This is the first in a sequence of posts designed to take a close look at the way we design our course syllabi. These documents are arguably the most important pieces of content we share with students in our classes, and understandably we spend a lot of time and energy crafting what we say in them.
But as we know, it’s not just what we say, it’s how we say it. This blog series, then, will focus on exactly that: the how.
Making intentional design choices in how we structure our syllabus documents allows us to be as inclusive as possible in our course design, right from the beginning. Weaving together principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), legal accessibility compliance, and attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts can seem daunting, but this series will highlight a few quick tips that are easy to implement. Getting in the habit of applying these to your syllabus, and eventually other course documents, will greatly improve the Geneseo experience for all our students.
An inclusive course syllabus takes many factors into account.
Let’s start with one of the most basic elements of any typed document: the font we use. How do you make this selection? Do you rely on the default font style chosen by your word processor? Do you have a favorite that you select out of habit? Do you select a font based on the type of document, and perhaps use even multiple fonts within the same document?
For me, Arial as the default in Google Drive usually serves me fine. I’m not a fan of Calibri, though, so when I’m typing in Word I usually change it first thing. Georgia was an old favorite, but lately Avenir has been winning the battle of my font affections. Avenir strikes me as clean, modern, and it always catches my eye right at the top of the alphabetical list of font choices in the drop-down menu.
Whatever your own answers for why you pick the fonts you do, being deliberate and thoughtful about which one you select, and the way that it’s used throughout your document, can go a long way in determining how inclusive your syllabus presentation is.
Considerations – Who’s Impacted?
- Readers with limited or no vision
- Readers with dyslexia or other reading processing concerns
Making font choices more inclusive
Considering the following aspects that make a font more reader-friendly:
The small decorative lines at the edges of some fonts, like those highlighted in red here in this example of Times New Roman, can sometimes impede readability. That’s why default fonts in many popular word processing programs are shifting towards sans-serif fonts, such as Arial and Calibri.
Aim to make 12pt the smallest font on your document; 14pt is event more reader-friendly. If you’re concerned about paper usage from printing, using a smaller font size is okay so long as an electronic version (such as the syllabus posted in Canvas) is also easily available to students.
Electronic document versions have a number of advantages, including the fact that individual readers can adjust font and other settings as needed for their own preferences.
To note new sections, employ headers, rather than simply adjusting the font size. (Teaser: more about the magic of headers is coming in an upcoming post in this series. )
Select a font where each letter takes up an equal amount of horizontal width on the page or screen. Courier and Roboto Mono are nice examples, and anything with the phrase “mono” in the name is a good bet. As with larger font size, monospace fonts tend to take more space on a printed page. You may opt for a different font in a printed handout, making sure that a more accessible font is used on a digital copy made available to students.
The spacing between letters is important for easy reading. In cases where a monotype font isn’t practical, select font families with clear white spaces between each letter, like Verdana and Tahoma. Letters that intersect with one another, such as script fonts, can be challenging to decipher.
Italicizing a word here and there can be impactful for emphasis, but long strings of words in italic fonts are incredibly hard to read. For sections of your syllabus you’d like to make stand out, try using a different font, a different point size, or a call-out box instead.
Keep Contrast High
Black text on a white background is the most readable combination. For times when other presentations might be necessary, try to make the text as distinct from the background color as possible.
WebAIM offers a nice tool for evaluating the color contrast of your font and background selections. Color will be addressed in more depth later in this blog series.
A Note about Dyslexia-Specific Fonts
You may be familiar with OpenDyslexic or similar fonts designed to improve readability for those with dsylexia. Reviews about both reader-friendliness and impact of these fonts are mixed.
Using these fonts could be a very visible sign of support that you’re keeping your students’ readability needs in mind. However, using one of the fonts suggested in the Takeaways section may be a more effective practice, in combination with providing an electronic version where students may choose to change the font to OpenDyslexic if they wish.
- Use size 12 or 14 font
- Avoid large passages of italics
- Avoid using a change in font as the ONLY signal of significance for a word/phrase/section
- Provide access to electronic versions in addition to any printed materials distributed in class
Recommended fonts: Arial, Verdana, Courier, Helvetica
- “Good Fonts for Dyslexia – An Experimental Study”
- Techwalla: “The Best Fonts for Readability”
- TypeZebra – test out fonts in a web browser