Student-Faculty Partnerships in Curricula

There is a growing movement to not only include but also involve students in curricula decisions. Students in higher education have challenged the notion that they are customers receiving a transactional education and instead call for higher levels of participation and agency in their learning (Matthews et al., 2017). Students collaborating with institutions, programs, and faculty to design curricula is a framework known as students as partners, or student-faculty partnerships. At Portland State University, student body President Nya Mbock has called for more student involvement with faculty in the curriculum (Swordfisk, 2021).

Positive outcomes of student-faculty partnership include increased student engagement, motivation, and ownership for learning, a positive shift of power dynamics between faculty and student (toward more equitable power), engagement and empowerment for students who are historically excluded, and increased student confidence and self-determination (Cook-Sather et al., 2014).

With any approach to curricula, the intention of including students can end up harming students. It’s important to set intentions, to be transparent, and to reflect on how power affects the partnership. Without these intentional pieces, partnership work may end up tokenizing students and essentializing the student experience (Cook-Sather et al., 2014; de Bie et al., 2021). As a result, and despite good intentions, partnerships can reinforce the inequitable learning environments that they seek to disrupt. For example, partnership work may focus on an increased sense of belonging for students, which may be problematic when the institution students are invited to feel connected with has a history of erasure and colonization for some student populations (de Bie et al., 2021).

Example Partnership Approaches

Here are three examples of partnership approaches you can include in your own practice:

  • Student-faculty course design. This happens before a course is taught and when you are designing the course. A student or group of students collaborate with the faculty member on the design of a course. This might include a redesigned syllabus or elements such as course outcomes, a course assignment, or an entire course.
  • Students create and choose. This includes students in a course you are teaching. This might include having students choose the weekly discussion topics or create and vote on quiz questions, embedding students’ social bookmarking annotations to shape course content, or having students collaborate to create course content (Cook-Sather et al., 2014).
  • Partnerships in assessment. Invite students to identify grading criteria for an assignment or final essay or invite students to co-assess their own final presentations. Another example is to bring a rubric with past student papers (used with permission) and have current students grade the papers based on that rubric. Have a discussion about the rubric and invite students to offer suggestions on adapting it for their course term.

Getting Started

  1. Begin by reflecting on how you currently involve students in your curriculum.
  2. Create a list of when students get to make decisions within your curriculum. (If this is currently  “never,” consider starting with a negotiated syllabus.)
  3. Acknowledge that this iterative process never really ends.

Examples in Practice

Negotiated Syllabus

Provide a diversity of materials in formats that remain consistent from week to week. Students choose which materials to engage with to learn the concepts outlined for that week. The focus of the negotiated syllabus is to highlight student agency within their learning by creating opportunities for students to choose the way they want to learn a concept.

For example, provide lecture slides, supplementary texts, and external videos covering the information being taught each week. From this collection, students can choose which items are most useful to them and will have reliable access to their preferred materials for each new topic.


Reflect on the level at which students make decisions and identify opportunities to increase student involvement: Hold a discussion with students in class to determine course learning outcomes and discuss how predetermined assignments will help the class reach their goals.

Be prepared to make small changes to assignments based on the class discussion. This is expected, as every class will have different students. The discussion may also yield ideas for new or different assignments to help the class meet their co-created learning outcomes.

Alternatively, hold a discussion with students in class to create course assignments based on predetermined course outcomes and how these assignments will help the class reach their goals.

Identity Expression

Integrate the student voice into your course by providing ample room for identity expression and application of the material to students’ own lived experiences — in ways such as including languages spoken beyond English and encouraging cultural and community practices. This engages more parts of the brain and allows for greater communication between them, along with deeper integration of the learned material into long-term memory (Johnson et al., 2006)

Co-created Syllabus

Develop a syllabus, in partnership with students, that reflects your collective values. Co-creating a syllabus is a chance for students to democratically participate in their own learning. It signals that a course is designed to share power and encourage not only student involvement but also engagement and agency.

The syllabus might include co-created community guidelines, flexible deadlines based on the class’s needs for that quarter, or opportunities for students to self-grade. You might also consider including a list of linked resources (where to find cost-considerate course materials, necessary technology, internet access), a land acknowledgement, and an acknowledgment of bias.


Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felton, P. (2014). Engaging Students As Partners in Learning and Teaching : A Guide for Faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

De Bie, K., Marquis, E., Cook-Sather, A., & Luqueño, L. P. (2021). Promoting Equity and Justice through Pedagogical Partnership. Stylus.

Johnson, S., & Taylor, K. (2006). The Neuroscience of Adult Learning: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. Wiley.

Matthews, K. E., Groenendijk, L. J., & Chunduri, P. (2017). We Want to be More Involved: Student Perceptions of Students as Partners Across the Degree Program Curriculum. International Journal for Students As Partners, 1(2).

Swordfisk, K. (2021, September 27). In pursuit of student success: ASPSU president prioritizes student involvement, improving the post-COVID learning environment. PSU News.

Learn More Elsewhere


Equity and Inclusion Practices: An Overview

This guide introduces a few pedagogies you can adopt into your inclusive teaching practice. They can help facilitate connections and conversations leading to inclusive and equitable learning — but this is not an exhaustive list.

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Culturally sustaining pedagogy builds on the work of culturally relevant teaching and culturally responsive pedagogy. It affirms and sustains students’ connections to their culture, language, and community. It focuses on students as active contributors of unique lived experiences essential to learning. It also resists monolingualism and deficit student framing by promoting cultural equality (Paris, 2012).

In Practice

“I Notice, I Wonder” is a useful culturally sustaining practice in many teaching contexts. It’s an introductory brainstorming activity in which students from all backgrounds and abilities can participate.

Further Reading

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) attempts to minimize barriers and create equal opportunities for all students to express what they know. UDL creates multiple paths to learning and understanding that benefit all students, regardless of disability. This framework focuses on adding flexibility, choice, and relevance to three key areas of instruction: expression of knowledge, representation of information, and engagement.

In Practice

Further Reading

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

Originating in neuroscience, trauma-informed pedagogy acknowledges and attempts to mitigate the trauma’s impact on learning. Trauma can come from sources including but not limited to adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs) such as physical or emotional abuse, institutional and systemic oppression, and COVID-19. While trauma affects each individual differently, it’s likely to impact cognitive functions such as memory, emotional regulation, stamina, and focus. Strategies within this framework include a focus on community, relationships, routine, and flexibility.

In Practice

Further Reading

Community-Based Learning Pedagogy

What is the role of a university in a community? How might curricula contribute to students’ civic identity? How does a course honor the life experience students bring to the classroom? Community-based learning (CBL) pedagogies attempt to address these and other foundational questions concerning the intentional interplay between movements for justice, academic knowledge, and the spaces we share.

In Practice

Further Reading

Contemplative Pedagogy

Contemplative pedagogy encourages deep learning through focused attention, reflection, and mindfulness practice. It engages students in an introspective, first-person way of knowing the world around them through an embodied educational experience, which allows students to see themselves in their courses. “Inviting the contemplative simply includes the natural human capacity for knowing through silence, looking inward, pondering deeply, beholding, witnessing the contents of our consciousness…. These approaches cultivate an inner technology of knowing….” (Hart, 2004, pp. 29–30).

Many common classroom practices — such as close reading, writing, and reflection — can draw from contemplative practices to help students focus deeply, retain new information, and integrate learning into meaningful situations.

In Practice

Further Reading

Student Voice

Student voice “aims to signal not only the literal sound of students’ words as they inform educational planning, research, and reform, but also the collective contribution of diverse students’ presence, participation and power in those processes” (Bovill et al., 2011, pp. 2–3). Notably, student voice work is shared decision-making between students and faculty that involves value, agency, and action for students and aims to be transformative for both students and faculty.

In Practice

Further Reading

Anti-Racist Pedagogy

Anti-racist pedagogy is a “paradigm located within critical theory utilized to explain and counteract the persistence and impact of racism using praxis as its focus to promote social justice for the creation of a democratic society in every respect” (Blakeney, 2005, p. 119). Further, anti-racist pedagogy reveals the structural inequalities within U.S. society while fostering students’ critical analysis skills as well as their critical self-reflection (Kishimoto, 2018). Per Kishimoto, incorporating anti-racist pedagogy at the classroom level begins with examining one’s own pedagogy and curriculum to implement change. This could involve understanding how inequitable education structures impact students differently, reevaluating assumptions we may make about students’ backgrounds, inviting a colleague to review syllabi or other course materials to identify where bias might impact curriculum and organization, meaningfully incorporating the work and voices of minoritized scholars, and incorporating high impact learning practices that create the foundations for collective exploration of historical, social, and cultural biases in the field of study.

In Practice

Further Reading


Blakeney, A. M. (2005). Antiracist pedagogy: Definition, theory, and professional development. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 2(1), 119–132.

Bovill, C., Cook‐Sather, A. & Felten, P. (2011). Students as co‐creators of teaching approaches, course design, and curricula: implications for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 16(2), 133–145.

Hart, T. (2004). Opening the contemplative mind in the classroom. Journal of Transformative Education, 2(28), 28–46.

Kishimoto, K. (2018) Anti-racist pedagogy: from faculty’s self-reflection to organizing within and beyond the classroom. Race Ethnicity and Education, 21(4), 540–554.

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93–97.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEM

What are diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how are they related to higher education?

You have probably encountered these terms a lot over the past few years. Although they are popular, their application varies depending on the situation. Overall, the primary goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion work are to:

  • Promote the value of a wide variety of identities, abilities, value systems, and life experiences.
  • Recognize that these experiences have not been valued equally and make changes to promote justice and healing.
  • Create long-term, sustainable changes that allow everyone to fully access opportunities for success.

By being mindful of common hurdles such as textbook cost, different styles of learning, and diverse life experiences, you can find out what students need for success in class. This article offers some resources to promote a collaborative, equitable learning environment where students and instructors alike are fully engaged and feel successful.

Diversity and Inclusion in STEM Programs

Researchers have tried to understand why some students are more successful in STEM classes than others. Some evidence suggests ZIP codes play an important role. Knowledgeable teachers and healthy physical environments for development tend to link together in resource-rich areas. Some of these areas are rural and some more urban. The most common factors are the quality of available education and social determinants of health (Tate, 2008).

These resource-rich areas have benefitted from STEM leaders and innovators, so the emphasis on strong STEM education makes sense. However, this also means early STEM success has more to do with a student’s environment than personal interest or ability. Disparities that begin in K-12 education inform the opportunities available to students in higher education, both in college access and student engagement in classes. And as some ZIP codes progress while others stagnate, students with similar life experiences will continue to reinforce assumptions about who is “good” at STEM and who is not (Tate, 2008).

Socio-economic factors — such as physical environment, family system environment, family income and occupation, and teacher experience at the K-12 level — impact not only who has access to higher education, but also the future of STEM fields (Phillips, 2019). “…[W]e note that STEM is the only field where Black and Latina/o youth are significantly more likely than their White peers to switch and earn a degree in another field…. In summary, we find evidence of white privilege in STEM degree attainment that is not mirrored in other major fields. (Riegle-Crumb et al., 2019).” Similarly, women who graduate from STEM programs are less likely to continue into STEM careers than men. Trans and genderqueer students are heavily under-represented. This means an even more homogenous group than the STEM student body is designing future technology and changing the world for everyone else.

An important approach to innovative STEM classrooms is to include and support students from varied backgrounds and lived experiences. Inclusive classrooms help everyone stay engaged and passionate, pursuing their interests in the field.

Anti-racist and inclusive practices, in the classroom and in STEM teaching, can be grounded both in pedagogy and in the instructor’s personal experience. Here are some reflective practices along with some resources available at PSU.

Incorporating Inclusive and Anti-Racist Practices into a STEM Course

Anti-Racist Reflection, Research, and Action as an Act of Self and Community Care

“Teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students (hooks, 1994, p. 15).”

Teachers can only go as far in the classroom as they have in their own growth and cultivation of well-being. Creating equitable, diverse, and inclusive classrooms is not one-size-fits-all. Arguably, it’s most effective when instructors have grounded their approach in critical reflection and continued learning. bell hooks describes emphasizing the community of the classroom and instructors leading with vulnerability to create an environment where students are empowered, curious, and engaged in learning.

The more instructors pay attention to their own well-being, the more vulnerability is possible in the classroom. Here are resources for fostering an inclusive, responsive classroom environment that invites instructors to care for themselves and learn about anti-racism practices.

Personal Reflection

Our identities and life experiences inform the way we teach and learn; it can be easy to accidentally alienate students who have different life experiences. Approaching students when maintaining a growth mindset and reflective teaching practice can help instructors engage in the classroom as learners themselves.

Researching Anti-Racist Practices


Inconsistencies in Inclusion Practices

You might find diversity, equity, and inclusion discussed in ways that conflict with each other. This can be frustrating when you want to engage in this work effectively but without causing harm. When looking at DEI efforts abstractly — without the context of your own students in mind — choosing techniques may seem impossible. It can help to ask, “What does my learning community need to fully engage?”

You might reflect on some of these questions as you think about how to best support your learning community:

  • What are the traditional research or learning methods in your field? Do these methods create barriers based on race, gender, class, age, or ability?
  • What are some guidelines for class engagement meaningful to you as an instructor? How can you create space for others with different values to express themselves?
  • Are there elements of your job that limit or broaden your ability to create an inclusive classroom?

Engaged Pedagogy in the Classroom

Resources and Tips for Building an Inclusive Course

Campus resource centers provide sample syllabus language and additional resources:

Adding Diversity to Your Syllabus

Reach out to STEM subject librarians for assistance finding resources from diverse authors and sources to supplement your syllabus.

Some external lists to consider:

Additional Resources for Structuring Courses and Incorporating Student Feedback

Surveys can be useful for gauging student interests, needs, and familiarity with the course material both before and throughout the term.

Consider scheduling mid-quarter student feedback (a teaching consultation) through OAI, to collect qualitative student feedback anonymously.

Universal Design for Learning emphasizes creating more opportunities for students to learn course material by offering multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

Consider assignments that can both help you get more inclusive material and engage student interests. Some ideas:

  • Ask students to find information about scientists of color or how the field has impacted groups who have been under-invested in.
  • Ask students to write their own quiz or learning goals and discuss as a class how you can support each other to meet the objectives.
  • Ask students to update the curriculum, or build their own curriculum based on what they learned in the course and their lived experiences. (Consider a negotiated syllabus.)

Beyond the Classroom: Structural Changes

You might feel limited by what you can do in the classroom, knowing the structural inequalities that contribute to a lack of diversity. Here are some ideas for thinking about equity, diversity, and inclusion outside of a class environment.

Promote National and Local Community Initiatives

Movements making historically and systemically marginalized STEM professionals more visible are growing. Promoting these initiatives can be a great way to support marginalized students and expand everyone’s thinking.

Build a Network of Support with Students and Faculty

Students are often looking to instructors for guidance on how to create change. You may get questions about diversity already. Collaboration can be powerful and can help identify what is needed to prevent exclusion based on gender, race, class, ability, and other identities. Here are some suggestions for supporting this collaboration:

  • Complete OAI’s Certificate of Innovation in College Teaching. This program helps current and future instructors think about accessibility, develop their own teaching pedagogy, and build a support network with other educators.
  • Check out other professional development opportunities offered at OAI.
  • Build a network of former students who want to speak to your class and mentor students in the course.
  • If you have access to a Teaching Assistant (TA), promote hiring TAs who have different experiences than instructors, and work with your TA to build the syllabus.
  • Meet with other instructors in your department to share resources and discuss opportunities to make the program more equitable and inclusive.


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge.

Phillips, A. (2019). The Quest for Diversity in Higher Education. Pepperdine Policy Review, 11, Article 4.

Riegle-Crumb, C, King, B., & Irizarry, Y. (2019). Does STEM Stand Out? Examining Racial/Ethnic Gaps in Persistence Across Postsecondary Fields. Educational Researcher, 48(3), 133–144.

Tate, W. F. (2008). “Geography of Opportunity”: Poverty, Place, and Educational Outcomes. Educational Researcher, 37(7), 397–411.

Supporting Students through Difficult Conversations

The classroom can be a place to explore controversial topics including equity, identity, religious beliefs, and political views. These topics may come up as part of your curriculum, or through external factors and events. You may or may not choose to engage students in difficult conversations — but either way, it’s important to prepare.

Notice your own responses and emotions surrounding a topic and recognize that you and your students may not be able to show up as your best selves for these conversations. One approach to this might be transparency with your students, acknowledging how challenging the topic is and giving everyone space to process before moving forward with a conversation.

If you do choose to engage students, it will be important to acknowledge the range of perspectives and intense emotions that are likely present in your classroom. The following tips may be helpful for framing a conversation where students with diverse experiences and points of view can engage productively with one another.

Helpful Tips

Establish community agreements before discussing difficult topics.

Encourage your students to help create these collaboratively. They might include one or more of the following agreements:

  • Addressing ideas rather than people
  • Taking and making space to ensure everyone has a chance to speak
  • Entering the conversation with a spirit of curiosity and good will
  • Welcoming correction and reflection

Identify a clear purpose for the conversation.

Is the class interested in exploring a question, better understanding the context of a recent event, reflecting on the impact of current events, or something else? There is no right answer, but it is helpful for students to agree on a focus and purpose before diving in.

Provide space to summarize the discussion.

Provide space to summarize the discussion, receive student feedback, and allow students to reflect on their feelings and experiences. This might look like a brief exit email or poll, a word in the Zoom chat, or a Google Doc with reflection notes.

Recognize that difficult topics may impact students differently.

Your students likely experience a range of emotions when responding to difficult topics, informed by a range of factors including their lived experiences, intersecting identities, and feelings of safety in the class space. Particularly during uncertain and highly stressful circumstances, some students may be more at risk for marginalization connected to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or region/country of origin.

  • It may help to encourage a discussion of students’ relevant experiences while being mindful to not ask students to self-disclose information they may not be ready to share.
  • Consider asking students to complete an anonymous poll about their questions or concerns (or email you privately, if an individual response is needed). Options include Google forms, discussions, and survey tools. Find out whether students feel they are making progress, if they are having difficulties with the course, and if they have specific suggestions for addressing any challenges they identify.

Acknowledge the impact on your students.

If you do not choose to address a difficult topic substantively but still want to acknowledge it, you can:
  • Begin by recognizing that different people have strong emotions from a variety of perspectives, and it may be hard to focus.
  • Give your students a chance to write for a minute or two to process their thoughts and feelings, and/or identify people they want to reach out to for the types of connections and processing that would benefit them. Then move on to your plan for the day.
  • Note the difficulty of focusing and of controlling strong emotions and let students know they can feel free to take a brief break to refocus.

If a student raises a topic when you had not planned to discuss it, classroom discussion agreements might provide guidance to have a productive and respectful conversation. If you do not feel prepared for a conversation, you can recognize that the student might want to have the conversation, but explain that you want to think further about whether and how to engage it as a class.

Teaching in Inclement Weather

In inclement weather, PSU may have a delayed start, an early closure, or a full-day closure. Here’s how to:

  • Reduce impacts to class meetings and learning outcomes.
  • Accommodate hardships and safety needs — for yourself and your students.

In Advance

At the beginning of each term, discuss the University Closure Policy and Inclement Weather Procedures (Campus Closure) with your students. Include any alternative plans or instructions in your course syllabus, so students fully understand:

  • How to get closure information before traveling to campus
  • What to expect if classes are cancelled or final exams are impacted

During Inclement Weather

When PSU remains open, exercise normal flexibility and make reasonable accommodations for students who miss class, miss an exam, or don’t submit coursework as a result of inclement weather — including effects from other community closures.

When PSU is closed, don’t require or even suggest that students be on campus. This includes early closures. When a closure occurs during a class or exam, release students immediately.

In all cases, it’s important and helpful for you to communicate course expectations to concerned students. You can send your entire class an email through your PSU Gmail account.

During campus closures, OAI and OIT offices will continue remote support. You can submit a support request or chat with the OAI Faculty Support Desk Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Please direct students to OIT phone or chat support.

Considerations for Online and Remote Courses

Because online and remote courses don’t require campus attendance, they may continue during inclement weather closures — at your discretion. Although your virtual class may remain open, the library and most other university buildings will be closed. Please exercise normal flexibility and make reasonable accommodation for weather related impacts such as:

  • Loss of access to Internet connections and devices, or even electricity
  • Changes in students’ and instructors’ work hours, childcare schedules, and more

Plan ahead for how you might accommodate power outages or other weather-related impacts. This could include:

  • Extending deadlines
  • Rescheduling exams
  • Recording class meetings
  • Not requiring students to have cameras on
  • Alternative learning activities instead of scheduled class meetings

No matter how you approach your remote or online class during inclement weather, remember to clearly and quickly tell students your expectations and any changes. Email and online course announcements (in D2L or in Canvas) are two good options for communicating with students.

Stream Class Sessions Remotely

Here are tips for live streaming your class sessions. They may be especially useful if you’re new to remote teaching and/or streaming, or if you’ve very recently moved your class to remote.

In general, we recommend Zoom for your virtual classroom. It has a white board, screen sharing, and other functions for real-time meetings. If you’re worried streaming from off campus won’t work for you, consider our suggestions for accommodating unique classroom setups.

Some students may not have adequate technology or Internet access to meet regularly via Zoom. Let your students know that if they can’t attend live, they can watch a recording later and email comments. We recommend planning optional synchronous sessions with regular office hours held via Zoom, email, phone, or whatever mode works best for students.

Suggested Practices

Run a practice meeting.

  • Practice using the Zoom controls. Take a look at this Zoom Cheat Sheet for a quick reference.
  • Check whether you’re clearly visible within your camera’s field of view.
  • Avoid sitting with your back to a strong light source, such as a window. If possible, place lighting in front of you and above/behind the computer screen.
  • Check your meeting plan and try any tools and resources you plan to use in the session.

Then, at the start of your first session with students, make sure everyone can hear and see you.

Set expectations for remote participation.

Let students know your expectations about:

  • Whether to chat their comments/questions or chime in verbally.
  • Using the “Raise Hand” button in the “Participants” section to alert you to a question.
  • Chatting with peers during a session.
  • Keeping their audio and video muted until it’s time to talk — along with why and when you would use your ability to mute or unmute them.

Give specific instructions for using Zoom tools.

For example:

  • “I will present some slides. Please wait until I ask for questions before speaking.”
  • “If you have a question, use the ‘raise hand’ button so everyone can get their questions answered.”
  • “Following my comments, we will discuss the course material for today. If you have a comment, please make a note in chat so we can give you the floor.”
  • “Please mute your microphone when not speaking — and mute your microphone and video whenever you are away from the computer.”

Communicate the session’s goals.

Post the goals and/or outline of the session so students can stay on track.

  • Begin each session by briefly going over the agenda. You can do this by screen sharing a document or slide on your desktop.
  • Consider giving a quick Zoom Poll at the beginning of the session to gauge how students are doing or to ask a few low-risk questions about the topic of the day.

Structure your presentations.

  • If you plan to give a presentation, build in plenty of time for students to ask questions or respond.
  • Prepare students during an initial orientation or introductions. For example, during introductions students can practice muting, unmuting and using the “raise hand” function.

Wrap up your session.

As you might in a campus classroom, summarize the key points of the session and prepare students for what to do before the next session, leaving time for questions. We strongly recommend including this information in writing. It will assist remote students and save you time in answering questions.

Suggestions for Engaging Students

Consider polling.

Before the session, you might create a quick Google Form survey and send it to students via email with up to three questions about students’ experiences relevant to the topic, or their reaction to a portion of the reading. For example:

  • “What daily transportation challenges most impact you?”
  • “What do your readings suggest are the three most important research areas in transportation and supply logistics?”
  • “What supply logistic management issues do you see as most relevant to the Covid-19 situation?”

During the session, you can use Zoom Polling.

Incorporate students’ responses.

Students are often very interested in and learn much from how others respond. You can summarize, either in writing or verbally, what you learned from student polls. If possible, you might incorporate students’ responses as you move through related topics in the session.

If possible, share visuals.

Slides, websites, graphics or brief videos can illustrate and underscore the goals of your session, and can provide a springboard for discussion with students. Whenever possible, give students access to the files you’ll use during your remote session so they can review and reference as needed. You can share these before the session — or during, using Zoom’s Screen Share feature.

Try to keep it active.

You can engage students during live remote sessions by involving them in:

  • Testing or applying ideas
  • Generating examples
  • Reflecting on course activities

OAI’s Active Remote Learning Kit has more strategies for involving students in live streaming sessions.

Pro Tips

We’re all learning to work remotely. OAI staff have developed some tips to ease common challenges in streaming from home.

  • If you can, use a wired connection (not Wi-Fi) to your modem or router. If you can’t, set up your workspace close to it.
  • Ask others in your location to take a break from Internet use, or at least from Internet gaming, to ease the system load during your session.
  • Restart your computer before the session. This will clear the memory and help the computer run Zoom more efficiently.
  • Do a test session to try your camera, microphone, and any features you want to use.
  • If you experience glitches during the session, ask yourself, “How much will this impact class?” Little things may not be worth the worry.
  • “Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?” It’s surprising how often refreshing the page/stopping and restarting the screenshare/leaving and re-entering the meeting will fix things.
  • “Have you tried unplugging and plugging it back in?” Likewise, you can often clear up an errant headphone connection or video signal by reseating the cable!

If glitches happen…

You and your students are embarking on a new experience together, and they will be forgiving. Develop a backup plan just in case things go awry. For example, you could:

  • Temporarily phone into your class until you restart your computer and get back on Wi-Fi.
  • Move to a backup discussion tool if something in Zoom does not work.

Student feedback data shows that audio is key to student understanding and participation. Audio backup is a must.

Most of all, be kind to yourself! Your first face-to-face teaching session probably wasn’t perfect either.

Student Voices on Remote Learning

Students had a range of responses to the sudden shift to remote learning during Spring term 2020. While many students expressed appreciation for PSU’s efforts to keep them safe and for their instructors’ efforts to support their learning, some areas of challenge also emerged. Students face many situations outside of the control of individual instructors, but here are a few common scenarios along with suggestions for approaches instructors might take to address them. 

Quotes and vignettes are based on student feedback received during Spring 2020. See more details about Spring 2020 remote learning experiences in the Office of Student Success Remote Pulse Survey and the Disability Resource Center Student Survey. Student quotes have been edited for clarity.

Students felt overwhelmed in digital spaces.

“… The zoom lectures often feel like they are moving all over the place and even the instructor is having a difficult time staying on task, as there are more interruptions than typically experienced in lecture halls. … The zoom lectures seem to be more stimulating and exhausting than in person lectures…”

“…One class has a reading list on the syllabus, but the articles on the reading list are in the library, and not grouped by week or in any order, so one has to have the syllabus in one window, and the library list in another window to open the correct articles. Another has videos that are buried in the Table of Contents…”

“It’s much more difficult to read and focus. I feel frustrated with some professors who make me jump through hoops as a person who gets help with DRC. “

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Consider reducing duration and/or frequency of Zoom sessions in favor of asynchronous learning activities to meet course goals.
  • Intentionally plan your Zoom sessions and share interaction guidelines with students. Set standards for how students should ask questions, and whether and when they need to have their cameras and mics enabled.
  • Give extra attention to how you organize your course. Consider a weekly course structure, which may be different from how you’ve previously organized your course.
  • Work with the Disability Resource Center as needed to enact remote accommodations that meet students needs.

Spring term coincided with global crises.

“Trying to survive is hard enough, let alone worrying about class. Trying to maintain eligibility for grants by going full time when I can’t even cook dinner some nights. Sleeping badly which doesn’t help. Eating poorly which doesn’t help. Having to relocate to a different household due to my roommate being very ill doesn’t help. Losing my job doesn’t help. My whole life has been uprooted”

“Mental and physical health challenges that are being felt by most of us doesn’t seem a priority in adapting our course load to this reality.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Anticipate that you and your students will be feeling a variety of emotions that may make teaching and learning more challenging. Consider additional flexibility in how students engage in and demonstrate their learning. Universal Design for Learning offers valuable suggestions. 
  • Balance curricular challenges with a supportive and affirming learning environment. Offering students multiple opportunities to take quizzes or complete homework is one way to support students.
  • Share information about campus services and resources with students. For example, the Food Pantry, SHAC, Learning Center, and Financial Wellness Center are all resources here to help students succeed. The C.A.R.E. Team addresses concerns regarding specific student’s wellbeing. Faculty and staff may submit a CARE report to notify the team of a student concern.

PSU students continue to lead busy and complex lives.

“It is very difficult to sit through a Zoom class session when my child is also home. As a single mother, my resources have been stripped due to this virus and the virtual experience has been hard to manage at home with family.”

“…. I have deadlines almost every day of the week, and many of them can’t be started whenever I want to, as I have to wait for a professor to upload assignments, or for another student to do their work first, that means I can’t control when the work needs to be done, which is hard because I am a primary care provider to a 5 year old, who no longer has school, so I mostly have to do work after she goes to bed, sometimes until 2am.”

“I don’t have a space in my house (a one bedroom apartment) where I can study or attend classes without interruption, and I don’t have childcare for my daughter.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Trust your students and recognize that they may be facing challenges to showing up to your class that you can’t anticipate. Consider the impact of course policies on students at the margins. For example, might a “no late work policy” disproportionately hurt essential workers or students who take care of family members? 
  • Offer flexibility where possible. This might mean offering alternative ways to complete assignments or attend class sessions. 
  • Connect your class to students’ experiences. If you’re not sure how your course content relates to students, ask them to help make the connections. Seeing how what they’re learning in class connects to the real world and their own lives helps sustain engagement and motivation.

Students feel increased time pressure.

“I found some instructors made classes even more time consuming than in the past and this is not the time for busy silly work.”

“… I feel the professors have decided to make up for lack of in-person time with additional assignments which only stresses myself and others out as we try to figure out our life financially and health specifically….”

“Since switching to remote learning there has been an increase in coursework for most of my classes. Since going to remote learning I also have had less access to reliable internet, which has made online learning more difficult.”

Suggestions for Instructors

  • Plan your course activities and expectations carefully, so that students spend thee to four hours on course work for each credit hour of a course. This total time includes both instructional (“class time”) and homework/study time.
  • Anticipate that students are juggling additional stressors and may benefit from extra time to complete assignments.
  • Ensure strong alignment between your required course assignments and your course learning outcomes.

Create Accessible Course Materials

When course materials — readings, videos, slides, websites, etc. — are accessible, all students benefit.

  • Students with disabilities can engage with your course materials without barriers, often using assistive technologies such as screen readers or closed captioning.
  • Even students without disabilities often use more than one device — such as a phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop — and may not have reliable internet access. Accessible materials help them, too.

To support all learners and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s important to include accessibility throughout your course.

Note: At times, you may need to discuss accommodations with the Disability Resource Center.


Images, graphics, diagrams, charts, and tables are key communication tools and can greatly enhance learning. For each image, include alternative text (alt-text) to describe the image to someone who uses a screen reader. Write your alt-text to describe:

  • The intended meaning or use of the image
  • Any included text or visual information (especially in diagrams)

Example: For an image of a course banner on the homepage of a course, the alt-text would include any text in the banner and the name of the course.

It’s important for alt-text to convey the same information as the image — so it’s best to include information-heavy items as readable text rather than images.

  • Rather than images of tables, include readable text-based tables. Make sure the tables have headings.
  • Write mathematical equations using the math editor in Canvas.

Note: Ask the Disability Resource Center about access to EquatIO, an institutionally licensed mathematical equation writing software.


Color in a digital environment requires sufficient contrast between text and background — but don’t use text color as the sole means to communicate information. For example, “assignments in red are due on Thursday” would not be accessible. It would exclude people who don’t see the color red or who use screen readers. Instead, use bold or italic to emphasize or highlight important information.

Another consideration is to use darker bolder colors for text used against a white screen. For best usability and accessibility avoid neon and bright colors in course content.


For anyone who navigates from a keyboard, headings are important to quickly move through content on a page.

  • Use heading style H1 for only one heading on each page — typically the title or main subject of the page.
  • Use heading styles H2 through H6 to identify subsections.
  • Follow a logical nesting order and don’t exceed six levels.


Ordered and unordered lists are commonly used in content authoring. Be sure to use list tools to create them.

For ordered lists — in which numbers or letters indicate chronological or hierarchical items — a common mistake is typing each number or letter rather than using the list tool. This does not create a structured list that screen-reading software can use.

Don’t rely exclusively on lists for organization. For example, use accessible headings to begin each major section.

Document Formatting and Layout

Document types such as PowerPoint, PDF, Word, Google Docs, etc. are often part of course content. Consistency among documents is important for readability and findability. Here are a few guidelines to consider.

Make sure PDF documents are selectable, searchable, properly tagged, and in accurate reading order. If you create them by scanning paper, use OCR (optical character recognition) instead of creating an image. OCR allows each letter and word to be read by a screen reader and makes all text searchable. You can scan with OCR in the PSU library.

For all document types:

  • Don’t use underlined text for emphasis. It can be mistaken for a link. Use bold and italics instead.
  • Use the same style and navigation in all documents.
  • Make a document’s title easy to understand — both in the file name and in the H1-level heading within the document.

Checking Accessibility

Canvas has a built-in accessibility checker! Anywhere Canvas has a rich content editor you can run the checker to flag potential issues and accessibility errors. The checker will then prompt you to fix each item it flags. Learn to use the accessibility checker in the rich content editor in Canvas.

Microsoft products such as Word and PowerPoint also have built-in accessibility checkers. Learn about the accessibility checker for Word and PowerPoint..

Building an Effective Syllabus

An effective syllabus is both relevant and accessible for all students. Along with complete information, it needs organization and formatting that works well in assistive devices.

To help you get started, OAI has an accessible syllabus template with PSU policies and other common elements. It’s organized with Microsoft Word’s heading structure and uses accessible formatting. Keep the structure and formatting to maintain accessibility, but add and delete information to make it relevant for your course.

Note these elements:

  • Headings: Use text formatted as a heading to identify sections of your syllabus.
  • Lists: Use the list tool (bullets or numbering), not dashes, to identify lists of items.
  • Links: Make them meaningful. For example, instead of click here, use a more descriptive link: OAI+ Tech Tutorials.
  • Tables: Use column and row headers on every table.
  • Images: Add alternative text that describes the image for visually-impaired students.
  • Font: Make sure the text color you use has enough color contrast to be legible. Also, don’t use color or underlining to convey information or meaning.
  • Layout: Use adequate line spacing (1.15 or greater) and a large enough font size. (Nine points is the minimum, but 12 to 14 is better.)

It’s also important for a syllabus to be culturally inclusive to all our students. The PSU Library has a guide to making your syllabus — and your whole curriculum — more culturally responsive and inclusive:

Important notes for building your syllabus:

  • Talk with your department or college about any additional syllabus requirements.
  • Be sure to check dates and links before use.
  • Post the syllabus in the content area of your online course so students always know where to find it.

Beyond the Basics

Video Introduction

Particularly in online courses, it might be helpful to also create a video screencast introducing the course syllabus. Consider, for example, this Syllabus Builder Video from UDL on Campus.

Naming Access Needs

Consider adding a statement to your syllabus that invites students to share their access needs throughout the term. An example:

I encourage you to name your access needs in this class and ask that you please communicate as your needs change. Naming your access needs can be asking a presenter to speak slower, or turning your camera off for a moment and letting the class know that you will participate via chat, or keeping your camera on but letting the class know that you may fidget, stretch, or move during class time. Naming your access needs is an important part of how you communicate with the class.

The Negotiated Syllabus

A negotiated syllabus is constructed collaboratively with students, giving them choices about what, how, when, and with whom they will meet learning objectives.

One way to build a negotiated syllabus is to start with what’s required for students to pass the course. Outline those requirements, then allow the class to determine some aspects democratically — such as readings, grade scheme, class activities, major assignments, etc.

Students are often much more invested in classes where they are making decisions and building the class with the instructor and their peers.

Supporting Students Online

Online students can find it challenging to stay motivated and engaged in learning. Here are steps you can take when building online activities to help students make meaningful connections with you, their classmates, and the content.

Be present.

Encourage regular student/teacher communication and establish an encouraging online environment. You don’t have to be online all the time; you can maintain regular contact with students through weekly updates, video reminders, and full-class messages acknowledging students’ good work.

Be active.

Give examples and encourage peer-to-peer collaboration. A common misconception about online coursework is that students can’t collaborate. However, tools such as discussion forums, Google Hangout, and Google Docs make remote collaboration easy. When establishing collaborative activities, remember to define what you expect, including examples of the work you want them to produce. Examples help guide students and make them feel like you’re an active participant in the class.

Be clear.

Set expectations from day one, share course objectives, and keep a predictable schedule. Students feel more confident and are better able to focus on the meaningful work of the course if the logistics are in place early and throughout the course. It helps to have regular due dates and to attach learning objectives to major activities and assignments so students understand what they’re working toward.

Give regular feedback.

Help students set reasonable expectations for receiving feedback. For example, let students know you’ll post assignment updates on Fridays, or that you’ll comment on their work weekly. Not all feedback needs to be individual. Sometimes it’s appropriate to send tips and insights to the full class, such as in a summary email or announcement. However, when you want a specific student or group of students to revise an assignment, individual feedback is best.

Get regular feedback.

Provide a Q&A space, and ask students for feedback about the course with enough time to make adjustments. If the Q&A space is public, students can answer questions for each other and everyone can view the answers. This builds community and gives instructors and students the opportunity to connect. Ask for specific course feedback via a survey, brief questionnaire, or written reflection. Whatever the format, it helps to focus the reflection around specific course practices, assignments, or assessments so students know what kind of feedback you’re looking for. Request course feedback by about the fourth week so you have time to make any changes before the course is over.

Give deadlines.

Help students manage their schedules by giving deadlines and scaffolding assignments. Without the rhythm of attending class in-person regularly, online students can fall behind and feel disconnected from learning progress. Regular deadlines can help students establish effective learning habits and stay present and engaged. Due dates should follow a consistent pattern. For example, short homework sets could be due every Thursday, and discussion activities each Sunday. Scaffold larger assignments by breaking the work into smaller segments with staggered due dates. By reviewing work in smaller pieces, you can also give more targeted feedback that students can use to improve their work.

Give challenges.

Encourage students to attempt challenging work but allow space for students to make mistakes. Communicate high expectations and signal that you believe students can meet those expectations. Giving students opportunities to correct mistakes can motivate them to take learning risks. For example, allowing students to resubmit an exam or project communicates that their effort is part of a larger learning process.

Give choices.

Through Universal Design for Learning, instructors offer students choices in how they learn, engage and demonstrate their learning. Giving students choices about how they’ll meet course learning outcomes motivates them to engage in the work and doesn’t have to be more work for you. Choice can be as simple as allowing students to write an essay, make a video, or build a slideshow to demonstrate their understanding of the content.

Connect classroom learning to authentic practice.

Help students find connections between what they’re learning and their lives, prior knowledge, and real world experiences. Consider how you can shape assignments so students can apply concepts to the real world rather than just recall information. For example, you could bring in relevant news stories that connect to course concepts, or work with case studies. Similarly, make sure your students feel represented in the course. Reflect a diversity of identities, perspectives and expertise through your curricular choices.