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Course Design: Creating a Syllabus


A syllabus serves many functions in a class. 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 functions of a learner-centered syllabus:

  •     Establishes an early point of contact and connection between student and instructor
  •     Helps set the tone for the course
  •     Describes your beliefs about educational purposes
  •     Acquaints students with the logistics of the course
  •     Contains collected handouts
  •     Defines student responsibilities for successful coursework
  •     Describes active learning
  •     Helps students assess their readiness for your course
  •     Sets the course in a broader context for learning
  •     Provides a conceptual framework
  •     Describes available learning resources
  •     Communicates the role of technology in the course
  •     Can provide difficult-to-obtain reading material
  •     Can improve the effectiveness of student note-taking
  •     Can include material that supports learning outside the classroom
  •     Can serve as a learning contract.

Writing a document that serves all these purposes can be a challenge! Fortunately, there are many resources to help you, including this teaching guide.

Your syllabus is an important document for your course and should reflect your personal style. However, the course description and course objectives must be identical to what is maintained in the ActiveCourse File (ACF) in Courseleaf.

Syllabus Series

During the Fall of 2021, FPD is offering a series of 90-minute workshops on the syllabus. Inspired by last year’s Equity-Minded Syllabus course, each session offers instructors the opportunity to reexamine the syllabus and its role in our classes, the college, and higher education in general.

Below you can find the slide decks and references for each of the following Syllabus Series sessions: The Meaningful Syllabus, Policies and Statements, The Caring Syllabus, The Graphic Syllabus, and The Equity-Minded Syllabus.

The Meaningful Syllabus

What exactly is a syllabus and why do we use them? In this session, we’ll examine higher ed syllabi - the good, the bad, and the ugly - and share strategies for creating purposeful documents for our courses.



The syllabus is the first introduction students receive to you as an instructor and to the content of the course. Researchers at James Madison University surveyed student responses to detailed and brief versions of the same syllabus, and concluded that students associated the detailed syllabus with qualities of a master teacher (Saville et al 2010). Researchers have explored the effect of “warm” and “cold” language in a syllabus on student perceptions of the instructor. An example of “warm” language in a syllabus is “I hope you actively participate in this course. I say this because I found it is the best way to engage you in learning the material (and it makes lectures more fun.)” “Cold” language, on the other hand, expresses the same idea using different words: “Come prepared to actively participate in this course. This is the best way to engage you in learning the material (and it makes the lectures more interesting.)” Students who read the syllabus with the “warm” language rated the hypothetical instructor both more approachable and more motivated to teach the class (Harnish and Bridges 2011).

Examples of policies and resources

Ability and Disability

Students of all abilities and backgrounds want classrooms that are inclusive and convey respect. For those students with disabilities, the classroom setting may present certain challenges that need accommodation and consideration. A statement in your syllabus inviting students with disabilities to meet with you privately is a good step in starting a conversation with those students who need accommodations and feel comfortable approaching you about their needs.

You may want to include the following components:

  • Let students know times they can meet you to discuss the accommodations and how soon they should do so.
  • Contact information for the Center for Access and Accommodations.
  • How does ability diversity play a role in how the class is conducted or the content discussed?
  • How might students come talk to you about accommodations or make you aware of situations they want (or need) to disclose?

Sample Statement:

This class respects and welcomes students of all backgrounds, identities, and abilities. If there are circumstances that make our learning environment and activities difficult, if you have medical information that you need to share with me, or if you need specific arrangements in case the building needs to be evacuated, please let me know. I am committed to creating an effective learning environment for all students, but I can only do so if you discuss your needs with me as early as possible. I promise to maintain the confidentiality of these discussions. If appropriate, also contact the Center for Access and Accommodations to get more information about specific accommodations.

Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity Statement

Respect: Students in this class are encouraged to speak up and participate during class meetings. Because the class will represent a diversity of individual beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences, every member of this class must show respect for every other member of this class.

Land Acknowledgement

A land acknowledgment is a "formal statement that recognizes the unique and enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories" ( As such, it the first step to a reflection process that will help you be more intentional as you move through spaces. You are welcome to continue to learn about and build relationships with the communities and the land you are occupying in an effort to continually support and work with those communities.

You would acknowledge the land at College of DuPage using the following statement:

"I acknowledge that we are on the traditional homelands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Potawatomi, Myaamia, and Great Sioux Nation.

For more information, or if you are not at COD, visit to identify which traditional homelands you are occupying. As part of the reflection process, feel free to reach out to local Indigenous communities to understand their perspective and how to correctly pronounce their names.

LGBTQ Equality Statement

I am firmly committed to diversity and equality in all areas of campus life, including specifically members of the LGBTQ community. In this class I will work to promote an anti-discriminatory environment where everyone feels safe and welcome. I recognize that discrimination can be direct or indirect and take place at both institutional and personal levels. I believe that such discrimination is unacceptable and I am committed to providing equality of opportunity for all by eliminating any and all discrimination, harassment, bullying, or victimization. The success of this policy relies on the support and understanding of everyone in this class. We all have a responsibility not to be offensive to each other, or to participate in, or condone harassment or discrimination of any kind.

Safe Zone Statement

I am part of the Safe Zone Ally community network of trained College of DuPage faculty/staff/students who are available to listen and support you in a safe and confidential manner. As a Safe Zone Ally, I can help you connect with resources on campus to address problems you may face that interfere with your academic and social success on campus as it relates to issues surrounding sexual orientation/gender identity. My goal is to help you be successful and to maintain a safe and equitable campus.

Wellness Statement

Mental health concerns or stressful events (ex: a global pandemic) may lead to diminished academic performance or reduce your ability to participate in daily activities. Free, easily accessible, confidential mental health services are available to assist you with addressing these and other concerns you may be experiencing. You can learn more about the broad range of mental health services available at COD from

The Graphic Syllabus

Linda Nilson’s 2007 book The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course is a detailed resource for thinking about the visual impact of the layout of your syllabus. How the syllabus looks  affects our students’ perceptions of the class and of us as instructors. It also helps students learn to organize their knowledge in meaningful ways. “Visuals communicate the structure and interrelationship among the topics to be covered and the abilities students will acquire. […] They can also be designed to communicate an instructor’s approachability, sense of humor, and caring for the students.” (13)  With more and more syllabuses being available online, there are fewer restrictions on using images due to the cost of printing in color. We could even include links to relevant videos to explain our expectations.  Something as simple as separating the calendar of readings into visually distinct and meaningful thematic groups can help students organize their learning over the course of the semester.

Personal Pronoun Preference

Students in your classroom may prefer to be referred to with pronouns that are different from the ones that accord with their biological sex assigned at birth. The Center for Teaching’s Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary in the University Classroom Guide provides a comprehensive introduction as well as a range of resources for classroom practices inclusive of gender nonconforming and transgender students. You should not assume that your classroom does not have gender nonconforming students in it. A good way to ensure that your class will be inclusive of all gender identities is to include a statement on pronoun preferences in your syllabus.

You may want to include the following components:

  • A statement explaining that the instructor and the class will respect the pronoun choices of each individual class member
  • A list of your own pronoun preferences following your name on the syllabus: “Dr. Richard Coble (he, him, his)”
  • A supplemental pronoun etiquette sheet or pronoun guide explaining how to use pronouns respectfully and to correct for mistakes
  • A link to campus services that may offer support for gender nonconforming students and others around issues of gender identity in and outside of the classroom

Sample Statement:

Professional courtesy and sensitivity are especially important with respect to individuals and topics dealing with differences of race, culture, religion, politics, sexual orientation, gender, gender variance, and nationalities. Class rosters are provided to the instructor with the student’s legal name. I will gladly honor your request to address you by an alternate name or gender pronoun. Please advise me of this preference early in the semester so that I may make appropriate changes to my records.

Promising Syllabus

Ken Bain describes the commonalities across syllabuses from college teachers across the country who consistently inspired their students to learn deeply.

Trust, rejection of power, and setting standards that represented authentic goals rather than schoolwork are apparent in the kind of syllabus the best teachers tended to use. This “promising syllabus,” as we dubbed it, had three major parts. First, the instructor would lay out the promises or opportunities that the course offered to students. What kinds of questions would it help students answer? What kind of intellectual, physical, emotional, or social abilities would it help them develop? That section represented an invitation to a feast, giving students a strong sense of control over whether they accepted. Second, the teacher would explain what the students would be doing to realize those promises (formerly known as requirements), avoiding the language of demands, and again giving the students a sense of control over their own education. The would decide to pursue the goals on their own, without taking the course, but if they decided to stay in the class, they needed to do certain things to achieve. Third, the syllabus summarized how the instructor and the students would understand the nature and progress of their learning. This was far more than an exposition of grading policies; it was the beginning of a dialogue in which both students and instructors explored how they would understand learning, so they could both make adjustments as they went and evaluate the nature of learning by the end of the term.
— Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 74-75.

Christine Courtade Hirsch, Assistant Professor of Communication at SUNY Oswego, changed her syllabus after attending a workshop with Ken Bain.  Overall she had a  very positive experience. Importantly, she reminds her readers in her written reflections on the experience that the course has to be in line with the promises articulated in the syllabus. She recommends six strategies for implementing the values of the promising syllabus into the communications classroom over the course of the semester:

  1. Emphasize the different focus of the course;
  2. Offer a foundational vocabulary,
  3. Facilitate learning through careful listening in discussion and developing grading rubrics with students,
  4. Be prepared to let students make decisions,
  5. Ask a question for which you do not have answers,
  6. Require a major project that allows students to illustrate what they know. (Hirsch 2010)

To read more about it, and see part of Hirsch’s syllabus, you can read her article in Communication Teacher vol. 24 (2010) 78-90.


Bain, Ken. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Doolittle, Peter and Danielle L. Lusk. (2007).  “The Effects of Institutional Classification and Gender on Faculty Inclusion of Syllabus Components.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7, 62-78.

Drake, P. (2014). Is your use of social media FERPA compliant? EDUCAUSE Review, 49:1. Retrieved from

Gross Davis, Barbara. (2009).”The Comprehensive Course Syllabus.” Tools for Teaching, 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 21-36.

Grunert O’Brien, Judith, Barbara J. Millis and Margaret W. Cohen. (2008). The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach, 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hara, Billie. (2010). “Graphic Display of Student Learning Outcomes.” Profhacker.

Harnisch, Richard J. and K. Robert Bridges. (2011).  “Effect of Syllabus Tone: Students’ Perceptions of Instructor and Course.” Social Psychology Education, 14, 319-330.

Hirsch, Christine Courtade. (2010). “The Promising Syllabus Enacted: One Teacher’s Experience.” Communication Teacher, 24, 78-90.

Ludwig, Matthew A., Amy Bentz, and Herb Fynewever. (2011). “Your Syllabus Should Set the Stage for Assessment for Learning.” Journal of College Science Teaching 40, 20-23.

Nilson, Linda B. (2007). The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating Your Course. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Saville, Bryan K., Tracy E. Zinn, Allison R. Brown, and Kimberly A. Marchuk. (2010). “Syllabus Detail and Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Effectiveness.” Teaching of Psychology, 37:3, 186-189.

Wasley, Paula. (2008). “The Syllabus Becomes a Repository of Legalese.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. ; Section: The Faculty 54:27, A1.

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