Effective syllabi are learner-centered, meaning they move beyond the mechanics of a course (i.e. office hours, deadlines and textbooks) to outline how students can be successful in a course. Research has found that students learn more, and enjoy courses more, when they are presented with a student-centered syllabus. (1)

You are encouraged to download the Syllabus Template as a guide to help you develop your course syllabus.

Writing a learner-centered syllabus

A syllabus should explain why the course matters. One technique for crafting a strong syllabus is to provide a course description that is not merely a list of the content covered in the course, but outlines why you find it important and engaging. In addition, you should share with students what skills you expect them to gain from the course and the assessments and activities you have planned. If the learning outcomes of the course (and the route the course will take to get there) are made explicit, the syllabus becomes an invitation to a learning experience.

An effective syllabus emphasizes the students’ role in their learning. A learner-centered syllabus focuses on guiding students through how a course will work and what they will do throughout the experience. The syllabus does this by giving students clear answers to these questions:

  • How should I prepare for class? 
  • When are my assignments due?
  • How will assignments be assessed? 
  • What feedback can I expect to receive?
  • What are the expectations for class discussions? 
  • How can I get help in this course? 

> Duke Accessible Syllabus Project
> Ideas for making assessments in your syllabus transparent (Harvard’s Bok Center)
> Approaches to designing a learner-centered syllabus (The Learning Scientists)

Creating a learning community

A welcoming syllabus creates a sense of community. The learner-centered syllabus describes the course as a learning experience in which students are encouraged to engage and communicate with both the instructor and each other. 

Include a communication plan. The syllabus should include a communication plan that lays out how instructors and students will interact. In addition to telling students when and where office hours are, the syllabus should also specify how instructors plan to manage email and how quickly students can expect to receive a reply if they send a message. Particularly for courses in which students will engage in regular discussions, consider adding a statement describing discussion guidelines.

Use a supportive tone. The tone of the syllabus should emphasize the instructor’s willingness to support all students. The syllabus should make it clear that students can share difficulties with the faculty, and point out additional resources for student success that are available to them (for example, student advising and the accessibility office). The syllabus should replace language that is punitive such as “points will be deducted” with language that is supportive such as “students can earn up to.” Another way to make the syllabus feel more inviting is to use language like “we will” and “you will” instead of “this class will” and “students will.”

> Seven Ways to Make Your Syllabus More Relevant (Faculty Focus)
> Guidelines for Interaction for Better Class Discussions (Duke Learning Innovation)
> Communication & Interaction Plan Strategies (University of Utah)

Designing around learning outcomes

Learning outcomes should shape the course schedule. Writing the syllabus is the last part of designing a course, and the course schedule is the last part of the syllabus you should write. Once the learning outcomes, major assessments, grading criteria, learning activities and content have been developed, the course schedule is a way to walk students through when each of those things will happen. The schedule should list the learning objectives for each topic, explain what the corresponding course activities will be and list any assessments related to the objectives. If you are creating a syllabus for a course that has at least some online elements, make explicit what activities are happening asynchronously (on students’ own time) and synchronously (in real-time). This will result in a syllabus that functions as a detailed course map that lays out what students should be able to do by the end of the course and how they will get there successfully.

Next Steps


  1. See the literature review in Constructing a Learner-Centered Syllabus: One Professor’s Journey