The Student-Centered Syllabus

Syllabus Planning and Design | Key Functions
Orienting Your Syllabus to Student Learning
| Necessary Elements to Include

Excerpted and condensed from Tools and Techniques for Course Improvement: A Handbook for Course Review and Assessment of Student Learning

Syllabus Planning and Design

Over the years the course syllabus has evolved into something of a "cover all the bases" document, with quasi-legal implications which obligate both instructor and institution. These elements both announce and pronounce: here is what will be taught, here is what you will read, here is the exam schedule and grading policy, and so forth. An artifact from a century of teacher-centered pedagogy, it is really more of an edict than a contract.

In Syllabus Quick Start Essentials section we review briefly the common planning and design elements
of a course syllabus, which serve as a course road map, glossary, timetable, and handbook. In the following section we will explore how the syllabus can be made more learner-centered and become more of a mutual contract than an unilateral edict.

Key Functions

  • Acts as an early (and sometimes first) point of contact/connection between students and a professor.
  • Can become a learning contract for the course.
  • Provides a framework for the course, and the learning outcomes.
  • Describes the broader context that the course content exists in.
  • Lists additional resources that can support learning outside of the classroom.
  • Sets out expectations for students to fulfill to be successful with the learning targets.
  • Explains any potential logistical issues that may be found in the course (holidays, sessions off-campus, etc.).
  • Communicates the role of technology in the course.
  • Contains out-of-print or hard to find readings
  • Sets the tone of the course.

Orienting Your Syllabus to Student Learning

The effectiveness of course organization is measured by student learning. Therefore instructors who are committed to deepening student learning ask themselves a number of questions as they organize their courses (adapted from Bain, 2004):

  • Is the material worth learning?
  • Are students learning what the course is supposedly teaching?
  • Am I helping or hindering student learning?
  • Do I take specific steps to avoid harming my students by:
    • fostering short-term learning by intimidation;
    • discouraging interest in my field;
    • fostering only short-term learning;
    • neglecting needs of some kinds of students; or
    • failing to evaluate learning accurately?

Besides its function as a reference manual for the course, the course syllabus also lays the foundation for your relationship with your students as partners in learning, helping you create [a] critical learning environment.

  • Letter to students
    A good place to begin is with a letter to students, introducing yourself, welcoming them to your class, and sharing your teaching philosophy.
    • I bring to teaching a belief that...
    • In the classroom, I see my role in this course as...
    • I believe the student's role in this course is...
    • I appreciate when students...
    • I seek to foster in students...
    • I chose this field because...
    • I think this course is important because…
  • What students expect you will do in the course
    • Model how professionals or scholars in your discipline reason, and explain what constitutes evidence that the student has achieved various levels of that kind of thinking.
    • Describe your feedback policy, which should be designed to keep students informed about their progress, and to avoid penalizing them or intermediate errors.
  • What you expect students to do in the course
    • readings
    • class activities
    • assignments
    • obligations (defined)
  • What students will gain from a course
    • learning objectives and why they are important
    • expectations
    • specific responsibilities
    • short and long term benefits
    • content overview
    • relationship of the course to the larger curriculum
    • rationale for your instructional approaches
    • cognitive skill development: critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, information technology literacy, writing proficiency, problem solving
    • affective skill development: awareness, perspectives, abilities, attitudes about teamwork, citizenship, environment, multiculturalism
  • Objective-oriented calendar
    Show how readings, assignments, exams, and projects are directly tied to specific course learning objectives.
  • Evaluation/assessment
    • Implicit in the learning-oriented syllabus is taking the opportunity to reframe grading as a demonstration of achievement of course learning objectives.
    • Grades only work when they accurately reflect student mastery of the course learning objectives and provide incentives for deep involvement and understanding.
  • Grading procedure and scales
    • Convey the clear belief that every student can achieve the learning goals of the course.
    • Students must commit to full engagement in the learning environment.
    • Tie grades to attainment of actual learning outcomes.
    • Make clear to students what specific concepts, knowledge, and abilities are most important.
    • Articulate specific evaluation criteria and standards, expectations of students for
      meeting them, and measures for assessing their levels of attainment.
    • Create opportunities for providing feedback about student progress, make successive examinations comprehensive, and link grades clearly to actual understanding.
  • Grading practices must be tied to real learning outcomes in ways that reward actual learning, and which discourage several kinds of student beliefs and behaviors around grading that can impair learning.

For other syllabus considations, see the Summer '11 Praxis.

Source Information

Grunert O'Brien, J., Mills, B. J., & Cohen, M.W. (2008). The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

If Your Syllabus Were Graded, Would it Pass?. Retrieved online: Center for Teaching and Learning, Brigham Young University.

Nilson, L. B. (2007). The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.