcase this type of language, which can impact comprehension. 

In addition to how friendly your tone is, consider the underlying message sent by how you choose to discuss subjects, especially aspects that are traditionally the sole purview of the instructor, such as the turning in of work, granting extensions or incompletes, and grading policies. If a syllabus contains frequent mentions of the penalties students will face, punitive measures that will be taken, or absolutes that will be enforced, students may be put off and decide the instructor is authoritarian, controlling, or overly strict. A lack of flexibility can seem particularly uncaring, causing students to be less likely to reach out if they encounter difficulties that may impact their ability to turn in work on time and participate fully. Instead, consider how you could offer more student friendly policies that offer students flexibility, choice, and empathy for students’ complicated lives.

The key, as in most areas of life, is finding the right balance that represents what you want to convey to students. The image below, taken from the OSU Center for Teaching and Learning publication Pedagogical Pragmatics (P2): Writing a Warm SYLLABUS, shows some examples of cool vs. warm syllabus statements. Small changes in wording can be enough to convey warmth and friendliness.

Examples of warm versus cool syllabus language in a chart
8/2021 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial 4.0 International License  WEB:; TWITTER: @OSUteaching; BLOG:

Looking to improve your syllabus? Check out these resources:

Sources and Resources

A professor hid a cash prize on campus. All students had to do was read the syllabus – CNN

Accessible Syllabus

Creating the Foundation for a Warm Classroom Climate

Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course Richard J. Harnish ·K. Robert Bridges

Newly passed bills require Oregon public colleges to publicize information on student fees, other costs – OPB

Principles of Multimedia Learning 

Sample Visual Syllabus


Syllabus Tone, More Than Mental Health Statements, Influence Intentions to Seek Help – Regan AR Gurung, Noelle R. Galardi, 2021

Using a warmer tone in college syllabi makes students more likely to ask for help, OSU study finds | Oregon State University

Utilizing Inclusive and Affirming Language | Institutional Diversity 

Would a Course Syllabus Be Better as an Infographic? 

The changes in higher education precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic have reignited questions and misconceptions about online education.  This is a time that we should draw on the insights and experience of online faculty. At Oregon State University (OSU) we have a significant number of faculty who have been teaching online for over a decade. In the 2018-2019 academic year, the Ecampus Research Unit interviewed 33 OSU instructors who had taught online for 10 years or more. In a series of interviews, the instructors were asked to reflect on their experiences as an online educator and how their perspectives have changed over time. More information about the broader study can be found on the study website. The final question asked of the instructors was, “What do you think is the future of online learning?” We conducted a qualitative analysis of their responses to this question. The findings were recently published in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. Below, we discuss some of the key findings from this analysis.

Key finding #1: Online and blended learning will continue to grow

Two-thirds (22) of the instructors expected online learning to expand as higher education moves toward increased access and accessibility, and as employers show increased expectations of continuing education. They acknowledged that online learning would continue to be the choice of adult learners as they balance work and life responsibilities.

Key finding #2: Online learning will increase access and accessibility

More than half (18) of the instructors predicted that online learning would increase access to education. These instructors discussed how online learning increases accessibility because online courses can be taken anywhere (location flexibility) and online courses can be accessed anytime (time flexibility). While these instructors were interviewed before the COVID-19 pandemic, their responses are now particularly timely and relevant, as the pandemic shifted higher education’s focus to remote and online teaching.  

Key finding #3: Will online learning replace brick and mortar institutions?

One third (11) of the instructors discussed the possibility that online learning may grow to become the primary modality used in higher education, replacing face-to-face learning.  However, 13 instructors indicated that they did not think the face-to-face learning should be eliminated in the future. Many of these instructors hoped that online education could provide more options for students rather than replacing brick and mortar institutions.

Key finding #4: Technology development will increase

Nearly 40% of the instructors (13) discussed the role of technology development in the future of online education. Acknowledging that the development of technology has already made teaching online easier and more effective, many optimistically predicted this would continue to improve the teaching and learning experience. Others were more pessimistic about technology replacing elements like face-to-face communication.

Overall, instructors’ ideas of the future aligned with some themes in the broader field of higher education, such as diversity, opportunity, and access. These key findings have implications for the professional development of online instructors. As more faculty transition to online teaching, it is important that they be well prepared for the online learning landscape. As the population of students in online education continues to evolve, it is also important that instructors understand the diversity of their students and the needs of adult learners. As technology is rapidly changing, timely and accessible training that can be used across multiple modalities is needed for future faculty development. Enhancing instructors’ pedagogy and technology skills across a range of modalities will enhance the educational experience for online learners around the globe.

Educators and learning designers must seek to resolve societal shortcomings, including the inequity of education and opportunity; the lack of social justice; policy issues and their implications; implicit bias in terms of race or ability; as well as layers of equity and inclusion. Building community and bridging divides are goals for all education.”

Toward Inclusive Learning Design: Social Justice, Equity, and Community. AECT Research Symposium 2021.
Representation of diversity

This was the underlying premise of a research symposium on learning design in which I participated in the summer of 2021. While this premise emphasizes our responsibility for designing learning experiences that are not only inclusive but just, there is an implicit idea that design alone is not a sufficient condition for inclusivity; we must examine the dynamics of teaching practices and how these can evolve to be truly inclusive.

In this blog post, I share the experience of navigating the intricate and complex dynamic between inclusive learning design and teaching while co-facilitating an asynchronous workshop for faculty on inclusive teaching online. I also provide some suggestions for engaging with faculty in conversations about inclusivity that goes beyond the design stage. My experience so far leads me to argue that as an instructional designer (ID), I share the responsibility for inclusive teaching practices implemented in the class. This is a strong position that I have come to embrace as faculty seek suggestions and advice from us not only during the course design process but also during the inclusive teaching workshop.

It is important to understand that as designers we also have boundaries in terms of faculty support. Shared responsibility in teaching online does not mean telling instructors how to teach but helping discover practices to be more effective in their teaching. 

Inclusive Teaching Online Workshop

Oregon State University Ecampus has a strong commitment to supporting the diversity and inclusivity of all members of the university community. In these efforts, instructors are guided not only in designing inclusive online/blended courses but are also supported in exploring and adopting inclusive teaching strategies. To this end, Ecampus developed a four-week asynchronous Inclusive Teaching Online workshop (ITO). This workshop serves as a space to expand the conversations that are already happening across campus about how to support the diversity of our student population. The nature of the workshop is discussion-based with plenty of opportunities for faculty to engage in deeper conversations with colleagues to examine topics including, but not limited to, identity and culture, social and institutional barriers, transparent assignments, and discussion facilitation.

As a co-facilitator of this workshop, I have noticed that our role involves more than just ID services; we have the responsibility to support faculty as they adopt and apply inclusive teaching practices. 

Co-facilitating the ITO Workshop

My interest in inclusive learning design and teaching is rooted in my personal and academic backgrounds. Coming from a diverse cultural and linguistic background (Ecuador) and through my academic experiences, I have realized that the instructor has a critical role in making students feel welcome, part of the class community, and above all seen, heard, and valued for who they are and what they bring into the learning spaces. However, I see the role of an ID as crucial in supporting the faculty’s instructional choices and facilitation strategies to ensure an inclusive learning space is created and sustained. 

My role in ITO is to co-facilitate the weekly activities, lead discussion groups, promote dialogue on inclusive strategies, and guide faculty in developing their inclusive teaching action plan. In co-facilitating this workshop, I recognize the need as an ID to be prepared, gather resources, contribute to the conversions, and even challenge some of the instructor’s perspectives, all with the goal to critically look at diversity and inclusion in its multiple aspects. Particularly for me, co-facilitating the workshop has been challenging yet rewarding. It requires me, among other things, to be more cognizant of the culture and nature of the U.S higher education system, aware of my own identity and its potential influence on my approach in the workshop, and my level of confidence in addressing sensitive topics.

Begin with Design

Gears, notes, stats

As IDs, we collaborate with instructors in several ways. We provide ongoing instructional support to develop new online/blended courses or improve existing courses. We also discuss with faculty the challenges of the course and identify strategies to make the learning experience more engaging, relevant, meaningful and satisfying for students. At the same time, we help faculty identify opportunities to address diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns in the course. 

In preparing to support inclusive teaching practices, we begin at the design stage. For example, we can ask questions such as: 

  • What kind of content would need to be made more accessible (e.g., adding captions/subtitles to videos, describing images more explicitly, use of color). How UDL guidelines can be implemented?
  • What other relevant information/perspective is important to consider to achieve the learning outcomes?
  • How can the course activities promote students as contributors to the course?
  • Would the learning outcomes prepare students to interact and work with people from diverse backgrounds?
  • How do you envision DEI in the design of the course?
  • What resources can we include in the course to support students?

Then, we move to the facilitating stage. However, our role is not to tell faculty how to teach; instead, we help faculty think through inclusive actions that they can consider while teaching their courses. For example, when instructors create introduction forums, we can ask them about their approach to connecting with students, their level of comfort in sharing personal information, and ways to respond to students’ posts in order to make the connections more visible. Oftentimes instructors may not know how or when to establish connections with students beyond the introductions. At this point, we can suggest to faculty that sharing some personal experiences with students when discussing course content or when providing feedback in assignments is another strategy. Instructors don’t have to share many personal aspects upfront; as they teach their course, they can identify areas where it is pertinent to do so. These opportunities would make students notice the insttructors’ intention and action to building community. 

Another strategy to bring into the conversation about inclusive practices is the plan for supporting struggling students. For example, if instructors are concerned about students’ not completing assignments on time or being inactive in the course, they can reach out to these students through email, learning management system internal messages. Instructors can offer ways to support these students by considering flexibility in their assignment submission, providing additional resources, or directing students to student support services. 

It may seem that the preceding ideas relate more to the design stage than the actual facilitation. However, planning these strategies can happen during the design as faculty prepare for teaching in inclusive ways.

Examine Inclusive Teaching

To some extent, IDs also help with planning the facilitation of the course. Some considerations to support the facilitation stage relate to an examination of inclusive practices, social identities, structural barriers, self-awareness, and building connections. In assisting faculty with inclusive teaching approaches, IDs are challenged to see broader and detailed aspects of the learning experience. For one, it is critical for a truly inclusive course that the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are created by design. This means that we should not take these concepts as checklists that need to be checked off, plug-ins to be included, or band-aids to “cover” minor or temporary issues. We need to be clear on the definitions first to help instructors address them well in the design to be effective in the facilitation stage. An analogy to what DEI means is that of a dance where everyone is invited, contributes to the music, and has the opportunity to dance. In doing so, we need to examine inclusive teaching at deeper levels, with an understanding that inclusive teaching builds upon inclusive design.

A conversation with instructors about inclusive teaching practices can include the following aspects:

  • Forward-thinking: ask faculty about their teaching experience and what issues they faced that may need to be addressed during the design or facilitation of the course (e.g., flexibility in assignments, late work guidelines, assignment format).
  • Student-support resources: help faculty identify strategies or resources where they can reach out in case of need while taking the course (e.g., support coach, writing center, food and meant health services)
  • Sustaining instructor’s presence: help instructors with ideas about how they will keep their presence and connect with students throughout the course (e.g., discussion boards with personal/family photos, professional academic work, fun things). 
  • Assignment feedback: provide guidelines to instructors about leveraging technology to provide feedback.
  • Curate resources to support the design choices and to provide examples.  
  • Raciolinguistics-awarenes: help faculty identify and be cognizant of the use of language and cultural references that can promote or hinder developing community with students. 

We can also challenge preconceived perspectives on teaching and learning and promote inclusive teaching by engaging faculty in thinking about:

  • Whose voices are brought in the materials? 
  • How would students bring their knowledge, experiences, and contributions? 
  • How would the learning activities impact students’ learning in the class and their life outside the class? 
  • What is the language used in instructions, is it punitive or supportive? 
  • Who do the images in the course represent?
  • What is the language tone used to describe the course content?
  • Are the activities and assessments developed with a student deficit perspective?

Although it is the instructor’s decision to consider the diversification of their curricula, designers have the opportunity to advocate for students to see themselves represented in the course materials, especially those within minority groups.

Connections among people
Identity and community

I acknowledge that engaging in conversations with instructors about inclusive teaching is not an activity that happens easily. IDs should examine their own identities and the role these play in how they approach the design project and the working relationship with faculty. For instance, we could start by taking a step back and asking ourselves what social identities we hold and how these have shaped (or not) our experiences in life and work. In facilitating the ITO workshop, I have found myself constantly navigating through the intersection of these identities because these are complex, and at times, put me in vulnerable positions when working with faculty (e.g., language, gender, age, ethnicity). At the same time, these identities can also help us guide instructors about the best ways to provide support systems for all students. We can help instructors be more aware that students hold social identities too and may face micro- and macro-structural barriers that can impact their online presence and interaction. One aspect that I have encountered with many instructors is that they believe that once their online/hybrid course is developed, they can’t make changes. Here is where the question “can we have a conversation and a plan to support these students?” is critical to help faculty know that if needed, they can make adjustments to their instructional decisions. For example, instructors can consider flexibility and offer students some leeway to complete assignments at a later time.  

Further, I am aware that we don’t work in silos. For instance, at OSU Ecampus, the ID team is growing to incorporate more colleagues from different experiences and backgrounds. In providing support to faculty, it is important to engage with and rely on our colleagues (internal or external) for insights, practices, and resources to respond better to the demands of a course design, especially if there is interest in addressing inclusive excellence. In doing so, we reach out, we connect, we expand our ID toolkits to learn how best to provide ongoing instructional design support. Our course design enterprise becomes stronger when “we learn to professionally grow and design together” in a systematic way that allows us expand our skills and experiences; raise from our failures and cement our successes. 

We know that the instructional design field connects with many other disciplines and as such, we should observe and learn from other disciplines to support the work we do. Several instructors may have different worldviews and experiences about teaching and learning in their disciplines (e.g., STEM) and may be reluctant to consider alternative means of assessments. It may be worth talking with faculty about their guidelines and expectations for discussions and assignments as students from diverse cultural backgrounds may have different experiences that value more cosmovisions than traditional western perspectives. It is worth exploring with instructors how they would approach or address issues related to supporting these students during the course.   

Debrief for Reflection

Paper notes about creativity and reflection

A practice that has been beneficial when facilitating the ITO workshop is holding debriefing sessions with the lead workshop facilitator. These sessions help us be on track, talk about any challenging or surprising situations, determine our plan of action for subsequent weeks, and observe the evolution of instructors’ ideas and perspectives on inclusive teaching. In a way, these debriefs promote self-reflection and forward-thinking. While it is not a common practice for many, IDs perhaps can have a midterm check-in with faculty to let them know that we are “with them” supporting their online/hybrid teaching. In addition, it can be beneficial to conduct debriefs after the instructor teaches the course to better understand their design and facilitation experience. Most importantly, it can be beneficial to identify what inclusive teaching practices worked well, how students responded to the inclusive strategies, and what areas need further development. IDs can document these experiences and gather data more intentionally to further enhance efforts for inclusive teaching.    

As a final comment, I would say that the ID role is multifaceted. We not only provide ongoing instructional and technological support but we also promote a student-centered experience where the needs and voices of all our students are considered throughout the design and facilitation of the educational experience. And we can do that by helping raise awareness of the layers of opportunities and barriers that many students face. We share the responsibility of inclusive teaching. 


  • American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Inclusive Language Guidelines.
  • Chatterjee, R., Juvale, D., & Jaramillo N. (2018). Experiences of Online Instructors through Debriefs: A Multi-Case Study. In AECT Proceedings.
  • Ecampus. (n.d). Mision, Vision and Values. [Website] 
  • Ecampus. (n.d). Online Teaching Workshops and Events. [Website] 
  • Ecampus. (n.d.). Innovate & Integrate: Plan for Inclusive Excellence. [Website]
  • Fiock, H., & Garcia, H. (2019). How to give your students better feedback with technology. [Advice guide]. 
  • CAST. (n.d.) UDL Guidelines. [Website] Robinson, M. (April 9, 2020). Approaches to Instructor Introductions. [Blog]. 
  • The University of Michigan. (n.d.). Defining DEI. [Website] 

In your work as an instructor or instructional designer, what kinds of course design problems have you been trying to solve lately? Perhaps there’s a discussion board assignment that you’d like to make more engaging, or maybe there’s a lab activity that students struggle with.

According to recent research findings published in the journal Nature, “…people are more likely to consider solutions that add features than solutions that remove them, even when removing features is more efficient” (Meyvis, T. and Yoon, H., 2021). In a course design context, this means we will probably reach for something we can add to our course to fix a problem: a shiny new tool we learned about at a conference, an extra video lecture, or an additional step for that lab activity that students struggle with. We do need to include quality tools and fresh media to our courses, certainly. However, because there is so much to cover in any given course, we should strategically subtract all unnecessary elements. The aforementioned Nature article has brought to my attention that I may be regularly neglecting the powerful design move that subtraction offers. As a result of reflecting on that, I’ve collected a few examples of how instructors and instructional designers can use subtraction in course design.

Subtraction example #1: Remove formal requirements from informal practice activities

Let’s take a look at a discussion board assignment as an example. Sometimes discussion boards are treated more like formal writing opportunities than discussions. For example, do you require students to not only respond to the prompt but also use a formal style of discourse and cite evidence in accordance with APA style guidelines and do so in a certain number of words? We don’t require students to use APA style or converse with a word count in our in-person discussions, so why would we do this in an online course (Darby, 2020)? Consider subtracting those formal writing requirements for discussion boards, and reserve the APA citations and formal requirements for polished writing assignments. That way, online discussions can be a place to practice and informally grapple with new concepts and ideas the way that face-to-face discussions are. Then, after students have a chance to work through topics in an informal way, they will be ready to try more formal tasks on the topic, such as constructing an argument and appropriately citing evidence according to a particular style guide.

Subtraction example #2: Reduce the frequency of office hours

If you hold office hours at a set time each week, and you notice that few students attend, consider doing away with the set weekly “office hours” altogether. Instead, invite students to make an appointment with you at least once during the term, at a time and in a modality that works well for them, or reduce the frequency of office hours to two or three timely sessions (optional attendance) per term, such as before each exam. Take questions in advance so that students too busy to attend can still benefit from the sessions, and post a recording of the session afterward in an announcement. According to Lowenthal, Dunlap, and Snelson (2017), less frequent but more focused office hours increased participation from students. Lastly, consider renaming your new infrequent office hours to something warm and inviting, such as “Coffee Break” or “Consultations” (Darby, 2019), which students may find more welcoming. Building in plans for facilitation and instructor presence in the early stages of course development allows faculty to focus more on teaching while the course is running and less on reactive problem solving.

Subtraction example #3: Dethrone teaching “folklore”

Teaching “folklore,” which John Warner calls the ineffective “practices handed down instructor to instructor” (p. 207, 2020), shows up uninvited, particularly when you have been assigned a course to teach that you had no hand in developing. One example of teaching folklore is the stubborn assumption that serious scholars are gatekeepers for their fields. Evidence of this exclusionary approach may show up in the form of a stern, overly formal, or cold tone in a syllabus. Consider removing verbiage that conveys a cold tone, since we now know that warm-tone syllabi encourage students to reach out to their professors (Gurung and Galardi, 2021). Another example of this is inflexible class “policies” that reflect an individual instructor’s preferences and not university policies. Consider reviewing the policies stated in the syllabus and delete any that are not aligned with actual university policies. Further, the idea that students must achieve a level of eloquence and scholarly sophistication on par with faculty in order to be considered for a grade of “A” on an assignment is another example of this. Evidence of this type of folklore could be found in rubrics with benchmarks that are nearly impossible to achieve. The element that could be subtracted here is not the rubric, but rather the specific language in the rubric that makes it impossible for students to succeed in the assignment. Neuromyths, which are false beliefs about the brain and learning, could also be included in the category of teaching folklore. If you spot neuromyths in a course, remove them. In summary, if you spot one of these ineffective teaching folklore elements in your course, consider removing the “folklore” item.

For this design challenge, try subtracting ineffective design elements before adding new items to solve course design problems. If you are unsure if something should stay or go, ask yourself what purpose this element serves in the course. It should then become clear whether the item belongs or needs adjustment. Even small adjustments can transform learners’ experiences. What have you removed from your course? Share how the process was for you by leaving a comment.


Blum, S. D. (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading : Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.

Darby, Flower. The Secret Weapon of Good Online Teaching: Discussion Forums 6 ways to lead meaningful class discussions in an asynchronous online forum. August 24, 2020.

Darby, Flower, and James M. Lang. Small Teaching Online : Applying Learning Science in Online Classes, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Created from osu on 2022-01-18 23:50:41.

Gasiewski, J.A., Eagan, M.K., Garcia, G.A. et al. From Gatekeeping to Engagement: A Multicontextual, Mixed Method Study of Student Academic Engagement in Introductory STEM Courses. Res High Educ 53, 229–261 (2012).

Gurung, R. A. R., & Galardi, N. R. (2021). Syllabus Tone, More Than Mental Health Statements, Influence Intentions to Seek Help. Teaching of Psychology.

Lowenthal, P. R., Dunlap, J. C., & Snelson, C. (2017). Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses: Reconceptualizing virtual office hours. Online Learning , 21 (4).

Meyvis, T. & Yoon, H. (2021). Adding is favoured over subtracting in problem solving. Nature.

Shi, T. Debunking Neuromyths and Applications for Online Teaching and Learning: Part 1. February 13, 2019. Ecampus Course Development and Training Blog.

Warner, J. “Wile E. Coyote, the Hero of Ungrading” from Chapter 13 of Ungrading.