Write a syllabus that engages and guides students

December 2, 2014

A well-written syllabus serves as an invitation to students that describes the overall purpose of the course, documents your expectations for assignments and how you will evaluate students, and creates a common course reference that you and students will used to manage day-to-day activities during the term. Syllabi serve additional purposes. External readers use your syllabus to evaluate the curriculum (e.g., during academic program reviews and for accreditation decisions). Faculty at other institutions rely on syllabus content to determine whether your course is a reasonable substitute for a course offered at their institution when they evaluate courses and transcripts of transfer students.

Questions to ask about your syllabus

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning (Harvard University) suggests that faculty ask whether their syllabus addresses several key questions about course content, course policies, and the community of learning the instructor intends to create for the course.

  • Does the syllabus clearly state what the course is about and the role the course plays in the curriculum? 
  • Does the syllabus orient students to the course content and goals? Does it give students a reason to be excited about the course and motivated to engage in the learning activities planned?
  • Does the syllabus establish all of the important “housekeeping” functions for the course: How to contact the instructor, information about office hours, expectations for assignments, policies for determining grades, important due dates, etc. (CUTLA has a list of required elements posted on the Syllabus Construction web page.)
  • Is the syllabus coherent? Do the learning activities described in the calendar of events represent a logical plan to develop the content knowledge and skills described in the student learning outcomes?
  • Are the learning outcomes, activities and assessments aligned? Are expectations appropriate for the students enrolled in the course (lower division, general education students; advanced undergraduate students; master’s students; doctoral students)? Are assignments and learning activities sequenced to develop knowledge and skill that build to a final, challenging assignment, project, or exam? 


Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. Syllabus Construction (http://uwf.edu/offices/cutla/supporting-pages/syllabus-construction/). See the Rubric for Self-Reflection and Evaluation of a Course Syllabus, which evaluates both required syllabus components and “best practices” for a learning-centered syllabus. 

Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Function and Components of a Syllabus (http://bokcenter.harvard.edu/syllabus-design).


Updated:12/2/14 cma 

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