Weekly Digest #64: Preparing a Learning-Focused Syllabus

Weekly Digest #64: Preparing a Learning-Focused Syllabus


This week’s digest was contributed by Sara Fulmer.

Dr. Sara M. Fulmer is the Teaching and Learning Assessment Specialist at Wellesley College. She supports faculty with implementing evidence-based teaching strategies, and assessing the impact of various teaching approaches on student learning and engagement. Her areas of research include student motivation in challenging contexts and teacher professional development. She received her B.A., B.Ed., and M.A. from Brock University in Ontario, Canada, and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Notre Dame. You can find her on Twitter @sara_fulmer or at her Wellesley College Faculty page. Sara previously contributed a guest post on how manipulatives can hinder learning.

“... even the most detailed syllabus cannot save an instructor from being deluged with the same questions from students over and over. This is because, of course, even the most detailed information is useless to a person who does not take the time to read it. And few things are less read than the average course syllabus... This thought should not discourage instructors; instead it should motivate to think about the overall purpose(s) of a syllabus, as well as the creative and effective ways of constructing a syllabus.  

Muveddet Harris, from this blog on how a syllabus quiz can help students learn.

This digest offers one evidence-based approach to addressing the common teaching challenge of a course syllabus that is unread and underutilized. If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, this digest may be relevant for you:

  • Do you want to create syllabi that are more useful for, and used by, your students?
  • Do you want your syllabus to reflect your student-centered or active learning teaching approach?
  • Are you beginning to feel like the central purpose and goals of your course are getting lost in a growing list of policies and minor details?
  • Does your work involve supporting teachers with designing or redesigning their courses or syllabi?

The resources in this digest focus on syllabi in higher education, but could be adapted for K-12. If you’re interested in general resources on what components should be included in an effective syllabus, check out our previous digest on how to prepare a syllabus.

What is the purpose of a syllabus? For you? For your students?

A syllabus has many purposes: it can be a planning and reference document, a communication tool, and, in some cases, a contract between teachers and students.

Do you have a syllabus nearby? Skim through it.

  • What does the instructor appear to value?
  • What’s emphasized? What’s minimized?
  • Is the main focus on the learner or the content?

As mentioned in Mano Singham’s Death to the Syllabus!, “what [traditional] syllabi often omit is any mention of learning.” To me, this seems problematic, particularly for those of us who want students to leave our courses having learned not only content, but also more effective learning strategies.

What does a syllabus that supports students’ learning and motivation look like?

Syllabi fall on a continuum from content-centered to learner-centered. A learner-centered syllabus teaches students how to learn in the course by offering practical strategies and advice, meaningful rationales, and clear expectations, using an engaging, inviting, and supportive tone (1, 2). For example, your syllabus can introduce students to the six strategies for effective learning, or offer advice and links to information about study skills and how to use the six strategies. Although learner-centered syllabi include the traditional components of a syllabus (instructor information, schedule, policies, assignments), these components are reframed and reordered to focus on what students need to know to learn effectively.

Is changing my syllabus to be more learner-centered worth the time and effort?

Think of your syllabus as the first impression that students have of you and your course. A learner-centered syllabus is capable of generating positive motivation for your course before a student ever steps into your classroom (2). Although changing your syllabus is unlikely to improve student learning on its own, your syllabus can be a useful tool that supports students’ learning and engagement throughout the course.

But will students even notice? Yes! Students who receive a learner-centered syllabus rate the instructor, course, and syllabus more positively than students who receive a content-centered syllabus (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

The following resources offer advice, examples, and tools to help you evaluate your current syllabi and revise your syllabi to be more learner-centered. My one suggestion: dream big but start small. Though you may feel an urge to overhaul your entire syllabus, this will be an ongoing and iterative project. Start where you see the most need or where you’re most excited, perhaps by changing the course description to focus on intriguing or beautiful questions, or revising the tone and language of your policies.


1) Constructing a Learner-Centered Syllabus: One Professor’s Journey By Aaron S. Richmond @AaronSRichmond

How does my syllabus communicate ideas about power and control in my course? Why should I create a learner-centered syllabus? How can I create a learner-centered syllabus? This IDEA paper responds to these questions by summarizing the evidence on the benefits of learner-centered syllabi for student motivation and achievement, and providing a checklist to evaluate the degree to which your syllabus is learner-centered. Examples, such as the one below, are included to show the difference between content-centered and learner-centered syllabi.

Quotes from linked source

Quotes from linked source


2) Measuring the Promise: A Valid and Reliable Syllabus Rubric By Michael Palmer, Dorothe Bach, and Adriana Streifer at the University of Virginia’s Center for Teaching Excellence @cte_uva

This team at UVa developed a rubric to assess the degree to which a syllabus is learner-centered. To help you make choices about where to begin when revising your syllabus, the suggestions are categorized as “essential,” “important,” or “less-important.” The website includes the rubric and scoring guide, as well as detailed annotated syllabi. The rubric document also reviews the research and theory behind the rubric, drawing from Fink’s notion of significant learning, theories of student motivation, and Wiggins and McTighe’s description of backwards design.

Image from linked source

Image from linked source


3) A Learner-Centered Syllabus Helps Set the Tone for Learning By Mary Bart @facultyfocus

This brief article outlines five features of a learner-centered syllabus, emphasizing that the main difference between a learner-centered and content-centered syllabus is tone, not content. The article also addresses concerns about syllabus length, concluding that there is no optimal length. Rather, you should think about whether the syllabus is meeting your goals and providing a framework for learning. I was particularly struck by this teacher’s a-ha moment about the syllabus as a contract:

“... when you really think about a contract, and you have someone sign a contract, that, by nature, sets up an adversarial relationship. The implied message is, ‘I don’t expect that you’re going to live up to this unless I have it in writing.’ That used to be the tone in my classroom—it’s not the tone anymore. That approach doesn’t foster a good learning environment.”

4) Designing a Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach By Brigham Young University Center for Teaching and Learning @byuctl

Image from linked source

Image from linked source

This resource provides an example of a learner-centered syllabus with annotations that offer practical tips for each component of the syllabus. This resource is a straightforward way to compare your syllabus to a learner-centered syllabus, and embark on making small changes section-by-section.


5) The Promising Syllabus By James M. Lang @LangOnCourse

Interested in taking your learner-centered syllabus to the next level? Lang tackles the idea of a learner-centered syllabus through the lens of Ken Bain’s idea of a “promising syllabus” from the book, “What the Best College Teachers Do” (an excellent book, by the way!). The promising syllabus makes a promise to students about the knowledge or skills they will gain by the end of the semester. The promising syllabus is also the beginning of a conversation about how students’ learning will be evaluated, drawing on the idea that students learn better when they feel they have some control over their learning.


(1) Cullen, R., & Harris, M. (2009). Assessing learner-centeredness through course syllabi. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34, 115-25.

(2) Palmer, M. S., Bach, D. J., & Streifer, A. C. (2014). Measuring the promise: A learning-focused syllabus rubric. To Improve the Academy, 33, 14-36.

(3) Palmer, M. S., Wheeler, L. B., & Aneece, I. (2015). Not your grandaddy’s syllabus: Investigating student perceptions of course syllabi. Retrieved from: http://podnetwork.org/content/uploads/Not_Your_Grandaddys_Syllabus_Palmer.pdf

(4) Palmer, M.S., Wheeler, L. B., & Aneece, I. (2016). Does the document matter? The evolving role of syllabi in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48, 36-47.

(5) Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14, 319–330.

(6) Ishiyama, J. T., & Hartlaub, S. (2002). Does the wording of syllabi affect student course assessment in introductory political science classes? Political Science & Politics, 35, 567–570.

(7) Richmond, A. S., Slattery, J., Morgan, R., Mitchell, N., & Becknell, J. (2016). Can a learner-centered syllabus change students’ perceptions of student-professor rapport and master teacher behaviors? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2, 159-168.

Every Sunday, we pick a theme and provide a curated list of links. If you have a theme suggestion, please don’t hesitate to contact us! Occasionally we publish a guest digest, and If you'd like to propose a guest digest click here. Our 5 most recent digests can be found here:

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