Syllabus Design

Photo of a person working on a laptop

An excellent syllabus is a map or user-guide for students to engage more fully with their own learning in your course. A “learning-centered” syllabus begins with a question-driven course description that helps students understand what they can expect to learn and how they will learn it. It also relies on an inviting and warm tone. You might think of this in contrast to a more “content-focused” or contractual syllabus based on rules and penalties, and which often has a colder tone.

Before you engage in this process, it’s also important to think through where your students are coming from, what content you want to teach, and what values you want to implement. The Collaboration and Inclusion in the Classroom guide can help.

The Hidden Curriculum

The “hidden curriculum” refers to the unspoken norms, values, and expectations that govern interactions among students, faculty, staff, and College administration.

How can your syllabus help students learn these unspoken academic standards and avoid stereotype threat and de-motivation?

Consider it this way. We want the syllabus to motivate students. Motivation, in turn, relies on three elements:

  1. Autonomy: self direction
  2. Mastery: sense of improvement and ability
  3. Purpose: The desire to do something that has meaning and is important.

A learning focused syllabus- with a question-driven course description that shows students what the student can expect to learn and how they will learn it- can encourage intrinsic motivation by addressing inviting autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose (versus a syllabus focused on rules and procedures that outlines what the professor will teach them).  

Two Types of Syllabi

  Content-Centered Syllabi Learner-Centered Syllabi
Written from point of view of Teacher
("I will...", "You will...")
("We will...", "You will...")
Main focus Content to be covered How to learn effectively in the course
Key questions answered What will happen in this course and when? Why is this course relevant and how can students be successful?
Tone Can range from dry/boring to punitive/controlling Positive, encouraging, inviting, engaging
Learning is viewed as Teacher-directed Partnership between teachers and students
Motivators employed Grades, punishment Meaningfulness, curiosity, student autonomy, community
Created by Sara M. Fulmer. Information adapted from Cullen & Harris (2009) and Palmer, Wheeler & Anneece (2016)


Rhetoric and Tone (Autonomy)

Your syllabus is often the first impression students have of your course. Research has shown that syllabi written with a “friendly” or “warm” tone, as opposed to a more “authoritarian” or “cold” tone, can motivate students to learn more in your course. The idea is that the warmer tone reduces barriers between faculty and students, leading students to report that the faculty member was more approachable and that they were more likely to remember the information contained in the syllabus.


Cold/Paternalistic Warm/Invitational
Commands Invitations
Policies Values and Plans
Customer Service Collaboration
Contract Map/User Guide
"Come prepared to participate actively in class" "I hope you actively participate in this course because I have found it is the best way to engage you in learning."
"Late work is docked 10%..." "You are welcome to turn in work after the deadline for 90% credit..."
 "I only accept..." "I encourage you to..."
"You are only allowed..." "You are welcome to..."

Question-Focused (Purpose)

For question-driven, learning-centered syllabus, be sure to include: 

  • A description of course
  • What They’ll Learn: Learning Goals: based on real purpose—what’s the big idea?)
  • Values: Policies on Inclusion, Academic Integrity, Communication/Office Hours
  • How They’ll Learn It. That is, your grading-- and how the system fits with learning goals
  • What They’ll Do: assignment descriptions, rubrics--and how they fit with learning goals
  • Schedule: important dates, time for reflection/assessment, deadlines and why/whether they matter, opportunities for revision, re-takes

Learning Goal and Content Alignment (Mastery)

  • Assignments and grading aligned with learning goals
  • Flexible policies without grades as “sticks”
  • Partnership with student vs.teacher-directed
  • Transparency in policies, grading, schedule, etc.

Learn more about course level learning goals and objectives and backward design.

User-Friendly Design (Accessibility)