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Optimizing the Syllabus

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An effective syllabus is critical to any course. The syllabus is often used to organize the course planning process and to design the course environment. It also communicates to students the most important information about the course. Consider these best practices and resources for optimizing a course syllabus.

Clear learning goals

A course's learning goals clearly communicate to students what they will learn and why it is valuable. Clear learning goals also will support the course design process and help align the different instructional elements of your course to one another.

A learning goal must include the skill or behavior to be performed. When writing a goal statement, use verbs that are specific and observable, such as "list", "demonstrate", "compare", or "translate". Avoid verbs that are vague or difficult to observe, such as, "understand" or "appreciate".

Well-defined learning goals also include the conditions under which the skill or behavior will be performed. For example, "Present a valid solution to given problems using algorithmic techniques and the provided data set."

The criterion for assessing the skill or behavior is also a necessary part of a learning goal. This should describe what would constitute a satisfactory understanding or attainment of skill. Most often these criteria are stated separately and associated with different assignments or activities in the form of rubrics or grading scales, but it is important to have a clear idea of each goal's criteria early on.

  • Learning goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, related, and time-bound (SMART guidelines)

Well-organized and clear structure

Students must manage their time and workload, and balance multiple commitments. A well-organized syllabus that clearly communicates the course schedule, assignments, and policies is very helpful to students.

  • The course meetings, assignments, and due dates should be clearly conveyed visually, such as in a chart or calendar format.
  • Build regularity into the course schedule. For example, schedule forum posts and small assignments due at the same time every week. The structure should be transparent and easy to follow.

Inviting and supportive

An inviting and respectful tone can help students to feel personally connected to the course.

  • Personalize the syllabus with instructor background information that reveals a little about their personality
  • Include a statement of confidence that all students can succeed in the course
  • Provide resources for students to seek help
  • Highlight opportunities where students will be able to contribute their own experiences to the course
  • Present course policies and their rationale clearly

Share the syllabus to help students find your course

Upload the syllabus to the Canvas Syllabus Tool, then it will automatically be published to the Stanford Syllabus website where students can browse it. You may also use Canvas to open your course for the shopping period

Useful examples and templates

The Center for Teaching and Learning has provided a customizable syllabus template that includes placeholders for all the comprehensive elements of an effective syllabus, as well as policy statements, sample language, and links to resources. The course syllabus checklist is also useful for assessing and strengthening an existing syllabus. 

Learn more