Effective syllabi are learner-centered, meaning they move beyond the mechanics of a course (i.e. office hours, deadlines, and textbooks) to outline how students can be successful in a course. Research has found that students learn more, and enjoy courses more, when they are presented with a student-centered syllabus. (1)
You are encouraged to download the Flexible Teaching Syllabus Template (Word) as a guide to help you develop your course syllabus.
A syllabus should explain why the course matters. One technique for crafting a strong syllabus is to provide a course description that is not merely a list of the content covered in the course, but outlines why you find it important and engaging. In addition, you should share with students what skills you expect them to gain from the course and the assessments and activities you have planned. If the learning outcomes of the course (and the route the course will take to get there) are made explicit, the syllabus becomes an invitation to a learning experience.
An effective syllabus emphasizes the students’ role in their learning. A learner-centered syllabus focuses on guiding students through how a course will work and what they will do throughout the experience. The syllabus does this by giving students clear answers to these questions:
A welcoming syllabus creates a sense of community. The learner-centered syllabus describes the course as a learning experience in which students are encouraged to engage and communicate with both the instructor and each other.
Include a communication plan. The syllabus should include a communication plan that lays out how instructors and students will interact. In addition to telling students when and where office hours are, the syllabus should also specify how instructors plan to manage email and how quickly students can expect to receive a reply if they send a message. Particularly for courses in which students will engage in regular discussions, consider adding a statement describing discussion guidelines.
Use a supportive tone. The tone of the syllabus should emphasize the instructor’s willingness to support all students. The syllabus should make it clear that students can share difficulties with the faculty, and point out additional resources for student success that are available to them (for example, student advising and the accessibility office). The syllabus should avoid language that is punitive such as “points will be deducted” with language that is supportive such as “students can earn up to.” Another way to make the syllabus feel more inviting is to use language like “we will” and “you will” instead of “this class will” and “students will”.
Remember that the syllabus is a primary source of information to guide your students throughout the semester. A syllabus should carefully explain course components. Think of the syllabus as a roadmap you and your students can follow throughout the semester as you navigate the course.
Most likely, your syllabus will be one of the first substantial means of communication between you and your students. The goal of a well-designed syllabus is to ensure students understand what is expected of them. Therefore, the syllabus should be easy to read, understand, and follow. Use welcoming and encouraging language and explain what you will do to help students throughout the semester.
Most likely, your syllabus will be one of the first substantial means of communication between you and your students.
Find out whether your department and/or college have policies that require specific information to be included on the syllabus. This might include policies on grading, attendance, make-up work, make-up exams, and information related to standards and accreditation. NIU has guidelines for syllabi at the institution, which are detailed in the Operating Procedures for Curricular Items (H). One requirement for all syllabi is including the Americans with Disabilities Act statement.
If you are preparing a syllabus for a course that has multiple sections, check with your department chair to see what content, books, or other course components should be provided consistently in all sections of the same course. If you are teaching a course for the first time, review the approved course proposal to represent adequately the established course goals, learning objectives, and content.
Goals and learning objectives are the heart of your instruction and should be written carefully. Course goals and learning objectives represent what students should be able to do after successfully completing course modules and the course itself; they should be observable and measurable and stated in terms of student outcomes. Plan activities, assignments, and outcomes that help students achieve these goals and learning objectives. When planning assignments and class activities, consider listing them alongside which course goals and learning objectives students will achieve when these tasks are completed. By demonstrating the relevance of course requirements and how they are connected to goals and learning objectives, you will help students better understand why you have assigned these assignments and activities.
Goals and learning objectives are the heart of your instruction and should be written carefully.
Learning outcomes should shape the course schedule. Writing the syllabus is the last part of designing a course, and the course schedule is the last part of the syllabus you should write. Once the learning outcomes, major assessments, grading criteria, learning activities, and content have been developed, the course schedule is a way to walk students through when each of those things will happen. The schedule should list the learning objectives for each topic, explain what the corresponding course activities will be, and list any assessments related to the objectives. If you are creating a syllabus for a course that has at least some online elements, make explicit what activities are happening asynchronously (on students’ own time) and synchronously (in real-time). This will result in a syllabus that functions as a detailed course map that lays out what students should be able to do by the end of the course and how they will get there successfully.
Select appropriate teaching methods, activities, assignments, and assessment strategies to use throughout the semester and make sure they reflect your course’s learning objectives. Also, consider how to present course content in different ways (visual, auditory, and hands-on) to reinforce the content for your students; this is called multimodal learning.
In addition, consider including in the syllabus a teaching philosophy that conveys your enthusiasm for teaching while briefly outlining your beliefs about teaching and how those beliefs translate into classroom practice. Also within the syllabus, you could explain the importance and benefits of the course and why students should take or value the course (i.e. “buy-in”). Adding a positive and optimistic teaching philosophy statement and a value message to your syllabus can send an important message to your students: that you are passionate about the subject and teaching, that you are truly interested in students’ success in the course, and that the course is worthwhile for students.
Consider including in the syllabus a teaching philosophy that conveys your enthusiasm for teaching and the subject and respect for your students.
Decide upon a grading system and check with your department chair, if necessary, to make sure it is consistent with departmental standards. Choose a grading system that is suitable for the course and communicates to your students your expectations about what is important and what you expect from them. Grading criteria can be made available in the form of rubrics, which can increase objectivity when grading students’ work.
Adopt appropriate textbooks and resources, and relate required readings to course goals, learning objectives, activities, and outcomes. Ask your department chair if certain books are required for the course and contact your department’s administrative/office support staff or the bookstore for book order deadlines.
Keeping in mind the high cost of textbooks, consider using open educational resources (OER) or materials available through University Libraries (view the Free, Open, and Affordable Course Materials Guide).
Many faculty provide a schedule format that clearly lays out the course meeting dates, assignments, readings, exams, and due dates, which can be very useful in helping students plan for the semester. Course schedules also help you stay on task. If you plan to develop a course calendar or schedule, refer to the NIU calendar and your Outlook calendar. Sequence quizzes, exams, projects, and assignments, and avoid overlapping due dates with due dates for other courses as well as other potential conflicts (e.g. out-of-town conferences, important departmental or campus events, committee obligations, your own writing project deadlines, etc.).
Now that you have planned the overall content of the syllabus, it’s time to put it all together and craft it. You can customize your syllabus to match your subject and teaching style, but personalizing a syllabus does not mean it shouldn’t be organized and thorough. The order in which the sections are presented here follows many syllabus models but can be arranged to fit your needs.
Include the course designator and number (e.g., ENGL 103), the section number, course title, total credit hours, classroom location, course day(s) and meeting times, any related lab or recitation session locations, and course website URL (e.g. https://webcourses.niu.edu – the web address for accessing Blackboard at NIU).
Include the complete catalog course description and course prerequisites. You can also provide a customized description that provides students with a more personal perspective on the course and how being enrolled will benefit them in their studies and after they leave NIU.
Include your name, title, office location, phone number, email address, office hours (face-to-face and virtual), and other ways in which students can contact or interact with you. Make sure you indicate to students your preferred or best method of contact.
You can also provide a customized course description that provides students with a more personal perspective on the course and how taking the course will affect them in their studies and after they leave NIU.
Provide their name, office location, phone number, email address, office hours, and the role the TA will play in the course.
List all assignments, readings, and exams, and describe the requirements for successful completion of these activities. Mention whether you can or will make available samples of projects and assignments and where students will be able to access them (e.g. in your office or electronically through Blackboard). Also, to help minimize the number of pages in the syllabus, details and guidelines about assignments and projects can be made available in Blackboard.
Provide a list of standards and criteria for each graded course component such as assignments, exams, and class participation so students know your expectations. State how much each graded course activity will count toward the final course grade. Include the course grading scale so students can keep track of their progress. State how students will earn credit for effort and progress and if you will allow extra credit (if applicable, state how these activities will be applied toward the student’s final grade). State specifically how final grades will be calculated, and provide information such as whether you weigh letter grades, use accumulated points, or grade on a curve.
State how students will be rewarded for effort and progress and if you will allow extra credit—state how these will be used toward a student’s final grade.
Provide a full citation and edition number for textbooks and other course resources. Provide information on where students can purchase these resources, their cost (if known), and whether using e-books or alternative sources or editions is acceptable (see the Instructional Guide section on Textbook Affordability). Note if any required course materials are available in the library on course reserves. Include any course-related websites and Blackboard links if applicable. Provide information on support services, such as the NIU Disability Resource Center, University Libraries, University Writing Center, Learning Commons, and ways students can obtain peer tutoring (this is especially helpful for undergraduate students).
Provide clear and succinct information on attendance (including late arrivals and early departures), late work, missed quizzes and exams, and make-up work. Also include information on use of copyrighted materials, individual and group work, and classroom comportment such as mutual civility, respectfulness, use of technology (e.g. smartphones, smart watches, laptops), and eating and drinking in the classroom. Finally, list policies related to lab work, such as safety, human subjects, and university property.
Include a statement requesting that students with disabilities contact the Disability Resource Center regarding accommodation needs. Visit the Disability Resource Center website at www.niu.edu/disability for further information on policies and procedures for students who request such assistance. The Statement of Accessibility is required on every syllabus, but you could also add a statement that communicates how important student success is to you and that any student who has a disability that may have some impact on their work in the class, and for which they might require special accommodations, should contact the Disability Resource Center early in the semester so that accommodations can be made in a timely manner. Remember that accommodations are not retroactive, and faculty should not make special accommodations for students without an official accommodations letter unless those accommodations are provided to every student in the course; otherwise, faculty open themselves up to capricious grading charges from other students.
In a separate and prominent location of your syllabus, include statements on plagiarism, appropriate conduct, and disciplinary regulations. These statements can be found in the NIU Graduate and Undergraduate Catalogs online. Also, the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning has created the “Academic Integrity Tutorials” for Students and Faculty available at www.ai.niu.edu/ai/
If you plan to include course information in a calendar or schedule, provide a list of topics, chapter readings, assignments, exams and other requirements with due dates. Providing this information in a table format will make it easy for students to read and reference. In a prominent location on the calendar or schedule, indicate that the schedule is subject to change so you can accommodate any necessary changes to the course schedule.
The overall visual appeal of the course syllabus can help organize its content and make it easy to read and navigate. Use headings, short sentences, outlines, lists, charts, and diagrams for organization and quick reference. Instead of completely filling the page with dense text consider leaving some open areas of blank space or even some content-related visuals. Keep accessibility in mind when creating the syllabus; for example, always use Microsoft Word’s “Styles” to format headings as opposed to increasing font size or using bold type.
Instead of completely filling the page with dense text consider leaving some open areas of blank space or even some content-related visuals.
After you create your syllabus, ask a colleague or your department chair to check it for accuracy and clarity. Then, file the syllabus with your department as a record of your course, to use for accreditation purposes, and as a reference when students search for course information.
To accompany this guide, the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning has created a checklist to help you get started and plan an effective course syllabus. That checklist is available online at citl.niu.edu/syllabus-checklist.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2020). Creating a course syllabus. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guides/instructional-guide