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Learner-Centered Syllabus

Syllabus ChecklistThe purpose of a syllabus is to clearly communicate the instructional road map for the entire course, including all assignments and requirements, how each student can be successful, and guidance on specific expectations and policies (see CETL's Syllabus Checklist). The syllabus is the first chance we have to establish shared value—to engage in a collective and purposeful effort to accomplish learning goals. A good syllabus "…is more than a description of a class and an articulation of faculty expectations; it is an essential building block for a successful learning experience."

But what does that mean? What does that require from the faculty and the students? How do we build it and what should it look like…literally/graphically? A syllabus should be learner centered (What's in it for Me?) and goal oriented (provide Student Learning Outcomes). View it as a contract which both you and your students sign onto.

A good contract protects both sides. It should layout expectations for your students and also indicate what you, as the instructor, will hold yourself accountable for. Be mindful of addressing academic integrity, civility, reasonable accommodations, attendance requirements, and assessment & grading policies.

When you take a look at your syllabus, put yourself in the student's seat. Does it look like a set of rules and expectations? Is it dry or engaging? Does it connect with students and inspire them? Does it sell itself and relate to the rest of the curriculum? What do students look for and have more than just a "right" to know? If you want to engage your students with the content, with the curriculum, with the learning goals, with one another, and with you, then how do you do that?

Keep in mind that the syllabus is the initial point of contact between the instructor and students. It is often the initial point of contact between the student and the course, and even the curriculum and the discipline. It is the first chance you have to establish shared value—to engage in a collective and purposeful effort to accomplish learning goals. How do you enhance that initial contact and sense of value?

Use the written word carefully to reveal your commitment to student learning. Discuss the syllabus with students on the first day of class and refer back to it as a guidepost throughout the semester. Take the time to write and talk about:

  • How the course relates to the curriculum
  • How the readings relate to the course and learning goals
  • How the assignments and assessments relate to the student learning outcomes
  • What your student's roles, rights, and responsibilities are
  • What your role, rights, and responsibilities are

As a roadmap to student success, the syllabus should clearly facilitate the accomplishment of the learning outcomes. What are your learning goals/outcomes? Are they clearly articulated? How so? Examples? How do you empower your students to accomplish them? What are your methods and instruments (assessments and assignments)? Examples? How and why did you choose these? Do the students see—in the syllabus and throughout the semester—that the syllabus is a carefully and thoughtfully crafted instrument intended to steer them towards those goals? That the readings, assignments, and activities are intentionally selected to do just that?

Quick TipsTIPS for the first day of class

  • Encourage/require students to "know the syllabus" and the mission of the class
  • Share the floor and be open to input (but remain in control)
  • Consider multi-modality—are there other or better ways to address certain learning goals?
  • Consider using "reciprocal interviews"
  • Break up into small groups
  • Discuss your student goals for the class and what you, the instructor, can do to assist them in accomplishing those goals
  • Identify and share what the clearest/muddiest/best/worst points are and how they can and should be addressed