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What a difference a syllabus makes

What a difference a syllabus makes
© University of Groningen / Dana Kroh

The following might come as a surprise to some of you: students make up their minds about our courses before we have even met them for the first time. The title and the topic of the course will raise certain associations. Other students will provide hints whether the course is interesting or difficult. And the course syllabus will offer students an impression of the course, its organisation and of you, their teacher.

The syllabus, an outline of the course structure and the topics covered, is therefore part of setting the stage for the students’ learning experience.

Setting the right tone

As your students will be introduced to you and the intended learning outcomes of the course by reading the syllabus, setting the right tone can be crucial.

Firstly, the use of everyday language in explaining the course content will resonate more with the students’ previous knowledge. Introducing students to the language used in a discipline, the professional jargon, might be part of the course content. However, to take students’ knowledge of certain professional terms for granted might confuse them, leading to the assumption that your course is overly difficult or even boring. Thus, before your first session, check your own understanding of the syllabus. Should you, as a teaching assistant, have issues understanding the content of the syllabus imagine how your students will feel. In such a case it may be helpful to talk to your course coordinator to address the issue.

Secondly, a syllabus should engage the student, for instance by addressing the reader directly with the use of “you”. If your course syllabus seems to miss this mark, rephrasing the class instructions or homework assignments using “you” might work to further encourage students’ participation.

The content of a syllabus

Let us now have a closer look at the content level of a syllabus. Similarly to setting the right tone, the way content is presented can influence how your students will be able to engage with it. For instance, raising questions, which students will be able to answer after completing your course, increases the personal relevance of the course content.

Further, linking the course content to external goals might increase students’ interest in the course material. As an example, you could explain the relevance of the skills taught in your course for the job market. Additionally, stimulating students to set their own goals will make the course content more personally meaningful. Should your syllabus not seem very engaging, see whether you can breathe new life into the content by preparing tasks that showcase its relevance. Sharing your own experience with the course’s relevance might also be encouraging and motivating.

A less appealing but rather important aspect of most courses is grading. In order to engage students further and make the grading process more transparent, some courses employ a form of self-evaluation, such as a self-reflection report on the students’ performance and goal achievement. In any case, explaining the grading process thoroughly in the syllabus may lessen the impact of this component of the course structure. Therefore, it is advised to communicate to the students that grades are based on objective and transparent criteria. Some syllabi might not explain these criteria very well. Here, you may want to ask the course coordinators for further clarification so that you can answer your students’ questions about the process.

Lastly, the syllabus should also address practical aspects of a course. Elements to consider when creating (or proofreading) a syllabus are:

  • Contact information of the course coordinator and student assistants (office address when the course coordinator has open office hours, e-mail address, etc.)
  • Course title, study load, schedule
  • A list of core reading materials (and additional materials)
  • A list of class rules (the consequences of being late to class, is attendance to the meetings mandatory or not, etc.)

How to make sure students read the syllabus

So, how can you make sure that students will engage with the syllabus? For instance, you may choose to go over the syllabus in your first meeting, giving students step by step instructions on its content and structure. You may also want to refer back to it throughout the course whenever suitable. Giving your students homework assignments that encourage further engagement with the syllabus may also stimulate students to work with the syllabus and may also lead to addressing potential questions early on in the course.


All in all, we hope that reading this article you have learned that attending to the students’ needs in the course syllabus can improve your students’ engagement and learning experience. By setting the stage for a safe learning environment, a good syllabus can contribute to the accomplishment of students’ personal and the courses’ goals. Finally, as well-informed and engaged students will also be more successful; a good syllabus can also contribute to your enjoyment of teaching. And should you be working with an imperfect syllabus then we are sure that you will find ways to include the aspects mentioned in the article in your own teaching.

View Dana’s profile on FutureLearn.


  • Canada, M. (2013). The syllabus: A place to engage students’ egos. New directions for teaching and learning, 135, 37-42. doi: 10.1002/tl.20062

  • Lucas, S.G., & Bernstein, D.A. (2014). Teaching psychology: A step-by-step guide (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Psychology Press Taylor & Francis Group.

© University of Groningen / Dana Kroh
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