Guide to Syllabus Design

Learn how to design a syllabus that is informative, welcoming, and learner-centered.

Introduction

Syllabi typically serve multiple functions in a course, such as describing what content will be covered, outlining when and where the group will meet, and communicating expectations regarding the students’ attendance and participation.  Since students usually receive the syllabus on or before the first day of class, it can also inform students’ first impression of what they can expect from the course and instructor. 

Research on syllabus design suggests that:

    • A syllabus written in a welcoming tone can play an important role in creating an inclusive learning environment. 
    • Being explicit about what students most need to know about the class will help all of your students, and especially the least privileged students, to succeed.
    • A syllabus can impact student motivation, student achievement, perceptions of course difficulty, and perceptions of the instructor 

A syllabus that is learner-centered can help to set a welcoming and inclusive tone for the semester to come.  A learner-centered syllabus invites students to see themselves as active members of a classroom community, with agency over the skills, attitudes, and behaviors that shape their learning experience. A learner-centered syllabus articulates a clear roadmap (and rationale) for how students will meaningfully engage with your course material.

How do I write a course description?

Beyond general information (title of course, contact info for instructor(s) and TAs, location and meeting time, required texts), the first page of your syllabus should include a 1-2-paragraph course description. To introduce the course content in a learner-centered way, aim for a course description that 1) conveys the scope of the course, 2) considers students’ prior knowledge, and 3) motivates and excites the students about the material. Some strategies include:

  • Rather than simply listing the course topics, your course description should emphasize what students will be able to do with the content. For instance, how will taking this course help the student advance as a [scientist, philosopher, artist, etc.]? We recommend introducing using thought-provoking (or “promising”) questions that students will be able to answer via course (i.e., “What is the connection between Enlightenment philosophy and the French Revolution?”)
  • Additionally, you might also briefly explain the major course assessments (“we will showcase our analysis of primary and secondary texts through a 7-10-page research paper”).
  • Lastly, consider using “we” and “you” language to emphasize the active role that students can take in learning and mastering the course material.

Additional resources

How do I communicate my learning objectives to students?

Communicating your learning objectives — or goals for student learning — helps you to convey your expectations for students, as well as prioritizes the skills they will develop throughout the course. Furthermore, developing learning objectives for your course can invite students to engage in “deep learning” and knowledge transfer.

Typically, learning objectives consist of 4-7 statements involving active verbs that reflect the cognitive skills (see Bloom’s Taxonomy below) you want students to develop in the course. (See sample formats: Student Learning Outcomes and Graphic Display of Student Learning Objectives). Learning objectives should appear early on in syllabus, signaling their centrality to student learning. When composing learning objectives, aim for “action statements” that are student-centered, measurable, and actionable. For instance, consider this learning objective for a semester-long, face-to-face Introduction to Macroeconomics Course for non-majors:

By the end of this course, students will be able to distinguish different macroeconomic models (Keynes, Lucas, Solow, Friedman, etc.) using key concepts like GDP, inflation, AD/AS, and monetary and fiscal policy.

Here “distinguish” is a learner-centered active verb; it’s a specific cognitive skill students are exercising in relation to the course content (macroeconomics). “Distinguish” is also measurable, or easily connected to a variety of assessments (such as quizzes, reading responses, etc.) Lastly, this learning objective is actionable, in that students can reasonably meet it within a semester. Consider, also, that various situational factors (such as students’ prior knowledge and the course meeting time and length) may impact the verbs that comprise your learning objectives. 

A common resource for crafting learning objectives is Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956, revised 2001). The diagram below includes a list of learner-centered, measurable, actionable verbs that help to scaffold student learning throughout the course.

Credit: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

Additional resources 

  • Sample Learning Objectives (Carnegie Mellon University, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence)
  • Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

What’s the best way to describe assignments?

For each major assessment in the course, include a short description that:

  • Explains how each assessment is designed to measure specific cognitive skills you’ve designated in your learning objectives. Articulating the alignment between assessments and learning objectives helps students to see the logical connections between course components, and thus the larger purpose of what they’re being graded on.
  • Communicates the frequency of and expectations for the assessmentFor instance, what are your expectations for weekly response papers? For presentations? What is the grading criteria for class participation and attendance? How much does each assessment count towards the overall grade? In addition, you may want to include a grading scale for the overall course.
  • Identifies opportunities for practice and feedbackFor instance, if the final project is a portfolio worth 40% of the overall grade, it can be helpful to break this down into small components (such as outlining, etc.) and explain at what points students will receive feedback from you and from others. In this way, the high-stakes (or, summative) assignment becomes more manageable to students, and they will have opportunities to develop the skills measured by this assessment over time.

Additional resources

How do I create transparent and inclusive course policies?

Although not typically thought of in this light, a syllabus serves as a “vital socializing mechanism” that can “reveal assumptions (real or imagined) that instructors have about students” as well as their attitudes towards “power, social control, sanctions, and unintended consequences” (Sulik & Keys, 2014, 151, 156). Course policies are one of the most salient ways in which instructor communicate these attitudes about their students and shape an inclusive — or marginalizing — classroom climate

Common course policies include academic integrity, classroom norms and guidelines, accommodations for individuals with disabilities, attendance and/or participation; extensions, late assignments; rescheduled/missed exams; and student use of mobile devices. Make sure to indicate exceptions for religious holidays, and clarify what an acceptable excused absence might be. Consider adding language to support students’ holistic well-being and continued development, such as by referencing on-campus resources (Behavioral Medicine, the Educational Resource Center, etc.) and including sections such as “study tips” or “how to succeed in this course.” These resources are especially important for first-year students or other students who are new to the university.

In your description of each course policy, articulate your rationale (such as by making connections to learning objectives), a clear explanation of your expectations for students, and consequences for misconduct. To avoid overly punitive language, consider framing policies–such as your late work policy–not in terms of points lost (“late homework will result in an automatic 20% grade reduction”), but in terms of points gained (“students who submit homework late will only be eligible for up to 80% of the original score.”) As research on syllabus tone suggests, the latter communicates a more approachable teacher persona (Ishiyama & Hartlaub, 2002).

BU policies and resources

Additional resources

  • Sample “Time Bank” Policy: You are allotted a time bank of __ days that can be used in 24-hour units to extend the deadline of your final-draft graded assignments beyond their due dates. This eliminates the need to request extensions and allows you some flexibility in managing your workflow. After you use up your time bank, graded assignments will be penalized by one-third of a letter grade for each day they are late.
  • Sample “Supporting Students With Disabilities Statement”: If you are a student with a disability or believe you might have a disability that requires accommodations, please contact the Disability and Access Services (DAS) at (617) 353-3658 or access@bu.edu to coordinate any reasonable accommodation requests. 
  • Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples (University of Washington, Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology)

How do I develop a cohesive course schedule?

A cohesive course schedule will reflect the main driving questions or topics students will address on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis, the due dates for low- and high-stakes assessments, what is due for each class meeting, and what course materials (website, textbook, etc.) are involved at each stage.

As you consider the timing of different assignments, consider the following:

  • What activities need to come first, i.e., how should the course begin? With what activities do you want to conclude, i.e., how should the course end? What sequence of activities will enhance learning in the middle of the course?
  • What is the relationship between the formative and summative assessments in the course? Will students have enough practice and feedback on formative, low-stakes assessments (e.g. Blackboard posts, quizzes, class participation credit) before they reach the summative, high-stakes assessments (e.g. final portfolios, group projects, midterm and final exams)?
  • How will the assessments be aligned with the educational strategies (both in class and out of class?) For instance, if students will be assessed on their argument diagram of a newspaper editorial by the end of Week 2, what do you need do in class–and have students complete for homework–during Week 1 to prepare them to succeed on this assessment?

Additional resources

How do I use the syllabus with students?

Once you have composed your syllabus, here are some ways to make good use of it:

  • Share your syllabus with students electronically shortly before the first class meeting in order open up time to engage students in active learning around your course content. 
  • Incorporate the syllabus into a first-day activity like syllabus mining (Brame, 2019) or syllabus speed dating (Weimer, 2017).
  • Use Blackboard to present some of the detailed material typically included on a syllabus, calling your students’ attention to it as needed throughout the term. (Becker and Calhoun’s 1999 study shows that students skim over information on syllabi that is available elsewhere anyway.)
  • Update your syllabus as needed–perhaps even with input from students (Womack, 2017).

Additional resources

        Updated August 2023