By Kevin Steele, Director of Instructional Technology, Design & Assessment


It is a pleasure to join VITAL! It is that time of the year where we begin to plan our semester ahead and that usually begins with the syllabus. Below I will be sharing some tips from both experience and a compilation of other writings on the topic of syllabus development and design.


Plan Ahead

Spend some time thinking about your course.  What do you want the students to learn?  What experiences do you want to give them with the content?  How are you going to measure the students’ learning?


Common practices in instructional design usually work backwards. The following are good first steps:


First, you plan the overall course learning objectives.  Use measurable action verbs rather than “learn” or “understand,” which are not measurable.  Try using the verbs from Bloom’s Taxonomy of Verbs.


Second, decide how you are going to measure these objectives at the end of the course (summative assessment – can be a paper, presentation, project, exam, etc.).


Third, plan how you are going to get the student to the end result via learning experiences, instruction, etc.  This will include a series of assessments which inform your instruction.  Each assessment also informs the students about their understanding of the content (formative assessments).


At this point, you have an outline of the course and a firm outline for the syllabus.


Keep it simple

This is your first shot at communicating with your students and “selling” your course. You want the course to sound inviting; but not overwhelming.  Remember, they are getting the same document in various courses they are starting.  Elaborate language may dilute the clarity of the message.  Syllabi that read like a contract do not often get read by students.  Strive for clarity without over-explaining.


Limit how much you write

Keep the course specific language to two pages.  Students do not need to everything, right-away.  Save things that can wait until later.  Simply tell them that there is an assignment due for chapter 4 in 7 weeks.  Do not give all the details.  The full details can be handed out or posted to Blackboard when the assignment preparation begins.  If you know those details, spelling it out in the syllabus only serves to lengthen it. Simply create the assignment and save it for later or post it to Blackboard and link it in the electronic syllabus.


But what about all those university required components?  I hear this question already brewing in your mind! Those do not have to count toward the two-page suggested limit.  Instead, simply create a section at the end labeled “Appendix A: University Mandated Syllabus Content.” Remember, you are selling your course just a bit.  Students should be able to recognize what is yours and what is the mandatory language.   Valpo’s required syllabus content (Revised August 2019) is found at the VITAL website.


Make your syllabus visually engaging

Not everyone is a great designer of documents.  However, there are many document templates in Word and Google Docs.  The simple black text on white paper is not enough to engage a student.


Break up the information in eye-catching ways.  Check out magazines, posters, brochures, infographics, covers of assigned texts, web pages that are visually appealing and start experimenting with ways to “chunk” the information in appealing and eye-catching ways.  Piktochart is a free online tool that some find easy to work with and provide templates without the hassle of having to learn a great deal about design.


The images below are from a syllabus by Professor Zac Wendler at Ferris State University for a Composition ENGL-150 course. Click on the image below to enlarge it.


Be explicit about policies

Stick to them! Be consistent. Write them in a positive, assertive way.  Inject your personality.  Here are some examples:


Regular policy statement… Try this instead…
No eating in class Eating in class causes a distraction to the others that are ravenously hungry; please eat before or after class or bring enough for everybody.
Late work will be marked 20% off for one week past the due date, no exceptions Late work will be accepted up to a week after the due date at a 20% discount as a convenience fee.
No cell phones in class Cell phones can be a distraction or a learning tool.  Please keep them in your bag and refrain from using them unless instructed.


In the above examples, you notice that a reason was given and light humor was injected where appropriate.  This language is written with a growth mindset to suggest to students that they can choose to do the right thing, but consequences are stated positively.


Get them to read it: syllabus quiz

I was lamenting to a personal friend, Kristin, who teaches at a different university.  I mentioned to her that students are constantly asking the same questions that were covered in the syllabus.  She shared a small tip with me that was life changing.  Kristin mentioned that she gives the students a syllabus quiz in the first week of class.  The quiz is completed online (in our case Blackboard).  I started doing the same with the regular questions I was being asked.  The issues evaporated.  I rarely have to refer a student back to the syllabus, nor do they ask the questions.


I would love the opportunity to collaborate with you and assist with your syllabus development.  Please email questions to me at or schedule a face-to-face meeting with me directly through my meeting link.