Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Syllabus Design

The syllabus is a foundational document and a critical piece of communication between instructor and student that warrants thoughtful design. As the syllabus is often the first form of interaction that instructors have with their students, it plays a significant role in engaging students and motivating learning (Harnish et al. 2011). Research indicates that more engaging, visually stimulating, student-centered syllabi have a positive impact on student perceptions of a course and motivation to engage with the instructor (Ludy et. al, 2016).

Yale University does not provide an official template for syllabus development, but numerous examples are available below. The Handbook for Instructors of Undergraduates in Yale College does describe two functions for a course syllabus: 

  1. to inform students about the “scope, procedures, bibliography, and examination or paper requirements of a course,” and 
  2. to convey the “instructor’s expectations about academic integrity.”

Instructors might consider the syllabus as a form of persuasive writing, one that meets the above functions while deploying a compassionate tone and personal writing style to communicate important implicit messages. A well-crafted syllabus conveys that the instructor is willing to support students’ efforts to master the material, and takes the intellectual struggles of students seriously, while expecting that students should try to live up to the instructor’s expectations, see the course through, and engage with the materials. The syllabus can be a powerful tool to convey expectations while practicing humility, empathy, and emotional intelligence through careful language (Canada, 2013).

Examples

Sample Yale syllabi can be found through Yale Course Search. This database allows those internal to Yale to access posted syllabi by course, program/subject as well as through a variety of other search terms.

Education scholars and university teaching and learning centers emphasize the importance of a well-written syllabus and conceptualize the document in various ways ranging from a logistical handout to a course manifesto as described below. Ideally, a syllabus draws upon several of these characterizations. 

  • Contract: explicitly stated expectations, policies, procedures, prerequisites
  • Manifesto: sets tone for the course, offers support, explains teaching philosophy 
  • Invitation: shares enthusiasm for the subject matter, emphasizes relevance to students
  • Road map: helps students self-regulate their learning through resources and advice
  • Scholarship: distills course goals and content for colleagues, summarizing the best teaching literature on a topic
  • Reference: notes logistical information for students and university staff

Many syllabi consist of several sections including the following:

  • Course description - relationship to the discipline, scope and major themes of course content
  • Basic information - course name and number, meeting time and place, instructor name, contact information, office hours, contact information for any teaching fellows
  • Class calendar - dates for class topics, homework, readings, other assignments, and exams
  • Course requirements 
  • Readings and required materials 
  • Assignments and assessments - description of assignments and their evaluation criteria
  • Basis for final grade in course- percentages allocated to exams, assignments, homeworks, and class participation
  • Learning goals / objectives and learning outcomes - most important skills/concepts for students to learn in a course
  • Academic integrity statement - plagiarism and collaboration
  • Diversity statement
  • Guidelines for discussion  - inclusive class climate
  • Attendance and lateness policies
  • Support for student well-being - encouragement for student self-care and seeking help when needed
  • Advice to students for self-regulating their learning - suggested ways for studying, reviewing, and succeeding in class
  • Policies on the usage of electronic devices such as cell phones, laptops and tablets during class

Sample Syllabus Language

The Faculty Teaching Initiatives staff, along with colleagues across Yale, have developed a resourceful handout with sample syllabus language. Please download or view the handout as you reflect on the information provided on this page.

Recommendations

  • Set Clear Expectations - The single best strategy for creating a successful syllabus is for the instructor to be clear and explicit about expectations. Research on teaching and learning indicates that communicating clearly about course details at the beginning of the course helps students succeed and avoid misunderstandings and grade challenges later. Research also supports the reverse effect, that unclear standards and muddy communication lead to poor perception of the course and unwillingness to engage the instructor (Ramsden, 2003). Links for Classroom Policies and Expected Behaviors and can supply more detailed approaches to crafting clear expectations.
  • Revise Existing Syllabi as Needed - Instructors may find it useful to obtain and revise existing course syllabi. In this scenario, the instructor can consider whether a syllabus includes all of the above example sections. In addition a CTL staff member can provide specific advice. 
  • Develop New Syllabi Using Guidelines - If designing a course and its syllabus for the first time, instructors can walk through this seven-step course design process from the University of Chicago’s Center for Teaching, based in Backward Design theory. Below is an adaptation of their process with additional questions instructors can ask at each step.
    1. Goal setting: What do I want students to be able to do at the end of this course? What will be my summative assessments/ final assignment(s)? 
    2. Sequencing the learning:  In what order should students learn the different skills they’ll need for the final assessment?
    3. Designing daily assignments and teaching strategies: How can I make sure students are learning these skills throughout the class? 
    4. Designing assessment strategies: What formative assessment strategies should I use during the course? 
    5. Articulating a set of policies: What sections from the above list of examples do I want to include in my syllabus? 
    6. Considering best teaching practices: Is my syllabus inclusive? Does it help all students succeed? Am I using active learning strategies
    7. Considering the use of digital technology: Would using digital technology or flipping my classroom enhance my learning goals? 
  • Minimize Adjustments to the Syllabus During the Course - If the instructor finds certain changes to be necessary, those changes should not disadvantage students. While adjustments to the syllabus are unavoidable and often desirable to accommodate particular students constituting a class, the following aspects of the syllabus should not be changed after students have finalized their schedules:
    • Due dates of papers or timing of exams to the disadvantage of students
    • Assessment and evaluation structure if rendered more inequitable
    • Required materials for the course which place new financial burdens on students or render their previous purchases obsolete

Additional Tools for Targeted Revision - Revising all elements of a syllabus at once can be overwhelming. Instructors can target particular elements of a syllabus to revise in discrete sessions, utilizing the following and other available resources:

Recommended External Resources

References

Canada, M. (2013). The Syllabus: A Place to Engage Students’ Egos. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 135 (37-42).

Ludy, M., Brackenbury, T., Folkins, J., Peet, S., & Langendorfer, S. (2016). “Student Impressions of Syllabus Design: Engaging Versus Contractual Syllabus.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 10.2 (1-23).

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

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. New York: Routledge.

Downloads 

Sample Text addressing usage of electronic devices, inclusive learning environments, academic communities, and academic integrity.
Assessment, modified from a JMU tool, exploring the degree of inclusive practices, approaches, and language in the syllabus and course design.