Table of contents
Recommendations for a welcoming and inclusive syllabus
This page was created collaboratively by the offices of Advancements in Teaching Excellence and Diversity & Inclusion and the Office of Digital Learning, with contributors from the University of Nevada, Reno main campus and at Lake Tahoe. We encourage you to contact our offices for additional support in inclusive syllabus design and teaching.
As one of the most essential ways instructors communicate with students, a welcoming and inclusive syllabus supports and aligns with the university vision, mission and values related to inclusion and excellence in teaching. Traditionally, a syllabus was short and content-focused. Current research, however, suggests that a more comprehensive and learner-focused syllabus in which we transmit information to all students equitably, leads to the success of more students. On this page we offer guidance on getting started with your syllabus, augmenting your syllabus with inclusive messaging and support resources, refining your syllabus to reach more students and additional resources.
Whether you are building your syllabus for the first time or considering ways to improve your syllabus, it can help to review university policies as your starting point. For official syllabus requirements, please see UAM 6501: Syllabus Policy and the Office of the Provost Syllabus Requirements (where each semester a syllabus template is posted with the current dates and essential components, in an accessible format). Core elements to start from include:
- Course and instructor information
- Course description
- Course pre/co-requisites
- Required texts/course materials
- Class procedures/structures
- Student learning outcomes
- Course requirements
- Grading criteria
- Policies related to late work and make-up work
- Course calendar or topics overview (template includes an example of table format)
- University statements including, academic dishonesty, student behavior, recording, Equal Opportunity and Title IX.
- Statements of university services: disability services and academic success services.
- Optional additional information
Beyond including the core elements above, a welcoming and inclusive syllabus conveys your vision for the course and serves as a roadmap for your students. If the formal description is written in technical terms, try to communicate your vision for the course in student-friendly language by avoiding jargon and pointing out what is meaningful or worthwhile about the course goals. Likewise, communicate to students in clear terms how all assessments and learning activities are directed at helping students learn and show them the path by which all students can achieve success in the course.
Above all, we encourage you to begin to establish a relationship with your students in the syllabus. Rather than focus on what the course will do, place emphasis on the student experience in the course. Use an inviting, approachable, and motivating tone as you discuss the course, your expectations for student involvement and success, and your desire to see every student meet your expectations. Research shows, “When students read a learning-focused syllabus, they have significantly more positive perceptions of the document itself, the course described by the syllabus and the instructor associated with the course” (Palmer et al, 2016).
Consider more specific ways you can craft a syllabus that is welcoming and inclusive of all students by reviewing the sections that follow.
Additional statements and resources to support students
What follows are examples of policy statements and specific student resources you might include in your syllabus to communicate a learner-centered and supportive course. We encourage you to add or adapt these statements and additional resources in a way that feels authentic to your vision for a welcoming and inclusive course.
In addition to the required Statement on Disability Services (see UAM 6501: Syllabus Policy), which includes information for students with disabilities needing academic adjustments or accommodations, you may also want to encourage students to feel safe confiding in us and asking for support when something in our classes isn’t accessible to them.
Example: “I am committed to creating a course that is inclusive in its design. You are encouraged to contact me about issues in the class and to get help. I also welcome feedback that will assist me in improving the experience for all students. If, at any point in the term, you find yourself not able to fully access the space, content, and experience of this course, we encourage you to contact the Disability Resource Center (DRC). It is never too late to request accommodations–our bodies and circumstances are continuously changing. By making a plan through the DRC, you can arrange accommodation without disclosing your condition to course instructors.”
In order to create a classroom climate where inclusion, free speech, and respect are valued, you may want to include a general statement and/or establish ground rules to communicate your expectations for open and respectful discourse.
Example Community Guidelines Statement:
“University of Nevada, Reno —and your professor—value human diversity in all its richly complex and multi-faceted forms, whether expressed through race and ethnicity, culture, political and social views, religious and spiritual beliefs, language and geographic characteristics, gender identities and sexual orientations, learning and physical abilities, age, and social or economic conditions. Students in this class are encouraged to speak up and participate during class meetings. Because the class will represent a diversity of individual beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences, every member of this class has a responsibility to show mutual respect and to respect the right for every other member of this class to express themselves in the classroom. Contact your instructor if you have concerns about free speech as both a right and responsibility in this course.”
Example “Ground Rules” (College of Liberal Arts):
In this classroom, students will be asked to regularly engage in respectful discussions on a variety of topics. In order to maximize the effectiveness of these discussions and enhance the learning experience for all students, the following ground rules for discussions and general classroom participation will be adopted:
- Listen respectfully, without interrupting.
- Listen actively and with a genuine desire to understand other points of view.
- Critique ideas, not people.
- Speak with care and respect, and understand that your words impact others.
- Do not monopolize discussions.
- Support your positions with reliable evidence.
- Commit to learning and sharing information.
- Be open and willing to change your perspectives based on what you learn from others.
- Recognize that each person comes to a discussion with experiences that are different from your own.
- Recognize that there are different approaches and ideas for solving problems.
- Avoid blame, speculation and inflammatory language.
- Avoid generalizations about social groups.
- Avoid assumptions about any member in the class.
- Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.
The University of Nevada, Reno’s vision, mission and values center diversity, inclusion and engaging with a global community. Consider including a statement in your syllabus to remind students of our collective goals and values as an institution.
“The University of Nevada, Reno actively supports a diverse and inclusive campus culture because we acknowledge that diversity in all of its forms makes for a stronger and healthier University.”
Other examples: See additional examples of diversity & inclusion statements from various fields provided by Yale University, Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.
Consider adding a land acknowledgment to cultivate awareness of Indigenous histories and land ownership.
Land acknowledgement information
“We acknowledge that the University of Nevada, Reno is situated on the traditional homelands of the Numu (Northern Paiute), Wašiw (Washoe), Newe (Western Shoshone), and Nuwu (Southern Paiute) peoples. These lands continue to be a gathering place for Indigenous Peoples and we recognize their deep connections to these places. These peoples have lived, thrived, and stewarded this land long before the University was here. We acknowledge their care for this land and pay our respects to elders past and present. We appreciate the opportunity to live and learn on their territory.”
“There are times when you may experience difficulties in life, and you may benefit from seeking help. Mental health services are available to you as a student at no additional cost through Counseling Services at the Pennington Student Achievement Center. This includes same-day in-person and tele mental health initial consultations, brief individual counseling, and group counseling sessions. Limited same-day appointments can be scheduled online via Counseling Services or by calling 775-784-4648. Additional brief drop-in "Let's Talk" student consultations are also available in the Counseling Services Annex located at the southwest corner of Great Basin Hall.”
Research shows that many students are not fully aware of what office hours mean and are often reluctant to attend. It’s important to let students know the where and when of office hours, but it’s also important to let students know what office hours are and what your expectations for them are. It may also be helpful to re-brand them as something more student-centered, like “student hours” or “drop-in hours.” Below are some examples of ways to explain office/student hours.
Example for In-Person Office Hours:
Office hours are a time when I’ll be in my office and available to students who would like to come by and chat. We can chat about questions you have in the class, projects you’re working on, concerns you have, or even future career possibilities if you enjoy the work of the class. For this class, I’ll be available in my office (which is in ____ hall, room ___) on XYZ days from A to B time. Please do come by!
Example for Zoom Student Hours:
If you find yourself with a question about an assignment, struggling with a difficult concept in class, wanting to talk through something you’re not quite sure you understand, or just wanting to check in with me about anything, I highly recommend dropping into my Zoom room during “student hours.” During student hours, I’ll be available to talk through any questions you have related to the class. To access student hours, open up this Zoom Room [linked] any time on XYZ days from A to B o’clock and I’ll be there to chat. If someone else is in the room, I’ll send you a note and will be with you shortly. Hope to see you there!
We tend to make assumptions about which pronouns to use for another person, usually based on things like appearance, sound of voice, maybe even communication style. But our assumptions might not always be correct and when they are incorrect, can be hurtful. Instead of making assumptions about pronouns or putting the burden on people who have incorrect assumptions often made about them to speak up, we can begin to normalize the process of sharing our own pronouns and inviting others to do the same. That way, we’re much less likely to make hurtful mistakes.
“All people have the right to be addressed and referred to in accordance with their personal identity. In this class, we will have the chance to indicate the name that we prefer to be called and, if we choose, to identify pronouns with which we would like to be addressed. I will do my best to address and refer to all students accordingly and support classmates in doing the same.”
Instead of having students wonder if their religious or cultural holidays will be honored, it can be helpful to clarify this in the syllabus. One way to do so is by including a syllabus statement like the example below. For class attendance policies, refer to UAM 3020: Class Absence Policy and UAM 6501: Syllabus Policy
I strongly encourage you to honor your cultural and religious holidays! If you have religious or cultural observances that coincide with this class, let the instructor know in writing (by email for example) by [date] to arrange to make up the missed work.
“Veterans, Reservists, National Guard and military connected family members may wish to check the office of Veteran Services for benefits and support. Besides processing VA educational benefits, the department offers a variety of programs year-round to support student academic and personal success while transitioning to higher education and throughout your educational experience. They welcome inquiries regarding VA benefits and assist in navigating resources, the campus, and in the Reno community.”
Student support resources
Let your students know that overall student wellbeing and sense of inclusion in our campus community are both strong predictors of student success. Along with including the required statement on Academic Success Services (please see UAM 6501: Syllabus Policy), encourage all students to utilize free academic success services, connect with community, take advantage of free technology resources and find free support as needed by accessing the campus resources below.
Questions for reflection and ideas for action
Once you've created a draft of the syllabus with essential elements and additional supportive statements and resources, we invite you to take a moment to reflect on the draft from a student perspective. Consider the following questions for reflection and ideas for action as you refine your course syllabus to be more welcoming and inclusive.
How you might do this:
- Include supportive messaging and resources, encouraging all students to feel welcome and valued and able to find the support they need to succeed in the course (refer to Additional Statements & Resources section of this page).
- Adopt a tone that is friendly, accessible, and warm to make yourself more approachable and your students more motivated to learn. For example, use personal pronouns (e.g. you, we, or us), rather than “the students,” “the course” or “they.”
- Use success and growth-oriented language that emphasizes how skills and knowledge can be grown and developed and all students can succeed.
How you might do this:
- Introduce yourself and your teaching philosophy as it relates to the course. A brief introduction can communicate your enthusiasm for the subject and the course. To establish credibility, you may want to emphasize credentials. To humanize yourself, you may want to share personal information such as hobbies.
- Let students know you are available to help. One way to do this is to rebrand office hours as “student hours” and explain what they are for and how they work. You might also offer more flexibility, offering multiple times, including Zoom and in person options, and encouraging both individual and group meetings.
- Invite students to take an active role in shaping the class. One example of this is including statements of instructor roles and responsibilities along with those of student roles and responsibilities to signal a collaborative approach. Another example is to co-create ground rules or community guidelines with students. This asks students to think proactively about, and advocate for, their own educational needs and can increase the level of ownership and engagement they experience.
How you might do this:
- Clarify connections between learning goals (what students will be able to do at the end of the course), assessments (how students show what they can do), and activities that develop student skills towards the goals. A table showing the connections between these elements can be helpful. Revisit these connections throughout the semester.
- Avoid making assumptions about prior student knowledge or skills and provide additional support for those who may need help reviewing prerequisite content.
- Encourage students to seek help outside of class for support in areas of learning and/or wellness and highlight the resources they can consult in your syllabus (refer to Student Support Resources section of this page).
Research points to the benefit of a more comprehensive syllabus for all students. Still, a longer syllabus may also begin to feel less manageable and inviting to students. To make a longer syllabus more inviting and navigable you might include visual design additions such as:
- A table of contents with hyperlinks (option available in Word and Google Docs). Alternatively, you may consider using WebCampus to create a syllabus module with pages representing different sections. Such approaches provide students an overview of content and make it easy to access specific sections.
- Providing visual representations of syllabus content, highlighting information in the textual syllabus. See examples such as the liquid syllabus, graphic syllabus and/or course map. So all students can access the same information, be sure that visual elements communicate the same essential information you share in an accessible text-based format.
How you might do this:
- Frame course content as important questions and problems open to interpretation and debate.
- Convey to students that all voices are not only welcome but are critical to the construction of knowledge. Create ground rules for respectful and safe dialogue so all students feel respected and protected when expressing their views.
- Select course materials reflective of diverse perspectives, and content that represents diverse student populations and the diverse interests of our students.
How you might do this:
- Include expectations on student responsibilities and ground rules in areas of attendance, late work, makeup work, classroom behavior, and academic integrity. You might encourage students to participate in developing ground rules at the beginning of each semester.
- Use assessment to invite students to make progress, and build towards mastery with the help of feedback. This may include providing many opportunities for formative as well as summative assessment and possibly allowing students to revise and resubmit work.
- Review grading and assessment policies (e.g. late work, assignment weighting) and invite student input on policies, procedures, grading, due dates, and assignments to ensure equity.
- Schedule thoughtfully. For example, avoid deadlines that conflict with major religious holidays. Also, rather than schedule every day with new content, include buffer days as part of your course schedule, to allow time for catching up and promoting wellness.
"Universal Design for Learning” encourages us to reach more students by giving them more flexibility, autonomy, and choice and by incorporating variety in how we represent content, how students act on and express learning, and how we foster student engagement.
How you might do this:
- For representation: Consider how diverse students will access course content and make sure all course tools and materials are accessible and affordable for all learners. Encourage students to access content in multiple formats (e.g., textbook, slides, course website, videos, background reference resources, etc.).
- For action and expression: Use the syllabus to establish clear expectations for assignments, to outline the timing and format of various assessments, and to identify resources students can use to help them succeed in the course (i.e. calendar systems, information management tools, etc.). Include multiple ways for students to demonstrate learning (i.e. low/no stakes and high stakes assessment, individual and group activities, etc.).
- For engagement: Highlight learning goals and objectives, the relevance of course content to your students and real-world contexts, and opportunities for choice on assignments.
References and additional resources
Adams, S., Bali, M., Eder, Z., Fladd, L., Garrett, K., Garth-McCullough, R., Gibson, A. M., Gunder, A., Iuzzini, J., Knott, J. L., Rafferty, J. & Weber, N. L. (2021). Caring for Students Playbook: Six Recommendations. This resource covers many ideas and practices related to creating an inclusive syllabus and course.
Addy, T. Dube, D., Mitchell, K., Sorelle, M. (2021) What Inclusive Instructors Do: Principles and Practices for Excellence in College Teaching. This book discusses key principles and practices on inclusive teaching, with a chapter focused on the syllabus.
CAST, UDL on Campus. Website dedicated to the application of Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. See specific examples of UDL applied to course design and the syllabus. See also "Universal Design for Learning Guidelines.”
Center for Urban Education, University of Southern California (2017). Syllabus Review Guide for Equity-Minded Practice. Download PDF with examples of welcoming vs. unwelcoming language and a sample syllabus.
Gin, L. et al (2021). It’s In the Syllabus…Or Is It? How biology syllabi can serve as communication tools for creating inclusive classrooms at a large-enrollment research institution. Advances in Physiology Education. Article explains the value of including all essential information students need to succeed in the syllabus.
Palmer, M. Wheeler, L. B., & Aneece, I. (2016). Does the Document Matter? The Evolving Role of Syllabi in Higher Education. Change (New Rochelle, N.Y.), 48(4), 36–47. This article explains the value of using the syllabus as a learning tool.
Richmond, A. (2016). Constructing a Learner-Centered Syllabus: One Professor’s Journey. IDEA Paper #60. Article provides a useful breakdown of the process of constructing a learner-centered syllabus.
Taylor, S., Veri, M., Eliason, M. Hermoso, JC, Bolter, N, and Van Olphen, J. (2019). The Social Justice Syllabus Design Tool: A First Step in Doing Social Justice Pedagogy. Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity. Volume 5, Issue 2. This article addresses the syllabus from a social justice perspective and includes a useful rubric for syllabus review in the Appendix.
Tulane University. Accessible Syllabus. Created by students and faculty, this website features sections on accessibility related to images, text, rhetoric, and policy.
Vanderbilt University. Center for Teaching. Riviere, J., Picard, D., & Coble, R. (2014). Syllabus Design. Website discusses key aspects of a learner-centered syllabus.