Syllabus Best Practices

Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Director 
ISU Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

Goals of a Learning-Centered Syllabus

  • Define instructor’s role and responsibility to students;
  • Provide a clear statement of intended course goals (learning outcomes);
  • Establish standards and procedures for evaluation;
  • Acquaint students with course logistics; and
  • Establish a pattern of communication between instructor and students

Below is a list of elements that a learning-centered syllabus should include.

Basic Information

  • Name of the university
  • Year
  • Semester
  • Course title and number
  • Credits
  • Time and location of meetings (any field trips or meetings other than normal meeting times)
  • Your personal data (name, office number, phone number, e-mail address, office hours, whether appointments are needed for office hours, parameters of how to contact you)
  • Similar personal data for TAs.

Describe Prerequisites

  • Help students realistically assess their readiness by listing knowledge, skills, and experience expected prior to taking this class.

Course Goals / Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss how the course fits into the overall curriculum. Answer the question “Why is this course useful?”
  • List 4-5 broad-based learning outcomes that reflect what the students will learn and skills they will develop by successfully completing the course.
  • Orient students to the discipline if this is an introductory course.

Learning Objectives

  • List three to five major learning objectives. For example:
  • What will students know or be able to do after completing the course?
  • What skills or competencies do you want them to develop?
  • If appropriate, be clear about what the course does not address.

Describe Course Format

  • Will there be fieldwork, research projects, lectures, discussions, etc.?
  • List what is required versus recommended.

Textbooks and Readings

  • Specify textbooks and readings by author and editions. When possible, explain connections to the course goals and how the text and readings address them.
  • Explain whether you expect students to have completed readings before class sessions and the degree of understanding that you expect (e.g., successfully complete pop quizzes, be able to discuss concepts, or apply reading information to problem-solving scenarios).
  • If readings are placed on reserve in the library, discuss library policy.

Assignments (Papers, quizzes, exams)

  • Be as specific as possible about:
    • dates
    • expectations for performance
    • types of exams, quizzes, exercises, papers, etc.

How will Students be Evaluated?

  • Explain how students will be evaluated and grades assigned.
  • Include components of the final grade, weights assigned to each component, grading on a curve or scale.
  • Can extra credit improve a grade and can a quiz grade be dropped?

Course Policies

  • Discuss your policies clearly regarding:
    • Attendance
    • Late assignments
    • Make-up options
    • Extra credit
    • Deadline extensions
    • Reporting illness
    • Cheating and plagiarism
    • Expected classroom behaviors
  • Describe students’ responsibilities in the learning process.

Address Students with Special Needs

Course Calendar

  • Provide a course calendar. Stick to it as best as you can over the course of the semester. If necessary revise it and be sure students get an updated version.

Important Dates

  • List important dates such as last drop date, registration dates for the next semester, etc.


  • Identify additional equipment or materials needed and where students can obtain them.
  • Explain other requirements such as group assignments, individualized consultation, etc.
  • Estimate student workload. Give students a sense of how much preparation and work the course requires. But be realistic; they don’t believe either scare tactics or soft-pedaling. (Remember that yours is not the only class that they’re taking.)
  • If there is a service-learning component, explain what is expected and how students will be evaluated. If it is not a requirement of the course but there are opportunities available, provide information about who to contact. In either case, explain some of the benefits of service-learning activities.

Optional Supplementary Information

  • Glossary of terms and jargon commonly used in the subject area
  • Hints about how to study or take notes
  • Information about campus resources such as tutoring, study skills help, or computer labs
  • Reference list of more in-depth readings, advanced topics, or remedial refreshers

Adapted from:

L. Haugen, Learning Centered Syllabi Workshop, April 1998. 

ISU Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.