Syllabus Template

Best Practices in Syllabus Design for Engaged Learning

A syllabus should contain the answers to students’ most commonly asked questions:

  • Who is teaching the course and how can students best reach that person?
  • What is the purpose or the goal(s) of the course?  
  • What prerequisites, preparation or skills are expected?
  • What will occur during a typical class session?
  • What textbooks or other materials are required or recommended?
  • What topics will be covered?
  • How many and what types of tests or other assignments will be required?
  • When will all tests or assignments be due?
  • What is the grading system or the criteria for evaluation?
  • What are the policies/penalties related to attendance, late work, academic (dis)honesty?
  • What are the policies related to academic accommodation of learning and other disabilities?
  • What expectations does the professor have, particularly related to civility, class participation, engagement in the course, hours spent on the course outside class, field trips, service learning, eating in class, etc.?
  • What would success in this course look like?  Are there tools/resources to help students achieve that success?
  • Why does this course matter?

Answers to these questions help ensure that students are in the right class for their academic level and have made an informed decision about whether they can handle the workload/style of teaching. They know the requirements and how to meet them, have some sense of what they are supposed to get out of the class, and have a sense that the course material matters to their success.

Roles of the Syllabus:

  • Point of Contact: First insight into who you are and what you want from students. This can be used to set the tone for the course. The syllabus should give insight into why you have structured the course the way you have and what your role/responsibility in the course will be.
  • Explanation of Course Goals: The syllabus should acknowledge ALL course goals, including the mastery of content and skills. Do not forget to acknowledge any “hidden curriculum” items you may be trying to teach, like the ability to work well in small groups, the ability to summarize large amounts of information into a coherent 1 page memo, or the ability to make connections at a deep level among multiple texts.
  • Definition of Student Success: In this class, what does student success look like? The syllabus should list what is required in the course, when it is due, how it can be accomplished successfully, but also why it is required. Help students to understand why you have chosen the assessment tools you have (tests, presentations, projects, essays) and how these tools best show that the students have mastered the course goals. If class participation is required, what exactly does that look or sound like?  What will be rewarded most?  

Enabling students to track their own success in the course, through grading rubrics for each assignment and a point system that enables students to do their own math, can help them monitor their progress, realize they have the power to change their performance, and make them more responsible for their own learning.

“Backward Planning” and Engaged Learning Syllabi:

  • Engaged learning courses are assignment-centered rather than content-centered. Goals, methods and evaluation emphasize using content, rather than simply acquiring it.
  • Engaged learning courses provide opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning (metacognition), challenge misconceptions they may have brought to class, make connections between course material and their own experiences, or apply course material to specific problems. Students should evaluate their own progress toward the mastery of the material and course goals.
  • Clearly articulated course goals and carefully structured assignments that measure student success in achieving those course goals are the key to engaged learning syllabi.
  • Backward planning means starting with the desired course outcomes (goals) and then moving backward to the teaching techniques, texts, and course assignments that will best enable students to achieve those goals. Rather than starting with what you want them to KNOW, start with what you want them to be able to DO with what they know.

(adapted from The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach, 2nd edition, edited by Judith Grunert O’Brien, Barbara J. Millis and Margaret W. Cohen, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008).

Last Updated: June 29, 2017