Give your syllabus a makeover and watch your classroom transform.

Posted March 6, 2019

By Kathy Klein

The Course Syllabus: A Discovery Process

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The course syllabus is a tool that can be used to increase student engagement. Research indicates that engaged students achieve higher-level learning. When redesigning a course, I came to appreciate the significance of the course syllabus as a tool to promote student engagement.

To redesign the course, I followed course design principles. I used data collected from previous sections of the course and reflected on student outcomes and needs. I considered appropriate assignments aligned with course objectives. I mapped out engaging content to meet student learning outcomes. I followed best practices to create the “perfect” course. I placed relevant information in the course syllabus. However, looking at the course syllabus as a reflection of the changes I made, I realized that the first impression my syllabus made was not a good one.

To start, the syllabus for my dynamic, engaging, redesigned course was very old-fashioned (Figure 1). This syllabus could easily be created on a typewriter long before computers and Microsoft Word were ubiquitous tools for syllabus creation. In addition to a lack of visual interest and design, the syllabus contained policies and information copied from syllabi to syllabi over the years. These policies and procedures were not written to reflect current perspectives. My syllabus was as exciting to read as a terms of service agreement. This realization sparked a complete redesign of my syllabus in design and content (Figure 2).

Side by side comparison of two syllabi. The one the left is traditional, the one of the right is more dynamic. Figure 1 description: This image is the cover page of my traditional syllabus.  It doesn’t leverage the features of document creation available through programs like Microsoft Word.  The table is not easily read using screen readers or other accessibility devices. Figure 2 description: This image is a redesigned cover page of a more dynamic syllabus.  The syllabus is created from a Microsoft Word newsletter template.  Although the design is more complex, it is read by screen readers with alternative text provided for images.
Syllabi side by side comparison. Link to the template here.

I’d like to share with you what I learned during my discovery process about transforming syllabi to increase student engagement. To begin, a syllabus bloated with content, lacking design, and/or constructed without considering the power of the syllabus to serve as an important student learning and motivational tool is not typically the kind of syllabus that makes a good first impression for a course. Looking at my original syllabus, I realized I was missing an important opportunity to use the syllabus as a powerful tool. I decided to transform my syllabus to promote student engagement and enhance the learning experience.

My syllabus needed to accurately reflect the course redesign, explain course content, demonstrate pedagogical style, motivate students, and promote student learning and engagement. I wanted the syllabus to make an accurate first and lasting impression to encourage student interest and enthusiasm for the course. For more specific information about a syllabus makeover process, refer to Dr. Tona Hangen who had a similar realization about the power of the course syllabus.

The process of creating an engaging syllabus is not limited to adding pictures and columns. Developing a motivational and engaging syllabus requires content, organization, tone, and a learner-centered perspective of the syllabus. My process of syllabus redesign began by exploring basic assumptions about the syllabus. I asked myself Who? What? When? Where? How? and Why? questions about syllabus construction and design. I’m happy to share the resources and information I found to guide your efforts at syllabus transformation.

Who is the audience for the syllabus?

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Answering this question helps articulate the basic importance of a syllabus. A well-designed syllabus provides an important organizational tool for students and instructors. The syllabus assists students and instructors to efficiently plan and prepare for the course. The usefulness of a syllabus is not limited to students and instructors.

A syllabus is evidence of course learning and provides departmental offices, other faculty, and supervisors with pertinent information about the course and teaching methods. A course syllabus is frequently the starting document provided for peer and course evaluation.

A syllabus is sometimes used to offer proof of mastery of specific content when transferring the course credits to another institution or meeting the requirements of a pre-requisite course. As we develop our syllabus it is important to recognize the syllabus may be used for a variety of purposes. For additional information, Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning provides a brief overview of the functions of a syllabus.

What content belongs in a syllabus?

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Recognizing the importance of a syllabus, we’ll consider the content that belongs in the syllabus. Kevin Gannon writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education offers practical advice regarding syllabus content. The article provides a good review of recommended content and discusses additional issues encountered when developing syllabi. In addition to required syllabus content that might be mandated by our employers, my ideas for presenting the content to promote student engagement are provided below. Consider your syllabi using the list below. What item(s) is/are beneficial to improve in your course syllabi?

  • Provide an overview, rationale, and schedule for the course to motivate students. Make sure the schedule is easy for students to understand and follow.
  • Clearly define student and instructor responsibilities allowing all to know what’s expected.
  • Develop course level objectives and student learning outcomes that assist students with identifying what they will learn and do in the course.
  • Describe clear assessment/evaluation methods explaining what students must do to be successful in the course. Be explicit and provide exemplary examples, rubrics, and other tools to support the best student work possible. Examples and rubrics do not need to be part of the syllabus, but should be easily available.
  • Foster a sense of community that helps students belong. Use inclusive language in the syllabus.
  • Explain course and University policies so students know exactly what is required. Consider brief explanations with hyperlinks to complete policies.
  • Include difficult to obtain materials. Don’t make students waste time finding and gathering required course materials.
  • Offer learner support and resources. Consider what resources help students learn and succeed in the course. In an online course, this means making sure there is adequate technology support and instructions.

A syllabus that promotes student engagement is easy to read and constructed in a manner that makes perfect sense to the students. The syllabus is explicit and easily understood. Developing syllabus content takes time and should be something we assess anew and improve each time we teach our course.

When do we create a syllabus?

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The course design process begins with selecting materials and course content. In the earliest phases of the course design process, we develop general course goals. With course materials and general goals, we develop a syllabus reflecting sound course design principles. At this point, the syllabus serves as a planning tool and is ready before developing lectures. The syllabus undergoes frequent revision until we achieve a syllabus that is designed to increase student engagement. Backward design may be a good approach to syllabus development, however, we must be certain the syllabus is complete and ready at least a few weeks prior to the start of the course. The Teaching Center of Washington University of St. Louis provides a useful course planning timeline.

The course syllabus is important. Despite debate over syllabus bloat and required content, we recognize that transforming a syllabus to be learner-centered means that the syllabus is not developed at the last minute. Syllabus development is carefully designed and planned to create a syllabus that is clear, easy to read, and explicit.

Where do students access our syllabus?

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A paper syllabus may be required and provided to students on the first day of class. In online courses, the syllabus may be emailed to students with instructions on how to access the course. The important response to this question is to make sure that students have convenient access to the syllabus. Even if we’re teaching a face-to-face class, posting the syllabus on our learning management system (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle) or other hosting site makes the syllabus available on-demand for students. Unlimited access to a syllabus promotes syllabus use and engagement with course materials and content. Although the sample covers of the syllabi reviewed previously (Figures 1 and 2) are Word and PDF documents, some instructors use other syllabi formats including infographics, Prezi presentations, flip books, google templates and a variety of different formats. The best syllabus format is determined by presenting the course content in a manner that promotes student learning and interest.

With creative syllabus design, we must be mindful of accessibility issues, copyright, and other pragmatic issues. If you’re not ready to fully transform the format of your syllabus, look at Billie Hara’s course map that graphically illustrates how assignments and learning outcomes are connected in her course. Adding a graphic element in the syllabus may make course expectations more explicit.

How do we express ideas in a syllabus and set a tone for the course?

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Our syllabus makes a first and lasting impression. Students and colleagues judge our teaching, communication, course content, grading rigor, organization skills, and more based on our syllabi. We want to express our course design choices in a manner that clearly expresses ideas and expectations relevant to our course. We have an opportunity to take a warm or cool tone in relaying syllabus information. For example, a cool tone is set by this statement, “Students will attend every class. If a student misses three classes, the student is dropped from the course”. The same information can be expressed in a warmer tone with the statement. “You need to attend every session of our class to be fully engaged in the learning process. If illness or emergency circumstances will cause you to miss class, please notify the instructor by email. Please be aware that as per our University attendance policy, if you miss more than three classes you should drop the class”. To review additional examples and learn more about how the tone of a syllabus relates to student perceptions of a course and the instructor, refer to an experiment conducted by Harnish & Bridges.

Tools to help us evaluate our syllabus content, style, and tone are available from Southern Methodist University, University of Cincinnati, University of Virginia, Cornell University, and Penn State.

Why do we need a syllabus?

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In answering this final question and summarizing what we’ve discovered in this blog, we realize that a syllabus may:

  • serve as a learning contract or legal document
  • be mandated by the College/University
  • provide a roadmap or guide for students and instructors
  • make course design and content explicit for students
  • create a first impression of the course
  • reflect the content, tone, and organization of the course and instructor
  • offer a tool for accommodation (read Womack, 2017)
  • help students learn
  • explain student responsibility for self-directed learning
  • provide a course schedule
  • include assignment guidelines and rubrics (or directs students to the documents)

We need the syllabus. It is usually required. However, we can do better with our syllabi. We can appreciate the value of the syllabus as a tool that teaches, makes expectations explicit, promotes student success, and introduces the course as a dynamic and engaging learning experience.

I compared data between two course sections where the only change made to the experimental course was redesigning the syllabus to promote student engagement. When comparing student rating scores (IDEA instrument) between the courses, I found scores were higher (statistically significant) in the course with the redesigned syllabus compared to the course with a traditional syllabus. Information on the IDEA instrument is available here: This data reinforced additional data and student feedback from assessment measures throughout the courses. A redesigned syllabus increased engagement and interest in the course content. The students appreciated the planning and relevance of the syllabus to their unique learning needs. For me, I verified the legitimacy of expending effort, thought, and design into the syllabus construction process. I hope this blog assists and inspires you when transforming your syllabi to increase student engagement and learning.

Be sure to evaluate and reflect on the outcomes of a redesigned or newly developed syllabus. To learn more about the entire process of syllabus creation and evaluation, I highly recommend Designing a Motivational Syllabus: Creating A Learning Path for Student Engagement by Christine Harrington & Melissa Thomas.


Fig. 1. Klein, K. (2018). Traditional syllabus cover page, [digital image]. Unpublished.

Fig. 2. Klein, K. (2018). Revised syllabus cover page, [digital image]. Unpublished.


Kathleen (Kathy) Klein is Interim Director of the Center for Learning Design and Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey. Dr. Klein’s role in the Center for Learning Design supports faculty design and delivery of effective courses that promote student learning. She teaches clinical neuroscience, research methods, motor performance, activity analysis, and professional issues. She has varied research interests including the scholarship of teaching and learning and clinical pediatric issues related to health/wellbeing, self-regulation, and executive function. Dr. Klein presents at a variety of conferences and consults for organizations related to best practices in education, professional development, and corporate training. Dr. Klein received her post-professional doctorate degree in occupational therapy at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She completed her BS and post-professional MS in occupational therapy at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Klein can be reached by email at [email protected]