Seven Ways to Make Your Syllabus More Relevant

Can a syllabus get students excited for your course? What will keep students coming back to it? These seven design elements can help students get the most out of your syllabus, prepare them for the course, and focus the class on the learning goals ahead. My Engaging Syllabus Design: Example illustrates all of these design elements.

1. Write an introductory message with a personable explanation of the syllabus’ layout.

An official welcome to the course can be your “pitch” for the course—why they should be excited about what lays ahead of them. Bain (2004) promotes a “promising” tone in the syllabus, which states what students will gain from your course in both broad and specific terms. From there, use a paragraph or two to simplify the navigation of the syllabus: explain which sections explain what materials they need to be ready, how they can plan ahead with the course schedule, and what a typical class session will look like. Explain how policies and ground rules are meant to support students and make sure they achieve their goals.

2. Humanize yourself in the “Professor Information” section.

Along with the logistical and contact information students need, use this section as an opportunity to help students understand who is leading them through this learning environment.

  • Explain how you should be addressed. Many higher-ed essays have been dedicated to the topic of how students should address their instructors, and students feel a tension around this topic, as they are told different things by different faculty (or nothing at all). Help students navigate this etiquette by explaining directly how they should address you.
  • Include an identifying image, whether a profile photo, avatar, or different image that represents you. Use this image in your learning management system (i.e. course webpage) and email profiles as well.
  • Share a brief bio. Explain your work and academic experience to give students an idea of how you arrived at the front of their classroom. Share your talents outside of course content, hobbies, and other relatable info about yourself.
  • Express your goals and values as it relates to their success. This can be done in a couple of brief sentences and can enforce that you can work with them beyond speaking from the pulpit. Express if you are most passionate about promoting undergraduate research, service learning, internships, and other student success opportunities that extend beyond tests and homework.

3. Condense policy “legalese,” and link out as needed.

While policies get bogged down with fine print, they serve important purposes for students. We want students to feel safe, supported, respected, and responsible. We want students to know the ground rules well ahead of time so that they avoid unpleasant situations later on. Yet the more policies and procedures we include, the less likely students are to benefit from them. Therefore, consider how you can condense policies to the main points students need to know, and provide students links to more information as they need it.

4. Articulate protocol in positives rather than negatives.

Without altering course policies, how can you emphasize positive opportunities rather than penalties? For example, if late assignments receive half credit, explain that these assignments can “earn up to half credit” rather than “lose half credit.” It can also help to briefly explain the rationale for these rules.

5. Explain learning expectations, with concrete ways to meet them.

All of the information on our syllabi can still leave students wondering how much time they should expect to dedicate to a course. If students repeatedly seem to misunderstand what is expected of them in and out of class, consider stating some of these expectations. Here are a few examples.

  • Modes for asking questions. Let students know when to email with a question and outline other options are available to them.
  • Technology backup plan. Explain how students should use cloud storage and plan on alternative ways to access the Internet to prevent losing their work.
  • Frequency of course webpage and email access. How often should students check their email for class updates? How often should they be monitoring their grades?

6. Identify opportunities for the class to personalize their syllabus.

Consider these smaller first steps. Ask students to work with you by:

  • Designing the banner image that should go at the top of the syllabus
  • Defining “ground rules” for respect and civility (e.g. how to facilitate controversial discussions, technology use).
  • Suggesting policies and resources that should be added.

Whether you incorporate the changes to the document during class or point them out after the fact, be sure the changes are visible so that students see early on that they can make meaningful contributions to the learning environment.

7. Use heading styles and links in an electronic version of the syllabus.

As you create your syllabus in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, use the headings styles to organize sections of the document. This creates a clickable outline that allows students (and you) to easily navigate the syllabus. Consider sharing this version of the syllabus as well so that students can take advantage of this clickable document. Sharing an electronic version also allows you to link out to additional resources without bloating the syllabus.

Christina Moore is a virtual faculty developer with the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University.

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