9 tips for improving your course syllabus — and the way you teach the course

by Julie Dodd

students editing in computer lab

Think about how you can get your students more actively engaged in class. Peer work can be a way of helping students better understand course content. Here students in a writing course I teach, provide feedback on a writing assignment.

Colleges and universities around the country will be starting a new academic year in the next few weeks. Students and their parents will be arriving on campus with carloads of boxes to move into residence halls.

Campus maintenance crews are preparing the grounds, and construction teams are trying to finish campus remodeling and building projects.

And faculty, adjuncts and graduate students are planning their classes. Now’s the time to do some thinking that can improve the course — making it a better learning experience for your students and a better teaching experience for you.

1. Reflect on how the course contributes to the students’ big picture of learning

Salman Khan, in his One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, reminds us as educators that students become more engaged in learning when they see the value of the course beyond preparing for an exam or completing a graduation requirement.

Especially if you are teaching an introductory course, help the students connect with the value of that subject area. Your approach to the course could help some students decide to take more courses — or even major — in the field. For the other students, they will have a better understanding of the concepts as they connect to life issues.

2. Align SLOs with course content – readings and assignments

Especially the first time you teach a course and especially for new faculty members, the tendency is to select a good textbook and then structure the course to match the textbook chapters.

Start first with what the Student Learning Outcomes are for the course – which you may be determining but also may be determined by the overall curriculum structure. In Understanding by Design, Grant P. Wiggins and Jay McTighe explain the process for mapping out a course — starting first with the student outcomes and then designing appropriate activities and assignments.

3. Consider how you can help every student accomplish the goals of the course

New York Times Magazine - Who Gets to Graduate?“Who Gets to Graduate?” is Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine cover story that addresses the issue of why so many capable students (successful high school students) start college but fail to graduate — and what the University of Texas is doing to help those students be successful.

Led by Prof. David Laude, the University of Texas has implement a series of do-able strategies that all of us can be using in our own classes, including helping all students feel capable instead of needing remedial help and using peer mentors.

4. Help students see potential college majors and career options for themselves

UF PRSSA students

These students were on the way to the PRSSA national convention. Being involved in a professionally focused student organization helps students be more engaged with their academic work.

The college women chronicled in sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton’s book “Paying for the Party” wound up in one of two tracks — the party pathway or the professional pathway.

The process that led to the party pathway was conscientious decision-making on the part of some of the college women (and even their parents), including requesting to live in a “party dorm.”

But some of the women wound up on the party pathway or not on the party pathway but not engaged in their academic work because they had difficulty in selecting a major. The key to being on the professional pathway often was having a faculty member who talked with the students about career options or made a course of such interest that they chose that field as a major. Professionally focused student organizations also helped students get more engaged in their academic work.

5. Review your textbook (course readings) selection

Check online to see what other textbooks (readings) could be used for your course. Typically the textbook decision must be made several months before the course starts to give campus bookstores time to order the book and to allow students time to seek alternative purchasing opportunities to save money.

Be aware of different options for the textbook — traditional textbook purchased, traditional textbook rented, online textbook (which typically has a limited access time, such as one month or the length of the semester).

6. Check calendar dates

Every semester presents some scheduling challenges due to university holidays (i.e., Labor Day, Veterans Day, Homecoming, Thanksgiving) and religious observances.

Also consider the special deadlines and responsibilities you have – the conference you are attending, a conference paper deadline, your doctoral student’s qualifying exam date, etc. Also think about any special personal dates, like hosting the big family Thanksgiving reunion or helping with your daughter’s Girl Scout troop’s big camping trip.

7. Invite guest speakers

Inviting guest speakers in advance can help you make any needed changes in your course arrangement before you distribute the syllabus. Especially if a particular speaker is critical to a course discussion or assignment, you want to get your course on the speaker’s calendar before he/she makes other plans. With Skype, you can include speakers who couldn’t physically be in class.

8. Build in more active learning into class

Laura Nesbit and Amber Roux as guest speakers in Multimedia Writing

Students use their smartphones to record an interview with guest speakers and then will write a story based on the interview. That activity lets students use technology and be actively involved in class.

Consider how you typically teach a class. How much is you lecturing and showing presentation slides? That can be effective for delivering information but shouldn’t be your sole teaching strategy.

Design ways to get the students more involved in class – having students write quick reaction papers, pairing students and having them discuss a concept and then share with the class, assigning students to presentation teams, etc.

In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert McKeachie provide a wide range of instructional strategies.

9. Determine ways to include technology to promote learning

Most college students are enthusiastic about smartphones, laptops, tablets and social media. Capitalize on that enthusiasm by having students bring their laptops for an in-class activity. Use a listserv, Twitter, a course Facebook page or blog, or digital courseware to communicate with your students, but don’t try to use every platform, or you and your students could be overwhelmed.

10. What would be your recommendation for a way of improving your syllabus or the way you teach a course?

4 thoughts on “9 tips for improving your course syllabus — and the way you teach the course

    • George,
      Interested in how your team is developing open source syllabus software. Providing the template helps instructors think about different aspects (like learning objectives) that need to be included in the syllabus. Progressive of Utah State U. to fund technology development related to improved teaching/learning. I’ll share Salsa with the grad students in my teaching class. Check out UF’s policies for syllabi – http://www.aa.ufl.edu/Data/Sites/18/media/policies/syllabi_policy.pdf


  1. While revising my syllabus, I’m always thinking “How can I make the course more enjoyable,” both for the students and for myself. I have found that if I ask myself this question, I tend to make my courses more challenging, engaging, and relevant.

    • Kevin,
      Thanks for the 10th Tip. That’s a great mindset to have in planning a course — and something I consider, too. And you make the significant point that being “enjoyable” can mean being a better learning situation, not just fun.


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