Syllabus Creation: Setting the Stage, Building a Classroom Culture

Deliberately creating a class culture that supports respectful learning and values the diversity within our classrooms and communities, takes a few deliberate steps to create the learning environment.  This is a central part of UMD's strategic plan ( and UMD Learning Goals and Outcomes (
  • VCAA Policy on Teaching and Learning:
    UMD is committed to providing a positive, safe, and inclusive place for all who study and work here.  A central mission of the university is to educate students through the offering of courses and programs leading to the conferral of degrees. Teaching and learning at the university take place in a variety of educational settings including on-campus lecture halls and classrooms, laboratories, field sites, and online.  Instructors and students have mutual responsibility to insure that the environment in all of these settings supports teaching and learning, is respectful of the rights and freedoms of all members, and promotes a civil and open exchange of ideas. Making hostile, threatening, discriminatory or disparaging remarks toward or about the instructor, other members of the class or groups of people will not be tolerated.

  • VCAA Syllabus Policy
Please use the language on this page or adapt it for your needs. You are welcome to use any and all of this material.  However, if the text has a parenthetical citation, please keep the citation connected to the quoted text.

Creating a Respectful Learning Environment:

  • From Paula Pedersen (Department of Psychology):

    Successful education can only occur in an atmosphere of mutual respect, free from racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and intolerance, and from their harmful effects. Educational excellence depends on the creation and maintenance of environments in which all members of the academic community can thrive, working up to their full potential (Minnesota' Commitment to Educational Excellence developed by the President's Task Force: Strengthening Excellence through Diversity, June 1990.)
  • Another example of a syllabus statement: Classes must provide equal access to students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, religion, age, ability. Each one (myself included) is expected to treat everyone with respect. Hate speech, sexual harassment and other behavior that intimidates will not be tolerated. If you ever feel uncomfortable, please see me (or Counseling Services) about your concerns.
  • Sample from Shelley Smith: Inclusiveness Statement

    Respect for diversity of all kinds is vital to creating an inclusive, respectful, and safe learning community. Each of us enters this classroom with unique perspectives and experiences, and these differences can be our most valuable asset in creating a vibrant and intellectually stimulating learning environment. As a result, we all need to listen to everyone’s input, and be willing to engage in respectful dialogue when differences arise.

  • Samples from Helen Mongan Rallis (Department of Education):

    As one of a number of items that I list in the expectations area of my course syllabus, I include the following expectation:
      • Respect & trust & cooperation: The nature of this class is such that you will be asked to reflect deeply on complex issues that may be controversial and personal. For us all to do this requires that we create and maintain a community founded on mutual respect and trust. Every person in our class helps to create a learning environment in which others feel safe and comfortable in sharing their thoughts. Two guiding principles here are:
        1. Seek first to understand, and then to be understood: We do not need to agree, but we do need to be open to listening to and seeking to understand others.
        2. Do unto others as they would have you do unto them: When you understand others, you will come to realize that they may not want to be treated in the same way as you. Be careful not to assume that they do!

    • Statement from Deborah Petersen-Pearlman (Dept. of Communication):     Assumptions and Ground Rules to Guide us in Class Discussion:
The following is based in part on suggestions made by Lynn Weber Cannon in Fostering Positive Race, Class, and Gender Dynamics in the Classroom.

We can assume that discrimination exists in many forms (e.g. sexism, racism, classism, ageism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, etc.). Any critical understanding of these various -isms means that we need to recognize that we have been taught misinformation about our own group as well as about members of other groups. This is true for both dominant (e.g. white, male, upper class, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc.) and subordinate (e.g. people of color, women, poor, and working class, gay/lesbian, disabled, Jew, etc.) group members.

Based on these assumptions then, let's agree that we cannot be blamed for the misinformation we have learned, but we are responsible when we repeat misinformation after we have learned otherwise. People and groups are not to be blamed for their subordinate positions. Let's assume that people are always doing the best they can. Let's actively pursue information about our own groups and those of others. Let us share information about our own groups with other members of the class but never demean, devalue, or in any way put down people for their experiences. We each have an obligation to actively combat the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so that we can break down the walls which prohibit group cooperation and group gain. Let's create a safe atmosphere for open discussion.

  • Statement from Paul Ranelli (School of Pharmacy)

Diversity and Civility: In studying the complex traditions, roles, and responsibilities of health care, it is very important that we are also aware that we each bring diverse backgrounds, beliefs, experiences, and viewpoints to this class. Inasmuch as these differences impact our understanding and interpretation of the readings, we would encourage us to use these divergent points of view to challenge our assumptions and expand our intellectual horizons. This can be accomplished if we are civil toward and respectful of each other both inside and outside the classroom.

  • FULL VALUE CONTRACT (Mark Zmudy, Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation) From the Adventure Education literature, it applies to every major on campus:

       The full value contract asks for the following commitments and specific expectations for all group members:

•      An agreement to create and participate in a group that is physically and emotionally safe.

•      An agreement to work together to achieve individual and group (class) goals

•      An agreement to give and receive honest feedback; Including behavior not matching the desired goals or objectives, and caring enough about oneself and others to communicate productively

•      An agreement to become aware of “putting down” oneself or others and make a conscious effort to change this behavior

•      An agreement to “let go” of negative thoughts and feelings and be willing to “move on” in the growth processes of learning, growth, and relationships

Being able to give and receive criticism that is productive is an important part of building relationships. Respecting the rights of others to learn and grow will help you keep those relationships.

Creating a Learning Environment that is Accessible for All UMD Learners:

UMD Syllabus suggestions for disability and universal design:

  • Shelley Smith (Instructional Development Service) suggests adding a more welcoming personal statement before the policy piece:
    • Accommodations for Participants with Disabilities: I believe every student deserves the opportunity to have the most productive and comfortable learning experience possible. Students who experience any barriers to their participation in course information or activities are encouraged to meet with the instructor as soon as possible to gain maximum access to course information. All discussions will remain confidential.
  • UMD Sample Disability Statement:
    • It is the policy and practice of the University of Minnesota Duluth to create inclusive learning environments for all students, including students with disabilities. If there are aspects of this course that result in barriers to your inclusion or your ability to meet course requirements – such as time limited exams, inaccessible web content, or the use of non-captioned videos – please notify the instructor as soon as possible. You are also encouraged to contact the Office of Disability Resources to discuss and arrange reasonable accommodations. Please call 218-726-6130 or visit the Disability Resources website at for more information.
  • Disability statement from Helen Mongan Rallis:
    • IMPORTANT: If you have a disability, either permanent or temporary, or any other special circumstances that may impact your ability to perform in this course I encourage your to inform me. You do not have to have a formal, medical diagnosis of a disability in order to request that adaptations be made to help you learn. All I ask is that you advocate for yourself and work together with me to design your learning experiences so that you can succeed. I will work with you confidentially and make every effort to adapt methods, materials, and evaluations as needed and as appropriate to provide for equitable participation.I recommend that if you have a disability and have not registered with the UMD ACCESS Center, you should do so as they will provide you will additional support.   Thank you!

Introductory Assignments:  Building a Community of Learners
One way to help build connections and create a community of learners is to make the first assignment(s) ones that build connections and set the tone for collaborative, respectful learning. Using Moodle or email to do online introductions can be very helpful.
  • Introductory assignment example from Paula Pedersen (Department of Psychology): 
     Please answer the following questions: 

    Your name? What is the meaning of your name/naming?
    Your name as you prefer to be called?
    How do you identify yourself ethnically and culturally?
    Your hometown?  What were your experiences/concepts of diversity/different growing up?
    What is your intended major and how sure are you about this?  What led to your choice?
    What are your hobbies or favorite activities?
    What significant experiences in your life so far have expanded notions of “difference” from your childhood?
    What do you think your biggest challenge will be this semester?
    What are you most looking forward to at UMD?
    Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?