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CTE - Center for Teaching Excellence: Syllabus Design

What is a Syllabus?

The course syllabus is your opportunity to communicate the course goals, the student/faculty roles, the course policies, and major course questions to your students.  It is a professional document, and as such, it should utilize the professional vocabulary, be aware of its audience, and fulfill genre expectations. 

In addition to the course policies and language provided by the Office of Academic Affairs and the College Catalog, faculty members are responsible for building policies that will establish the norms for the classroom and its members. Syllabus policies, therefore, have a variety of purposes, including

  • establishing the expectations for students, work, and course. 
  • describing the learning environment.
  • explaining support and resources for student success.

Syllabus Design

Writing Syllabus Policies

When writing policies for your syllabus, keep in mind best practices:

Keep the audience in mind. Since students are the audience, you will want to use clear and specific language and avoid being overly long, complicated, or detailed. Try to keep them to a short paragraph and consider using bulleted lists.

Read for tone.  The syllabus establishes the classroom guidelines, and as such, the rules for behavior and performance.  Syllabus policies should have a positive tone even as they create these parameters.

Consider the course.  Each course will have its own unique set of policies that are tailored to the way you teach it.  For instance, if you teach discussion-based courses, you might want to create a discussion policy.  Or if you teach a presentation-based course, you might want to have a policy on professional dress or appearance.

Remember the level. The level of the course will also help you to establish behavior, performance, and participation expectations.  For example, if you teach an introductory course, you want to have a stricter attendance policy, so that these new students acclimate to this reality of campus life.

Avoid distractions.  It may be tempting to change fonts or colors, but these attempts to draw students’ attention to the seriousness of your policy can instead negatively communicate something about you.  Instead, use bold on certain parts of a policy to help students locate the information quickly.

Central Penn Syllabus Guidelines & Expectations

  • All faculty are required to use the standard template for syllabi as approved by Academic Affairs and the VPAA/Provost. 
  • Faculty will be notified when revisions are made to the standard template, and they will be required to use the revised template for the next term.
  • Syllabi and revisions should be posted to the LMS prior to the first day of class
  • Syllabi should be sent at the beginning of the term to the chair and Academic Affairs.

Introducing the Syllabus in Class

Talking About the Syllabus

On the first day of class, you will need to review the syllabus with your students. Here are a few "do's" and "don'ts" when it comes to presenting the syllabus.

The Dos and Don'ts of Presenting the Course Syllabus to Students



Keep it up-to-date with corrections to course policies that have been clearly communicated to the students. Make amendments without discussing them with the students and clearly communicating where the most recent version is located.
Convey your enthusiasm for the course and the students, set a tone for the course, and describe how you will facilitate it. Reinforce negativity about the course/students based on previous experience or place the burden on interpretation of the student/faculty role on the student.
Provide clear, succinct details regarding your course policies in a student-friendly manner by using conversational phrases and word choice. Use aggressive or defensive design (capitalizations, bold, highlighting, or font color) to discuss course policies.
Keep it short (4-5 pages) so that students can use it as a reference source when asking questions about policies, grading, and the like. Overly complicate (5+ pages) by using jargon, paragraph-length explanations and the like.
Allow students to be active participants by giving them a document that they can use as part of their learning experience in the course.  Force students to be passive learners by testing them on information from the syllabus or holding them accountable for the actions of previous students in previous courses in your policies. 


Syllabus FAQ

Why has my peer or chair asked to see my course syllabus?

A peer or supervisor observer will review your professor addendum before and after observing your class to evaluate:

  • Student learning outcomes
  • Classroom tone
  • Student/faculty expectations
  • Course policies
  • Course progress

What about making changes? 

Syllabi (like classrooms) are dynamic spaces. Changes should be made to the syllabus to reflect the actual classroom experience.Be certain that students know about the changes well in advance of making them and remember that changes should serve to benefit the student and the learning experience.

If you make a change, post it as a new document to the LMS.  Do not delete any previous versions. All changes should be communicated to students in writing and discussed in class.  If there is an appeal at the end of the term, the information on LMS will be used to settle the dispute.

How do I cover all possible scenarios?

Easy. You don't. Syllabi that attempt to account for all possible scenarios quickly become history textbooks rather than basic reference guides. Long paragraphs accounting for every possible loophole will also set a negative tone for the class since students read these as guilty-until-proven-innocent statements. Also, the more rules you make, the more loopholes you create.

What if I still have more information than I can fit on my syllabus?

Information that goes beyond basic reference should be placed in other first-day materials: introductory videos, first-day presentations and handouts, discussion boards, and the like.  Remember, a student should be able to use the addenda to quickly find information: you don’t need an entire cookbook when you have recipe cards.