Designing Your Course Syllabus

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to designing a syllabus. The structure of a course syllabus will differ depending on instructor, course topic, department guidelines, and institutional guidelines. However, there are ways to structure a syllabus that are more effective than others.

What is the Purpose of a Syllabus?

This is a good place to start when designing your syllabus. Consider the following:

  • What is particularly exciting, valuable, and relevant about your course in the context of the student’s life, community, and the world at large?
  • What would students need to know in order to evaluate whether or not to take this course?
  • How will the tone and language invite and welcome students to the course?
  • What will the syllabus say about what you, as the instructor, value about the course?
  • What doe students need to do in order to be successful in the course (how is success defined and measured)?
  • What can students expect from you, as the instructor, to help them be successful in the course?
  • Is there anything students need to do in advance of the first day (purchase a clicker, textbook, take a pre-course survey, etc.)?
  • What other logistics do students need to know about how to communicate with you, where to go for help, location of class meetings, etc.?
  • How will the document be organized in a way that is clear and not confusing to review

Learner-Centered Tone and Language

In addition to developing the content of your syllabus, it is critical to consider the tone and language. Here are a few tips:

  • The primary audience is the student, so avoid the third person. Instead of saying “students will…” use direct language “you will…” when referring to students or “I will” when referring to yourself.
  • Phrase policies in a strengths-based manner rather than framing policies in the context of penalizing students. For example “You will receive full credit for assignments  when completed on time. In instances where an assignment is submitted late, you will only receive partial credit of up to 90% of the total” rather than “For each day late I will deduct 10 percent of the grade”.
  • While the syllabus does contain important information about your expectations students, it should not read like a rule-book. For example, instead of a “course policies” section, you could call it “How to be Successful in this Course”.
  • Have someone review your syllabus with this context in mind and give you feedback on the overall tone.

Resources for Syllabus Development

A great tool to help you plan your course and design your syllabus is Measuring the Promise: A Valid and Reliable Syllabus Rubric by Michael Palmer, Dorothe Bach, & Adriana Streifer at the University of Virginia Teaching Resource Center.

The following resource by Michael Palmer, Lindsay B. Wheeler, and Itiya Aneece provides several contrasting examples between more learner-centered language and more content-centered language, which influence the tone of the document and students perception of the course and instructor:

Does the Document Matter? The Evolving Role of Syllabi in Higher Education

Resource on Syllabus Constructions (includes sample statements you can review for ideas on language):
Riviere, J., Picard, D. R., & Coble, R. (2016) Syllabus Design Guide. Retrieved 1/26/2017 from

Syllabus Samples

Here is a sample syllabus from Dominique Ingato, a UCSD graduate student and instructor at Cypress College.

More examples coming soon!

Syllabus Templates & Guides by Section

In the documents below we have provided a suggested structure with some tips and examples. Please note that not all of the following MUST be in your syllabus. Particularly if you are concerned about the length of your syllabus, consider how you might include some of the following in your CCLE course site. Some of the information can be posted on CCLE as additional resources or introductory information, and you may also wish to post more detailed information about the weekly course schedule or details of assignment instructions in CCLE instead of in the syllabus. It is a matter of personal preference, but the goal is to provide the students with information that welcomes to them to the course, explains what the course offers, and identities criteria for success before the course begins.