Course design

Reimagining the Syllabus

Faculty can be very particular (even precious) about a course syllabus, but sometimes in all the wrong ways.

Many view the syllabus as a firm contract and a laundry list of every particular variation and question that might ever occur to a student during the course of a semester. This was the rationale behind the “Death to the Syllabus” article—a favorite of mine. Most syllabi are too long and too detailed.

You could imagine how for a student being handed a massive tome could be like being dropped into the deep end of a pool—or even five pools at once, assuming a full course load. Typically, this approach means that going over the syllabus then becomes the primary objective for first meetings. A recent innovation related to this view is having students take a quiz on the syllabus on the first day of class.

This is not very good use class, especially the valuable time related to first impressions. It would be much better to spend it getting to know your students and what interests them related to the course material. It’s also a time when you can inspire them and get them excited about what you’re going to do together. Anything you can do to get them curious or have them come to understand anything about what they don’t know is better than walking through your policy on late papers.

In place of legalese, it would be better for syllabi to sound like a document designed to promote learning. Thinking of the syllabi in terms of opportunities and promises rather than penalties and threats is a good first step.

A syllabus should not be an exhaustive handbook about every question a student could possibly ever have—not if you want students to actually read it, that is. A syllabus should be an outline of the most important aspects of a course, especially regarding policies and expectations. It should be big picture and present the course outline in broad strokes.

The finer points of most assignments can be made known as needed. There is no reason, for example, why the font style for a project that will due in three months should appear in a syllabus. That, to put it mildly, is somewhat crazed. Moreover, it would be a shame if, in the attempt to forge an ironclad contract, you neglected to leave room for the grand messiness of learning.


You should also take some time to think about how your syllabi will be presented. That too is an opportunity to engage your students.

An e-syllabus means that we can use URLs to resources and policies rather than spelling them out, which saves a great deal of space and redundancy. Using Google doc or a website with would let your students annotate or comment on it as you go along.

I’ve gone from printing it out to just sticking it on Blackboard to actually giving some thought about presentation and how that impacts the learning experience. Here’s the syllabus I used for this semester.

Regardless of the course, it’s better to imagine the syllabus as the start of a conversation about how a learning community does its best work.


Seven Coursework-related Questions for Students


Professors almost always know what they are looking for in assignments, but sometimes they’re not always as clear students need them to be. 

One secret to being successful in college is asking the right questions, especially with regard to coursework. Here are some to keep in mind.

1. ”How will this assignment be evaluated?”
The criteria for every assignment should be clearly spelled out, sometimes with a rubric that details the components of excellent work. Knowing exactly what the professor is looking for will help you stay focused on what is important.

2. "Are there examples?"
Professors sometimes offer examples from previous semesters for what an assignment should look like. If one is not provided, you can ask. Some professors have been known to do the assignment themselves, which can be very insightful. Among instructors, the practice is called “eating your own dog food.” Yum.

3. ”Are there limits on…”
Students have no difficulty asking questions about minimum expectations—related to pages/words, sources, etc. But the upper-limits are equally important, if not more so. Chances of getting full credit by doing the minimum are pretty slim. Doing well often requires going beyond the minimum expectations, but you always want to stay within acceptable parameters.

4. "Can we spend more time going over this?"
Some assignments, especially complex ones, might assume that you know how to do what is being asked of you. If there is any part of an assignment you do not feel prepared to do, you should ask to spend class time on it.

5. "Can I show you an outline or draft?”
Professors will always appreciate the opportunity to help you with an assignment. Sometimes a three-minute office visit might give you the one piece of advice that makes your work go from good to great. That said, you should avoid simply sending your work in an email or expecting quality feedback at the last minute. You should also not assume that professors have time before or after class to give you the amount of attention you might require. 

6. ”Can I submit a revision?”
Grades are important measures of where you are at the moment, but the feedback you receive is the key to performing well on the next paper or exam. If there’s anything about the feedback that you don’t understand, you also need to make an appointment for office hours. If a professor ever offers an opportunity for revision, you should take it, regardless of how well you did. Even if it doesn’t mean a change in this grade, it might very well mean an improvement on the next one.

7. ”Is it OK if I have an extra day?”
Professors have different takes on deadlines. Some are very flexible; some are not flexible at all. In any event, if it’s ever necessary that your work will be late, you need to let your professor know in advance and in person, if possible. 

Prensky on Pedagogy


The talk of assessment of student learning outcomes has well established the important connection between student learning outcomes and coursework. It is essential that coursework prepare students for and ultimately give them an opportunity to demonstrate and master.

What has been overlooked has been the connection to outcomes and objectives—that is, how we teach what we want students the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors in a particular course or module.

Tucked away in Marc Prensky’s 2001 book, Digital Game-based Learning, is an excellent overview of the diverse means by which students should be taught. 

For Prensky: 

  • We learn facts through questions, memorization, association, and drill.
  • We learn skills (physical or mental) through imitation, feedback, continuous practice, and increasing challenge.
  • We learn judgment through hearing stories, asking questions, making choices, and getting feedback and coaching.
  • We learn behaviors through imitation, feedback, and practice.
  • We learn processes through explanation and practice.
  • We learn about existing theories through logical explanation and questioning.
  • We learn to create and test theories through experimentation and questioning.
  • We learn reasoning through puzzles and examples.
  • We learn procedures through imitation and practice.
  • We learn creativity through playing.
  • We learn language through imitation, practice, and immersion.
  • We learning programming and other systems through principles and graduated tasks.
  • We learn observation through examples, doing, and feedback.
  • We learn speeches or performance roles by memorization, practice, and coaching.
  • We learn the behavior of dynamic systems by observation and experimentation.
  • We learn grammar through—how do we learn grammar?

The first thing to notice is how often practice occurs. It suggests that, whatever you are teaching, you might want to consider having students spend more time practicing what you are teaching. 

Learning effective research and information literacy skills, for example, is not something that can occur over the course of one research paper or maybe even in one semester. Students need the opportunity to go through the process many times before they will acquire the habit of academic research.

As Prensky admits, his list is not designed to be exhaustive or authoritative, but it does go a long way to illustrating the connection between the what and the how of teaching.