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The Syllabus: Meaningful Syllabus


"A Syllabus Worth Reading"

In chapter 7 of his book Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, Kevin M. Gannon examines the syllabus as a tool of empowerment for our students.

Some suggestions he makes include:

  • Make sure what we say and how we say it are in agreement: "Does our syllabus make the same promises to our students we would make to them in person?"

  • Personalize our language: "Personal pronouns ... make it easier for us to emphasize the type of promises we want to make."

  • Make course goals prominent and explicit: "The course goals should express what students will be able to that they couldn't do before (or better than they could before) as a result of participating in your course."

  • Reframe policy language: Add "personalized language to otherwise institutional-sounding disclosures..." For example, "There's no reason the typical disabilities-accommodations section of a course syllabus couldn't be expanded into a statement of our philosophy regarding student learning in general."

He also provides a reflective exercise to encourage us to make the connections between our syllabus, our teaching philosophies, and our pedagogies more clear. Documents like our syllabi, he writes, "are a powerful opportunity to speak to both our students and other external audiences about why what we're doing is so essential."

Here are some of the questions Gannon proposes:

  • If your students were asked to describe you as a teacher in one word, what would they say? What would you hope they decide to say? Do they align?

  • Why do you teach?

  • Why do you teach this class in particular?

  • How do you think learning occurs best?

  • What does success mean? 

Take a moment to consider one of your own course syllabi. What works well for you and/or for your students? What about it do you or your students find frustrating and might need changing?

Whether you consider your syllabus to be a contract, a guidebook, or an opportunity to collaborate with your students, the syllabus plays an essential role in your classroom. The syllabus can also play a role in communicating your teaching philosophy, commitment to student learning, and other practices central to how and why you teach. With so much resting on this document, it's important to strike a balance between making it useful and making it less frustrating!

By considering tone, avoiding jargon, putting content in your own voice, and including aspects of your personal teaching philosophy, the meaningful syllabus transforms the essential elements of any syllabus (course description, instructor information, policies, etc.) and makes them relevant, useful, and accessible to your students.

See the Meaningful Syllabus PDF below for examples.



A Meaningful and Engaging Syllabus Design - Peter Romaskiewicz

"After reflecting on the intended audience and purpose of the syllabus genre, I’ve come to see it as one of the numerous pedagogical tools at my disposal. My syllabus design falls somewhere between a chapter in an introductory textbook, a promotional advertisement, and a monthly newsletter – at least this is my intention, every syllabus is an open-ended project."


3 Strategies to Get Students Reading Your Syllabus - University of Texas at Austin (8 min)

Do you ever wish students would JUST READ THE SYLLABUS? If so, you’re not alone. And, we’re going to explore 3 specific things you can do to get students reading (and remembering) your syllabus.


The Self and Syllabus - Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast (40 min)

The Self and Syllabus Project at Baylor University's Academy for Teaching and Learning works to align instructors' syllabi with their views of themselves as teachers. Christopher Richmann talks about the self and syllabus project on episode 418 of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast.

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