How to Create an Effective Syllabus

Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Associate Provost describes some best practices for creating an effective course syllabus in this Syllabus Best Practices YouTube video (see below).

At its most basic level, the course syllabus is used to communicate information. Broadly this communication conveys what the course is about, why the course is taught, how it will be taught, and what will be required of students to successfully complete the course.

The course syllabus also sets the tone for the class. Creating a learning-centered syllabus versus a traditional syllabus can help foster a more engaging and shared learning environment.

Goals of a Learning-Centered Syllabus

  • Define the 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

A learning-centered syllabus should include:

Basic Information
  • Semester and Year
  • 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 (face-to-face or virtual), 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 the Course Format
  • Will there be fieldwork, research projects, lectures, discussions, etc.?
  • For online or blended courses describe what will occur online and what will occur in the classroom (if appropriate).
  • For online or blended courses describe the required technology. Include information about: the need for a reliable Internet connectivity; ability to access the ISU learning management system (Canvas); familiarity with or ability to learn audio and video conference technology (Canvas Conference tool, Zoom, Skype, VoiceThread, etc.)
  • List course components that are 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
    • types of exams, quizzes, exercises, papers, etc.
    • expectations for performance
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, etc.
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 the Importance of Student Accessibility
  • Invite students with disabilities to talk to you during office hours or before or after class. ISU has suggested accessibility statements developed by the Student Accessibility Services that should be included in the syllabus. View the Recommended Iowa State University Syllabus Statements website.
Course Calendar
  • Provide a course calendar that outlines topics to be covered, reading requirements, assignment due dates, etc. 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.) To help estimate how long different learning tasks take to use the workload calculator tool website.
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, etc.
  • Resources for online students on how to navigate the course, access course content, troubleshoot technical issues, etc.