Preparing a Learner-Centered Syllabus

writing on sticky note

The Oxford Dictionary defines “syllabus” as “an outline of the subjects in a course of study or teaching.”

“Students who read a good syllabus are more likely to feel that course strategies have been designed to help them reach their goals, rather than merely as busywork or, worse, to torture them” ~ Slattery & Carlson, 2013, p. 159.

The syllabus literature tends to focus on “Here’s what makes a good syllabus,” but hasn’t addressed the following questions nearly as well: “What are the purposes of the syllabus?” and “What are the syllabus’ implications for learning?”


Slattery & Carlson, 2013:

  • Set the tone for the course
  • Motivate students to set lofty but achievable goals
  • Planning tool for faculty
  • Structures students work over the course of the semester
  • Helps faculty plan and meet course goals in a timely manner
  • Serves as a contract between faculty and students, re: expectations in both directions
  • A portfolio artifact for promotion, tenure, and faculty evaluation of teaching

Parks & Harris, 2013:

  • Contract – Viewed as a contract, the syllabus should include course calendar, what to bring to class, how to be prepared for class, be ready to work with others, behaviors that affect grades, assignments, weights, policies, academic dishonesty, academic freedom, disclaimers, rights and responsibilities.
  • Permanent record: accountability & documentation – Authors make a note of web-based v. paper for the purposes of understanding and learning from the evolution and development of the syllabus.  What did it look like at each point in time?
  • Learning tool – Authors note the inclusion of the professor’s teaching philosophy, views about learning, and the content area provided in the syllabus can “assist students to become more effective learners in areas that go beyond the scope of our own courses” (p.58).

Fornaciari & Dean, 2013: Four-framework syllabus categorization

  • Contract: The most oft-referenced view of the syllabus.
  • Power: “Syllabus as power means that by following its policies and requirements, classroom events are controlled as closely as possible by the instructor. Although probably not intended as such, traditional contents of a syllabus provide the instructor with a usually non-negotiable structure to control what happens in each course…”p.6
  • Communication/Signalling: “Understanding the syllabus as communication/signaling vehicle means acknowledging that we send powerful expectations about what we and the course will be like through our syllabi. “Signaling,” means the syllabus may be a proxy for what is to come, and our associated communication patterns and behaviors can support those signals for better or worse… communicating and signaling are done via actual construction of the syllabus–font size, length, and level of detail–as well as related behaviors” p.8
  • Collaboration: (the least well examined framework): “Authors who advocate for student collaboration in crafting syllabi focus mainly on intrinsic student motivation and self-determination theories to support collaborative syllabus construction” p.10.

 SYLLABUS CONTENT: What is required?  What is recommended?

Common Components:

  • Course and instructor information
  • Course prerequisites
  • Required texts and readings
  • Communication methods
  • Course goals and objectives
  • Assignments & assessments- the means for meeting these goals
  • Methods of grading
  • Schedule of events
  • Policies & disclaimers
  • Identification of support services

Less common components:

  • Rationales for course objectives & assignments

Why are these assignments part of the course?  Why are we studying this topic?   If it’s not in the syllabus… is that because we haven’t really thought about these questions, or is it because we didn’t think it was important to share this information with students?

  • Positive & negative motivational statements

“In introducing the syllabus, we must counter ingrained beliefs “that [students] are powerless to affect what happens to them; that hard work will not pay off; that success is due to luck, and failure is due to circumstances beyond their control” ~ Slattery & Carlson, 2013, p. 159.

  • Grunert (1997), p 24
    • Title page & Table of Contents:
    • Letter to the student welcoming them to the course
    • How to use the syllabus
  • Self-regulated Learning & Learning Readiness (Parks & Harris, 2013)
    • How to plan for tasks and experiences of the semester
    • How to evaluate and monitor one’s performance
    • How to allocate time and resources to areas in which more learning is needed
    • Expectations about how much time students should spend outside of class
    • Tips for how to do well on assignments and assessment
    • Clarification of common misperceptions or common mistakes
    • Strategies for studying, writing, taking notes in class
    • Listing of prerequisite skills needed
    • Places where students can get assistance: learning center, writing center, tutoring, library resources, TAs, disability services, academic and professional websites
    • Broader lessons: integrity, punctuality, professionalism
    • Serve as a model of professional thinking and writing: if we expect this type of writing from our students, then we should be modeling it.

Questions for readers to think about:

  • Does your syllabus indicate that all the decisions about the course have already been made?
  • Is it necessary for the teacher to make all the decisions about the course?
  • When the teacher decides everything, how does that affect the motivation to learn?
  • Does teacher decision-making help students develop as independent learners?

For more on creating a learner-centered syllabus, read What Are the Characteristics of a Learner-Centered Syllabus?”


Anderson, D.M., F.A. Mcguire, L. Cory. 2011. The first day: it happens only once. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(3): 293-303.

Baecker, D. 1998. Uncovering the Rhetoric of the Syllabus. College Teaching, 46(2): 58-62.

Blinne, K.C. 2013. Start With the Syllabus: HELPing Learners Learn Through Class Content Collaboration, College Teaching, 61: 41-43.

Campana, Kristie L. and Jamie L. Peterson. 2013. Do Bosses Give Extra Credit? Using the Classroom to Model Real-World Work Experiences. College Teaching, 61: 60-66

D’Antonio, M. July 19, 2007. If Your Syllabus Could Talk. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed April 26, 2014.

Fornaciari, C.J. and K.L. Dean. 2013. The 21st-Century Syllabus: From Pedagogy to Andragogy.  Journal of Management Education, published online Oct. 29, 2013. DOI: 10.1177/1052562913504763

Grunert, J. 1997. The Course Syllabus: A learning-centered approach. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company.

Oxford Dictionary. Accessed: April 25, 2014.

Parks, Jay and Mary B. Harris. 2013. The Purposes of a Syllabus. College Teaching, 50(2): 55-61.

Robb, Meigan. 2012. The Learner Centered Syllabus. The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 43(11): 489-490.

Roberts, M. 2013. Creating a Dynamic Syllabus: A Strategy for Course Assessment. College Teaching, 61: 109.

Singham, M. 2007. Death to the Syllabus! Liberal Education, 93(4): 52-56.

Singham, M. 2005. Moving Away from the Authoritarian Classroom. Change, 37(3): 50-57.

Slattery, Jeanne M. and Jane F. Carlson. 2013. Preparing an Effective Syllabus Current Best Practices. College Teaching, 53(4): 159-164.

Walvoord, B. E., and V. J. Anderson. 1998. Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, M. August 24, 2011. What Does Your Syllabus Say About You and Your Course? Faculty Focus. Acccessed April 26, 2014.

This material was previously published as part of Dr. Paff’s “Talk Higher Ed” interview with Magna Publications on March 31, 2015.

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