Can you judge a book by its cover? A course by its syllabus?
I’d say many university syllabuses are analogous to an end-user license agreement or a manual for your kitchen blender – in other words, things I wouldn’t be caught dead reading either.
While thoughtful syllabus design is not a major area of research, there is a small, but informative pool of literature on the topic. Not surprisingly, a well-designed, engaging syllabus has been shown to prime student motivation and interest in the course more than a poorly designed syllabus. I’d content that since the syllabus is one of the first ways we interact with our students, it’s a genre that deserves thoughtful planning.
Many of us use the syllabus as a kind of legal contract, sometimes incorporating “legalese” into our course policies and even have our students sign the syllabus to signal a binding agreement. (Or, to test if the students actually read the syllabus, some will hide “Easter eggs” and reward those students who “passed the test.”) Indeed, the expansion of the syllabus over the decades – or “syllabus bloat” – has been mainly due to the growing abundance of policy statements used to settle any potential student grievances.
While I understand the appeal of the contractual model, I’ve never found it matched my teaching persona or fed into the classroom culture I was trying to establish. Of course, listing course policies is necessary, but the syllabus does not need to be limited to this purpose. 
After reflecting on the intended audience and purpose of the syllabus genre, I’ve come to see it as one of the numerous pedagogical tools at my disposal. My syllabus design falls somewhere between a chapter in an introductory textbook, a promotional advertisement, and a monthly newsletter – at least this is my intention, every syllabus is an open-ended project.
One of the first hurdles I had to overcome was fully identifying my students as my target audience, not my colleagues. This may seem commonsensical in hindsight, but this realization immediately impacted my tone, the type of information I incorporated, and the overall graphic design of this new “learner-centered” and “engaging” syllabus [see chart].
I had two specific revelations regarding content – essentially incorporating “hows” and “whys” into the copious amount of “whats.”
First, I realized that several comments I would normally make about how to do well in my classes could easily and beneficially be incorporated. For example, I still hold a “what’s your motivation?” discussion in class, but now have some additional text in my syllabus that students can refer to during our conversation. I’ve found that it anchors discussion (like any class reading) and helps students make more pointed comments.
Additionally, I decided to include some material about why I designed the course the way I did, helping students to see my intellectual interests and pedagogical motivations. Accordingly, I write about the types of assignments and activities I employ and the value I find for students in assigning them. I also try to reveal the scaffolding I’ve designed into the course, cuing students into the importance of daily foundational activities and how those are intended to build into larger, more complex, projects throughout the term. This is intended to help students with metacognition about their own learning behaviors and to see a clear pathway to achieve the learning objectives I’ve set for them (I’ve been inspired by the work of Tracy Zinn on this front).
Because I include a broader array of topics into my syllabus, I also do not go over the whole document on the first day of class. I introduce certain sections when necessary and have students refer back to it throughout the semester. I even have students look at it on one of the last days of the course.
The graphic design of my syllabus is almost entirely a result of the “syllabus makeover” by historian Tona Hangen (most notably, incorporating the trifold division of student success and motivation ). Good visual design not only captivates student interest, but also models professionalism (even enthusiasm), indicating the entire course will be handled with similar care. Moreover, spending time working with principles of good design makes us aware of important information hierarchies which can be expressed through visual hierarchies (text color, text size, use of boxes, images, etc.). As a consequence, students have an easier time parsing out more important information.
Certainly, an outstanding syllabus design will not make up for poor course design, but it might be worthwhile to consider the syllabus as an integral tool in helping students find success in our courses.
Here are some notes on my latest summer syllabus for Zen Buddhism: Mind and Material Practices. [PDF: Zen Mind and Material Practices Romaskiewicz Summer 2019]
- Tone: Given that my students are the primary audience, I’ve consciously adopted a more friendly and positive tone (including using we/us/our, not “students”), and especially compassion and humor where I can.
- Visual Hierarchy: I use color and colored shapes to direct student attention to more important information
- Images: To promote some of the topics we will discuss, I try to incorporate images that foreshadow these ideas (I also try to creatively incorporate a reference to the image in adjacent text)
- Hows: I include text that helps students reflect on their motivations for taking my course and how they can succeed
- Whys: I provide a rationalization for assignments and activities I employ, not simply the explanation of their execution
Quick Reference Sources:
- A summary of effective syllabus components (and many useful links):
- A helpful syllabus rubric:
- A primer for creating a visual syllabus:
- A sampling of syllabus language for various course policies:
- A helpful reading on syllabus tone
 The plural form of syllabus is quietly debated in the halls of The Academy. I had a professor in grad school who preferred (ahem, actively and regularly commented upon) the proper plural form as syllabuses since the original term is not derived from Latin, but Greek (it’s a little more funky, actually). Thus, using a proper plural Latin declension (=syllabi) is unwarranted. (The same goes for octopus, coincidentally.) Interestingly, the Google Books NGram Viewer shows that syllabi is more common than syllabuses. The debate continues…
 Harnish & Bridges 2011, Ludy et. al. 2016.
 While I believe a syllabus should clearly state course policies and try to consider numerous “what ifs,” I do not think the nearly endless implicit agreements between student and instructor need to be made explicit. In my view, signing a syllabus makes the motivation for adhering to policies external (abiding by the law), rather than internal (it’s the right thing to do), and it undermines trust. Of course, this is my personal view. Lastly, some folks are also fans of the “syllabus quiz.”
 I am borrowing the “learner-centered” and “engaging” syllabus from the typology in Ludy et. al. 2016 (see table above). It also amazes me that scholars might think that a good visual design cheapens the “scholarly” integrity of a text. What one might dismiss as “flash,” actually has an integral rhetorical purpose. Research on the impact of syllabus tone can be found in Harnish & Bridges 2011.
 Incidentally, I also chose to incorporate these things because I would notice students would rarely ever (maybe never) take notes about these aspects when we discussed them in class. Upon reflection, I felt knowing the hows and whys were central to my class, and while I couldn’t test my students on these aspects, they could at least have an easy way to consult them.
 It’s interesting to note that the “engaged” syllabus in Ludy et. al. 2016, p. 11, also adopted a similar approach, using the categories of “diet” and “life-style change.”
 I am only aware of one experimental study that compared a text-rich syllabus to a graphic-rich syllabus, i.e. Ludy et. al. 2016. Here is its principle finding: “Students perceived both types of syllabus positively, yet the engaging syllabus was judged to be more visually appealing and comprehensive. More importantly, it motivated more interest in the class and instructor than the contractual syllabus. Using an engaging syllabus may benefit instructors who seek to gain more favorable initial course perceptions by students.” Ludy et. al. 2016: 1.
- Doolittle, P. E., & Siudzinski, R. A. 2010. “Recommended Syllabus Components: What do Higher Education Faculty Include in their Syllabi?” Journal On Excellence In College Teaching, Vol 21, No. 3, pp. 29-61.
- Ludy, Mary-Jon; Brackenbury, Tim; Folkins, John Wm; Peet, Susan H.; Langendorfer, Stephen J. & Beining, Kari. 2016. “Student Impressions of Syllabus Design: Engaging Versus Contractual Syllabus,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” Vol. 10, No. 2, Article 6.
- Harnish, Richard J. & Bridges, K. Robert. 2011. “Effect of Syllabus Tone: Students’ Perceptions of Instructor and Course,” Social Psychology of Education, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 319-330.
- Perrine, R. M., Lisle, J., & Tucker, D. L. 1995. “Effects of a Syllabus Offer of Help, Student Age, and Class Size on College Students’ Willingness to Seek Support from Faculty.” Journal of Experimental Education, Vol. 64, No. 1, pp. 41-52.
- Saville, B. K., Zinn, T. E., Brown, A. R., & Marchuk, K. A. 2010. “Syllabus Detail and Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Effectiveness.” Teaching Of Psychology, Vol.37, No. 3, pp. 186-189.
- Zinn, Tracy E. 2009.” But I Really Tried! Helping Students Link Effort and Performance.” Observer, Vol. 22, No. 8, pp. 27-30.