Creating a Syllabus

Creating a Syllabus  

An effective syllabus brings together learning goals and objectives, learning activities, and means of assessment, presenting them to students clearly and precisely. The syllabus clarifies the instructor and student roles and has a significant impact on how students interpret the course and how they perceive their instructor (Harnish & Bridges, 2011). At its best, a syllabus presents a course as “an organized and meaningful journey” (Slattery & Carson, 2005). Most faculty and students consider the syllabus to be contractual—not legally binding, but in the sense of a “good faith” agreement. Faculty and students alike also value flexibility in the syllabus (Garavalia, et al., 1999).

Comprehensive vs. Concise Syllabus

Faculty and students may consider different aspects of the syllabus important. For instance, one study found that students considered examples of completed projects or papers significantly more important than faculty did (Garavalia, et al., 1999). This leads some teachers to utilize a comprehensive syllabus, which contains a nearly exhaustive amount of information that students might seek for the course. (See this comprehensive Syllabus Checklist.)

On the other hand, since students do not attend equally to all information on a syllabus, instructors may consider eliminating elements of the syllabus that neither students nor instructors see as particularly important. This may result in a concise syllabus, which can have a greater impact (Becker and Calhoon, 1999).

Either way, instructors should have strategies for organizing material on the syllabus and presenting it in an easy-to-read fashion. If you are creating a new syllabus for a Baylor course, you can consult this Syllabus Template (from Cornell University's Center for Teaching Innovation, revised and customized with permission) and these Sample Policy Statements for Baylor Syllabi.

The Co-Created Syllabus

A co-created syllabus (sometimes referred to, with different shades of meaning, as a student-authored syllabus, student-designed syllabus, or negotiated syllabus) can help students become personally invested in their learning. The instructor invites students to make choices about what they learn, how they learn, and how they are assessed, giving them a sense of agency and ownership. While sacrificing in-class time, the co-created syllabus can increase student motivation, participation, and problem-solving skills, and potentially yield higher student achievement.

A co-created syllabus is not a free-for-all. Instructors carefully frame student input by providing key components, such as the learning objectives, topics, and required or suggested readings. The instructor then solicits input on items such as assignments, classroom activities and behavior, and quizzes and exams. Although giving significant authority to students, instructors wishing to co-create the syllabus should guide students’ input, based on students’ abilities. For example, if students determine class assignments, instructors can guide students to think about the various dimensions of assignments: type, content, timing, diversity, quantity, and weight in grading (Hudd, 1997). Higher-level courses may invite greater input on topics, readings, etc.

The Graphic Syllabus and Outcomes Map

Students can often feel overwhelmed by the amount of text included in a syllabus. They may also fail to see logical connections between topics. Some argue that a graphic syllabus, a one-page “flowchart or diagram that displays the sequencing and organization of major course topics” can mitigate these problems and help the instructor sequence topics more logically (Nilson, 2007).  

Relatedly, students may have difficulty grasping connections between course objectives, assignments, and assessment as they are presented in a text-based syllabus. Nilson suggests providing students with an outcomes map that shows the order and development of student learning outcomes (Nilson, 2007).

See these examples of graphic syllabi.



Becker, A. H., & Calhoon, S. K. (1999). What introductory psychology students attend to on a course syllabus. Teaching of Psychology, 26(1), 6-11.

Garavalia, L. S., Hummel, J. H., Wiley, L. P., & Huitt, W.G. (1999). Constructing the course syllabus: Faculty and student perceptions of important syllabus components. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 10(1), 5-21.

Grunert, J., Millis, B. J., & Cohen, M. W. (2008). The course syllabus: A learning-centered approach (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education, 14(3), 319-330.

Johnson, C. (2006). Best practices in syllabus writing: Contents of a learner-centered syllabus. Journal of Chiropractic Education, 14(2), 139-144.

Nilson, L. B. (2007). The graphic syllabus and the outcomes map: Communicating your course. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Parkes, J., & Harris, M. B. (2002). The purposes of a syllabus. College Teaching, 50(2), 55-61.

Slattery, J. M., & Carlson, J. F. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching, 53(4), 159-164. doi:10.3200/ctch.53.4.159-164.

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