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Rethinking Your Syllabus

What is a Syllabus supposed to be?

Your syllabus is usually your first and most lasting contact with your students. It provides a first impression for the logistics of the course as well as helping set the tone for the course.  Chapter 6: Teaching & Learning of the Faculty Handbook describes requirements for the course syllabus. Typically, the syllabus contains:

  • instructor information and points of contact,
  • course description and measurable learning objectives,
  • materials that will be used in the course,
  • a schedule for students to follow,
  • any assignments and their grading structure,
  • important due dates, and
  • other relevant information about the course and the university. 

When students need information, they should either be able to find it in your syllabus or be directed to MyClasses or source of information on campus. 

The traditional syllabus is seen as an outline and learning contract between the instructor and student.  The instructor informs the student about:

  • how and when the instructor will grade assignments,
  • what the penalty will be for missed classes and late assignments, and
  • assignments they will have to complete and when.

The traditional syllabus can feel very adversarial to students and does not make the student feel as if they have much control over their own education. 

Why would it be beneficial to re-think your syllabus?

A good syllabus is learner-centered and can help students start off the semester strong. In The Course Syllabus: A Learning Centered Approach (2008, 2nd Ed.) Judith Grunert O’Brien, Barbara J. Millis and Margaret W. Cohen identify at least sixteen elements of a learner-centered syllabus, including but not limited to: 

  • Establishes an early point of contact and connection between student and instructor
  • Describes active learning and/or the learning process
  • Sets the course in a broader context for learning
  • Describes available learning resources
  • Communicates the role of technology in the course

Writing a document that serves multiple purposes can be a challenge. Fortunately, SU has a Syllabus Template to get you started as well as all university course-related policies and resources consolidated onto a single website.

Note: Please check with your academic unit regarding expectations within your department’s syllabi. MyClasses can also serve as a supplement to the syllabus, for example importing from the Canvas Commons a statement about Students with Dependents created by the SU Women’s Forum.

What are the challenges/disadvantages?

An overall challenge in writing a syllabus is balancing both the “contract” side of the syllabus by setting expectations and rules for the course (late policies, grading policy, student and instructor expectations, etc.) with setting the tone for the course where students are excited about their learning.

A disadvantage of a comprehensive syllabus that contains all course logistic information as well as all course, department and university policy and resources, is that the syllabus becomes very long. Salisbury University developed a solution to this by placing all university-wide syllabus statements and student support resources on the central SU Course-related Policies and Resources page which is updated annually. Instructors can therefore include in their syllabus the following statement:


Salisbury University expects that all students have read and understood all of the Course-Related University Policies and Resources and thereby agree to honor these standards. Important course-related policies and resources include, but are not limited to:  

  • Course registration add/drop/withdraw period 
  • Academic Misconduct Policy
  • University Writing Across the Curriculum requirement
  • University resources such as the SU Cares, SU Libraries, Disability Resource Center, Center for Student Achievement, and University Writing Center

These policies and procedures constitute a commitment by the faculty member to students and must be followed throughout the semester.

Another challenge is getting students to read the entire syllabus, which could result in additional time spent by the instructor answering questions and/or communicating with students who miss important assignment deadlines. A technique to help the students obtain key information in the syllabus is by including a syllabus quiz in MyClasses.

How should I update my syllabus?

Work smarter, not harder.

  • Consult with your colleagues or others in your discipline for ideas to update your syllabus.
  • Think about updating the language in your syllabus to make it more welcoming and supportive.
  • Look for areas for small improvement rather than creating an entirely new syllabus.
  • Poll your students about why they don't read the syllabus and what they would prefer to see in it.
  • For long syllabi, think about adding a table of contents at the beginning of the syllabus so students can go directly to the topic they're interested in.
  • Ensure that your syllabus is ADA compliant by:
    • using alt-text with images
    • adding closed-captioning or transcripts to videos
    • use headers so electronic readers can help the visually impaired better navigate the syllabus
    • don't use multiple colors, excessive use of bold or underlines
    • avoid using tables to format the document
  • add more visual elements to your syllabus, students find the use of images to be more friendly

Consult your academic unit’s Instructional Designer as well for assistance.

What are the different types of syllabi?

There are many types of syllabi for you to choose from, and you don't have to limit yourself to just one type.  You can incorporate features from several of them that you like and that will work for your course. 

  • Interactive – electronic, links, multimedia, quizzes, helps students navigate the course
  • Liquid – open, web-based, accessible, and mobile-friendly, video, humanizing, welcoming (Google sites, WordPress, Wix)
  • FAQ – living document, grows over time, instructor answers student questions throughout semester, adds answers to an indexed collection, builds over semesters
  • UDL – equal access for all students, present info in a variety of formats (audio, video, text, images) allow students a variety of ways to communicate knowledge, choice of tools, cognitive support, set expectations
  • Inclusive – learner focused, organize by essential questions or big themes, aligns with UDL, inclusive language, supportive course policies, accessible, links to info and support, normalize reaching out for help

How can you implement changes?

What you shouldn't do is create an entirely new syllabus.  This will be confusing for you as you work throughout the semester.  Start by correcting things in your syllabus that aren't working right now, such as:

  • personalize the language to sound more like you
  • group like information together to make it easier for students to find
  • review your syllabus for accessibility and welcoming language; help the students get excited for your course
  • add headers to all the sections of your syllabus
  • reach out to your ID&D liaison for help in redesigning your syllabus

Each semester you can add or update another section, until eventually you have an amazing syllabus that students will enjoy reading!