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, student-centered syllabi have a positive impact on student perceptions of a course and motivation to engage with the instructor (Ludy et. al, 2016). How then can you use your syllabus to set an effective and engaging foundation for your course?
Before designing (or redesigning) your syllabus, pause to reflect on what you hope your students will learn. How do you hope your students will be different after taking your course? How might students apply what they learn a year from now? Five years from now? Centering yourself on the most important elements of your course can help guide your decision-making throughout writing your syllabus.
The notion of starting the course design process with the final learning goals in mind is an educational approach known as Backward Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005). Having established the desired learning outcomes for your course, you then consider how your students will demonstrate their learning through assessments (e.g. exams, quizzes, papers, performances, practicals, debates, creative projects, etc.) and finally, through what activities students will encounter and practice what they are learning (e.g. lecture, small group work, problem sets, class discussion, etc.). When discerning whether to include an item in your course, you might ask yourself - does this content, assignment or assessment help students achieve the fundamental learning goals of the course? If not, is there a more effective way through which I might support their learning?
Instructors looking to take a deeper dive into course design may be interested in exploring course design frameworks or in participating in a course design institute.
The Handbook for Instructors of Undergraduates in Yale College outlines a few functions of a course syllabus, including to “inform students about the scope, procedures, bibliography, and examination or paper requirements of a course,” often featuring a grading rubric and expectations about academic integrity. Yale syllabi typically consist of many or all of the following sections, customized to the needs of a particular course:
- Basic course information - specifics such as course title, section, meeting times and location
- Instructor information - instructor name, preferred contact information, office hours, contact information for any teaching fellows
- Course description - overview of course scope and major themes, also serves as an opportunity to welcome students and share your enthusiasm
- Learning goals and objectives - articulation of the specific knowledge, skills and values you intend for students to learn or develop
- Required materials - required course texts, software and materials (with cost estimates and cost-effective, open-source alternatives where relevant)
- Readings and assignments - description of readings and assignments, frequently organized in a calendar format
- Assessments and grading - how and when students will receive feedback on their course progress, including major assessments and grading breakdowns
- Course policies - any policies unique to your course (e.g. attendance, participation) as well as how you provide flexibility
- Academic integrity statement - define what academic integrity means for your particular course, tailored to specific course assignments and commenting on appropriate levels of collaboration
- DEIB statement - share how you will demonstrate your commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging through your teaching and facilitation of classroom community
- Accessibility statement - describe how you provide equitable academic experiences for all students, including those with disabilities
- Student academic and wellness support resources - students are more likely to explore support resources recommended by their instructors
Yale Syllabus Template & Samples
The Poorvu Center has developed a customizable syllabus template for Yale instructors in collaboration with the Yale Registrar’s Office. Visit this page for more information and to download the syllabus template.
Sample Yale syllabi can be found through Yale Course Search. This database allows those internal to Yale to access posted syllabi by course, program, and instructor, as well as a variety of other search terms.
Syllabus Design 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 Poorvu Center 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.
- 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)?
- Sequencing the learning: In what order should students learn the different skills they’ll need for the final assessment?
- Designing daily assignments and teaching strategies: How can I make sure students are learning these skills throughout the class?
- Designing assessment strategies: What formative assessment strategies should I use during the course?
- Articulating a set of policies: What sections from the above list of examples do I want to include in my syllabus?
- Considering best teaching practices: Is my syllabus inclusive? Does it help all students succeed? Am I using active learning strategies?
- 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
Recommended External Resources
- Association for Psychological Science: Creating the Foundation for a Warm Classroom Climate: Best Practices in Syllabus Tone
- Carnegie Mellon University: The Syllabus
- University of Michigan: Syllabus Design
- University of Chicago: Course Design
- Stanford University: Creating a Syllabus
- MIT: Expectations, Course Goals and Learning Outcomes
- Dartmouth College: Syllabus Guide
- Harvard University: Syllabus Design
- Brown University: Creating a Brown University Syllabus
- Yale University: Online Syllabi
Canada, M. (2013). The Syllabus: A Place to Engage Students’ Egos. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 135 (37-42).
Gurung, R. A. R. and N. R. Galardi (2021). “Syllabus Tone, More Than Mental Health Statements, Influence Intentions to Seek Help.” Teaching of Psychology.
Harnish, R. & Bridges, K. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education 14 (319-330).
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).
Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. New York: Routledge.
Taylor et al. (2019). The Social Justice Syllabus Design Tool: A First Step in Doing Social Justice Pedagogy. JSCORE 5 (133-166).
Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Pearson.