CTL Blog

A Syllabus for All Learners

May 08, 2023 | 4 Minute Read

This guest post is by Mia Lamm, Senior Instructional Designer at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

The course syllabus is considered a contract between students and faculty, providing a descriptive summary of the course, policies, and resources while detailing expectations and specific commitments and accountabilities. Less commonly highlighted is that a well-designed syllabus establishes clear communication between instructor and students and provides information and resources to promote active, purposeful, and effective learning. Often the syllabus gives students a first impression of what to expect from the upcoming learning environment.

Writing Your Syllabi with A UDL Mindset

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that aims to create inclusive and accessible learning environments for all learners. A learner-centered syllabus shifts from indicating what content will be covered to conveying the information and tools provided to promote learning and intellectual development. Constructing a course syllabus is an ideal opportunity to support UDL design and delivery elements for all incoming learners, demonstrating multiple paths for learning and achievement and removing learning barriers within the course.

Brain with green highlightingProvide multiple means of engagement: Outline the learning goals and objectives, the relevance of the content, and if there are opportunities for choice within the course. Offering options in assignments, creating collaboration opportunities, and providing timely feedback helps to create a supportive and motivating learning environment.

Brain with blue highlightingProvide multiple means of action and expression: Use the syllabus to establish expectations, outline the timing and format of assessments, and offer resources to encourage students to manage information, strengthening their executive functions. Allow learners to demonstrate their mastery of course objectives in different ways.

Brain with purple highlightingProvide multiple means of representation: Be explicit about how and where students can access content and find background information. Include resources in different formats to allow for student choice.

(Adapted from CAST’s UDL syllabus, n.d.)

Do assignments and assessments include rationales?

Including rationales in assignments and assessments helps students and instructors clarify why a particular instructional activity contributes to learning (Hill, 2016). This extra step in your syllabus can encourage deeper understanding, promote transparency, and help the teacher provide more targeted and effective feedback.

Does your syllabus set the tone for diversity and inclusion?

Be mindful of the language used and promote a culture of respect and diversity of ideas and opinions by setting ground rules for expectations and engagement. In addition to UDL, consider how Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) approaches can enhance your syllabus’s welcoming and supportive message. You can make your syllabus easier to digest by using a clear and user-friendly tone focusing on its purpose as a contract. Consider including a diversity statement highlighting your compassion and commitment to an inclusive and respectful learning environment (CTL Toolkit, 2023).

Does Your Syllabus Encourage and Motivate Students?

Your syllabus is your initial opportunity to make all students comfortable, promising them that the course is for every learner who meets its prerequisites. This starts by letting students know they belong. In addition to UDL, consider how JEDI approaches can enhance your syllabus’ welcoming and supportive message. Be mindful of the language used and promote a culture of respect and diversity of ideas and opinions by setting ground rules and expectations for engagement.

Beyond being an agreement about course requirements and expectations, this is also an opportunity to inspire students. Encourage students to contribute as partners to their learning by welcoming their insights, perspectives, and other meaningful contributions to the course. Write a welcome statement that shows your enthusiasm and why you are excited to teach the class. Let students know how they can be poised to succeed and get the most out of your course.


The syllabus allows each instructor to set the class climate, identify specific expectations, and provide transparency about the course logistics for students. Creating a learner-centered syllabus using UDL principles can help ensure all learners have the information and support they need for a successful learning experience. It is an ongoing process that requires continuous assessment and adjustment to meet the needs of all learners.

If you want to consult with a CTL Instructional Designer, contact CTL Help. We are available to help you!


Best practices in UDL, JEDI, and accessibility. (2023). CTL Teaching Toolkit. BSPH, The Johns Hopkins University. https://www.ctltoolkit.com/best-practices-udl-jedi-accessibility

Hill, S. (2016). How to guide: writing learning objectives. BSPH, The Johns Hopkins University.

UDL syllabus. (n.d.). Cast.org. Retrieved April 27, 2023, from http://udloncampus.cast.org/page/planning_syllabus