How to Create an Effective Syllabus

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.

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

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

Learner-Centered Syllabus Checklist

Each section below may be toggled to reveal the text and additional resources or download CELT’s Learner Centered Mindful Syllabus Checklist (PDF).

  • Use positive, welcoming, inviting and inclusive language in your syllabus. Examples: “Late work is eligible for 60% of the original points,” or “Attendance will benefit you in several ways,” or “You have what it takes to succeed in this course without engaging in academic misconduct. Do not jeopardize the hard work you’ve put into this course.”
  • Follow steps to an accessible syllabus using resources on CELT’s Accessify Your Course webpage.
  • Course Title, Course Abbreviation and Number
  • Semester and Year (Start Date to End Date)
  • Number of Credit Hours
  • When and where the course will meet (campus learning space, online, etc.)
  • Name
  • Office Address
  • Student Hours (Consider using “Student Hours” instead of “Office Hours” to promote that these times are set aside specifically for students in case they need help outside class). Provide student hours via multiple means of access (your office, phone, e-mail, virtually using webcasting software). Example: Student Hours – T & R 8:30-9:30 a.m. in my office or via Zoom. Individual assistance is always available by appointment. I look forward to seeing you during student hours.
  • Telephone Number (If you don’t have a campus landline communicate with your students using the Canvas Conversations tool to record a message. Learn how via the Canvas Conversations Overview video or read the Canvas Conversations web guide.
  • Email Address
  • Other Contact Information
  • Name of Department and location of Departmental Office
  • Preferred Contact Information for the Department
  • 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 expectations to have completed readings before class sessions and the degree of understanding that you expect (e.g., successfully complete pop quizzes, can discuss concepts, or apply reading information to problem-solving scenarios).
  • Describe other course components such as teaching approach, group assignments, individualized consultation, etc.
  • Share information from ISU’s Library Instructor webpage if readings are on course reserves.
  • Identify where students can obtain additional equipment, resources, or materials.
  • Connect multiple means of assessment (exams, quizzes, exercises, projects, papers, etc.) directly to learning outcomes.
  • Consider using the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) framework (view the TiLT webpage) by providing the following for each assignment:
    • Purpose: practice skills, expand content knowledge, and benefits for life-long learning.
    • Tasks: clarify steps on what to do and how to do it.
    • Criteria: how to be successful (e.g., checklist, rubric); as well as, examples and strategies for students to improve their work.
  • Explain clearly how students will be evaluated, and grades assigned. Include components of final grade, weights assigned to each component, grading on a curve or scale, etc.
  • Use both summative and formative evaluations (e.g., oral presentations, group work, self-evaluation, peer evaluation).
  • Employ periodic feedback mechanisms to monitor learning (e.g., graded and non-graded quizzes, tests, lecture-response systems, tests, reflection papers).
  • Provide ways that students can easily calculate or find their grades at any point in the course.

​State your policies clearly in the syllabus and discuss them throughout the semester regarding:

  • Use the Interfaith Calendar website when scheduling projects, presentations, and exams to consider any potential conflicts.
  • 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.
  • List important dates (or include a link to the ISU Academic Calendar) such as last drop date, registration dates for the next semester, etc. Visit the ISU Academic Calendar website for detailed information.
  • Note dates and times of any exams scheduled outside of class time. If needed, visit ISU’s Online Testing Center website.
  • Include the date and time of the final exam. Locate the information on the Office of the Registrar’s webpage.

Recommended syllabus statements have been developed in order to communicate a uniform message to all students about university policies that impact their experience at ISU. To view the language, visit the Recommended Iowa State University Syllabus Statements from Faculty Senate webpage.

Readings

References

  • Cullen, R., & Harris, M. (2009). Assessing learner-centeredness through course syllabi. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(1), 115–125. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.iastate.edu/10.1080/02602930801956018
  • Cullen, R., Harris, M., & Hill, R. (2012). The learner-centered curriculum: Design and implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (Rev. ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.iastate.edu. Accessed April 23, 2019.
  • Gannon, C. (2018). How to create a syllabus: Advice guide. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-syllabus Accessed on May 22, 2019.
  • Harnish, R. J. & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14(3), 319– 330.
  • Harnish, R. J., McElwee, R. O., Slattery, J. M., Frantz, S., Haney, M. R., Shore, C. M., & Penley, J. (2011, January). Creating the foundation for a warm classroom climate: Best practices in syllabus tone. Observer, 24(1). Retrieved from http://bit.ly/33aQlwm
  • Nilson, L. B. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Palmer, M. S., Bach, D. J., & Streifer, A. C. (2014). Measuring the promise: A learning-focused syllabus rubric. To improve the academy: A journal of educational development, 33(1), 14 -36. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/tia2.20004
  • Richlin L. (2006). Blueprint for Learning: Constructing College Courses to Facilitate, Assess, and Document Learning. Vol 1st ed. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. Retrieved http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.iastate.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=192982&site=ehost-live. Accessed April 23, 2019.
  • Richmond, A. S. (2016, September). Constructing a learner-centered syllabus: One professor’s journey. IDEA Paper #60. Retrieved from https://www.ideaedu.org/.
  • Richmond, A. S., Boysen, G. A., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2016). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching: Developing the model teacher. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.lib.iastate.edu
  • Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) Higher Ed website (https://tilthighered.com/).
  • Vai, M., & Sosulski, K. (2011). Essentials of online course design: A standards-based guide. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Winkelmes, M.A., Boye, A., & Tapp, S. (2019). Transparent design in higher education teaching and leadership: A guide to implementing the transparency framework institution-wide to improve learning and retention. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.  

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