Teaching Tips | July 30, 2015

Principles and practices in syllabus design

16609208216_0f0bc52cc6_mIt’s July, and that time of year when well-meaning friends and family ask, “so, now you are done for the summer?”, thinking that since we are not teaching a class, we must be completely, enviably free to lounge about and soak up the summer sun. We try to explain, how now is the time when we scramble to dust off research projects, get back to writing so we can submit something before the semester starts again – in the back of our minds, remembering all those course syllabi we would really like to update and refresh.

The work of faculty during the summer (and winter recess) often turns to syllabus re-tooling. Since you may be like me and need a little motivation to get to those syllabi revisions on your to-do list, here are some principles and practices that might be of use, or even inspiration.

The syllabus can be much more than a contractual document, serving as an expression of our personal teaching philosophy, a way to motivate our students, and a reflection of our expertise in course design. In fact, there are a multitude of purposes for syllabi in university coursework (O’Brien, Millis & Cohen, 2008). A well-written syllabus has benefits for both faculty and students, and can:

The syllabus can be much more than a contractual document, serving as an expression of our personal teaching philosophy, a way to motivate our students, and a reflection of our expertise in course design.

  • Provide a way to reach out to students before the course starts
  • Establish a positive tone for the course
  • Define student and instructor responsibilities
  • Help students assess their readiness for the course
  • Situate the course in a broader context for learning
  • Communicate the ways technology will be used in the course
  • Enable students to see the scope of learning as well as its ordered sequence
  • Engage the instructor in setting clear student learning outcomes, which helps clarify the purpose of the curriculum to students

This last item is perhaps the most critical, as the writing of the syllabus is the externalization of the instructor’s pedagogical priorities. Faculty who are focused on clear, observable measures of student learning and who can map these back to their instructional choices in terms of materials, topics, tasks, assignments, and projects can then step back and more readily assess the impact of their course on student learning. This course design process can best be achieved through an approach known as “backwards design,” which engages instructors in a “reverse” process of course development (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

arrow-24818_1280Rather than beginning with a string of activities, and then adding on an assessment (which often leads to less relevant activities, or to simply covering the curriculum rather than focusing on student understanding), backwards course design starts with identifying  ideal student gains. The process typically  takes places in three stages. The first stage is establishing core student learning goals – these could be knowledge, skills, or dispositions. In the second phase, the instructor determines acceptable evidence that students reached those learning goals – the assignments and assessments that will best display those identified goals. In the final phase, weekly plans of session topics, materials, and tasks are created. Developing a syllabus is a powerful opportunity to move through these course design phases.

It is also interesting to consider is the tone that our syllabi convey. Harnish and Bridges (2011) found that using “warm” or “cold” language in syllabi impacts students’ perceptions of the instructor. When warm language is used (as in, “I hope you actively participate in this course. I say this because I found it is the best way to engage you in learning the material – and it makes lectures more fun”), students perceive their instructor as more approachable and more motivated to teach them.

Ken Bain (2004) found some common elements in the syllabi of college courses that deliver deep and meaningful learning experiences for students. Rather than using only contractual, obligatory language, these instructors employ a stance of inquiry. He notes that these syllabi present:

…the promises or opportunities that the course offered to students. What kinds of questions would it help students answer? What kind of intellectual, physical, emotional, or social abilities would it help them develop? That section represented an invitation to a feast, giving students a strong sense of control over whether they accepted. Second, the teacher would explain what the students would be doing to realize those promises (formerly known as requirements), avoiding the language of demands, and again giving the students a sense of control over their own education. The would decide to pursue the goals on their own, without taking the course, but if they decided to stay in the class, they needed to do certain things to achieve. Third, the syllabus summarized how the instructor and the students would understand the nature and progress of their learning.

volkswagen-569315_640The kind of belief system that the instructor brings to the course’s architecture can be reflected in all aspects of syllabus design. An appreciation of the adult’s need for choice and self-direction in their learning; the nature of courses as intellectual as well as social journeys;  the authenticity of the possibility that the instructor will learn alongside the student—these ideas and more can be infused into syllabus creation.

We know that our syllabi need to contain the “basics”:  information about the instructor and class meeting times, a description of the course, needed materials, basic requirements, policies around grading and attendance, and a schedule of classes and assignments – as well as the perennial disclaimer (e.g., “any of the course activities listed in the syllabus may be subject to change under certain circumstances such as by mutual agreement or to enhance student learning”). However, many of us want to use the creation of our syllabi as a chance to revisit and often revision our courses, seeing the process of syllabus design as a fusion of our personal, professional, and pedagogical ambitions.

Resources for Syllabus Design

Writing a syllabus
Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence

Graphic display of student learning objectives
ProfHacker blog, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Syllabus construction
Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do.  Boston:  Harvard University Press.

Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14(3), 319-330.

O’Brien, J. G., Millis, B. J., & Cohen, M. W. (2008). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd. ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Image Credit
Is our syllabus online? Ron Mader. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License





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