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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 guide course planning and set up the course environment. It also communicates to students the most important information about the course. Consider these best practices and resources for optimizing your course syllabus.

Clear learning goals

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

Learning goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, related, and time-bound (SMART guidelines). An effective learning goal thus consists of statements that describe the intended audience, the behavior to be performed, the conditions under which it will be performed, and the degree to which it will be performed. 

When writing a goal statement, the audience is usually specified with a lead statement such as, "Students enrolled in this course will be able to...."

The behavior is described by active verbs that are specific and observable, such as "draw," "identify," "compare," or "translate." For example, "draw a diagram of the process by which proteins are built based on DNA codes." Avoid verbs that are vague or difficult to observe, such as "understand" or "appreciate."

Well-defined learning goals may also include the conditions under which the skill or behavior will be performed. Some example wording might include: "Given the provided data set" or "At the end of this lesson."

The degree to which the behavior will be assessed is also a necessary part of a learning goal. This should describe what would constitute a satisfactory understanding or attainment of skill. Conditions and degree often become the basis for designing rubrics or grading scales.

Well-organized and clear structure

Students in your class must manage their time and workload while also balancing multiple commitments. By clearly organizing your syllabus to communicate the course schedule, assignments, and policies, you can enable students to better manage their time and be successful in your course.

  • The course meetings, assignments, and due dates should be clearly conveyed, such as in a table of dates and times or calendar format.
  • Build regularity into the course schedule. For example, schedule when forum posts and small assignments are due as 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 feel personally connected to the course.

  • Personalize your syllabus with instructor background information that reveals a little about the personality or research interests of the instructor(s)
  • Include a statement of confidence that you believe 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 to set an inclusive tone

Share the syllabus to help students find your course

Upload the syllabus to the Canvas Syllabus Tool; then it will be automatically 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